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Three Trends That Are Influencing Commercial Real Estate Design in Austin

by Taylor Williams

By Travis Albrecht, design director, AIA, Gensler

Austin is bursting at the seams — just ask anyone who is currently trying to buy a home here.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, the city’s population has increased by 22 percent since 2010. The city will continue to grow and evolve, but people are attracted to its longstanding welcoming and laid-back culture. How does that translate into design and urban planning for this expanding, vibrant metropolis?

Here are the major trends impacting design across commercial real estate in Austin that we have seen in our work as architects and designers, as well as insights gleaned from clients.

Travis Albrecht, Gensler

Travis Albrecht, Gensler

Experiential Office Buildings

As we adapt to a hybrid lifestyle where the workforce is split between the office and home, the role of the workplace and the office building will be to strengthen relationships, teach others and build community, culture and purpose. People want to work in dynamic, activated environments, which is why today’s successful office buildings and workplaces are now included within mixed-use developments, rather than as standalone campuses or office parks.

Ground floors must be activated with retail space, service amenities, artwork, community or public gathering areas, even when workers are not present. This aligns with a growing trend of blending work and life and not feeling like one starts and the other stops when crossing the threshold of a lobby.

A recent example of this trend lies in the first phase of River Park, a 109-acre development in the East Riverside area by Partners Group and Presidium. While the buildings themselves are not mixed-use, the development brings together office, retail and residential uses around shared spaces that are open to the public and connected to the park, creek and trails for people to gather and work.

This allows greater interaction beyond controlled environments and participation in the daily life of the city. What is important is that the development feels connected and energized outside of the typical nine-to-five workday and welcomes people before, during and after those hours.

Connection to the Outdoors

Nature is an integral part of the Austin lifestyle, where patios, rooftop decks and access to parks and trails can be found across many building types, such as the East Terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Designed by Gensler, it features an expansive deck for travelers to eat, drink or get some fresh air.

Demand for outdoor spaces, including those that function as extensions of building lobbies, is only increasing as we continue to emerge from the pandemic. Providing more ways for people to safely and conveniently “step outside” is something all buildings must incorporate to become the successful, thriving places that developers, tenants and the public want. From workplaces to sports venues, articulated terraces and balconies, along with interconnecting outdoor stairs, are quickly becoming the norm.

These spaces also offer cohesive social experiences. With the hot Texas sun, shade is a critical design consideration. Walk through any deck or patio in the month of August and one will see people huddled around any pockets of shade they can find. These patterns of sun and shade, mixed with vegetation, create their own microclimates and signal to people that these outdoor spaces are primed for connection and socialization.

Wellness is another key design trend. Tenants are demanding an emphasis on wellness that goes beyond fresh food and yoga, both within their own privately controlled spaces and in public. Movement, daylight, air quality and the calming effects of nature and biodiversity are all factors that outdoor spaces bring to an otherwise predictable indoor environment.

While no one here takes air conditioning for granted, Austinites delight in and expect their days will be filled with moments of stepping outside and reconnecting with that big Texas sky, whether for work, exercise, recreation or relaxation.

Focus on Neighborhood Scale

The built environment has an enormous influence on how people move through their daily lives. Places and spaces can be made to connect, facilitate and provide, or they can be made to separate, exclude and deprive.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, most people understand the cities they live in as a collection of neighborhoods that are linked through the public realm. There has been a renewed focus on neighborhoods because their scale makes them ideal for tackling issues such as walkability, opportunity and access.

To that end, we draw inspiration from the 20-Minute City concept of neighborhoods, in which every commercial, residential and institutional need lies within a 20-minute walk or bike ride of each other.

According to results of Gensler’s City Pulse Survey, which captured people’s — particularly those with young families — changing attitudes during the pandemic, many may be growing weary of big city life. This is in large part due to ongoing affordability issues, but also increasing concerns about health and

Cities and neighborhoods that are designed with 20-Minute City framework can address many of these concerns because they can offer an ecosystem of accessible businesses, schools, grocery stores, healthcare facilities, recreational sites and other vital services. In turn, the city is revitalized, more connected and more equitable.

Contrary to popular belief in recent months, Austin and cities like it around the country are still very much relevant as hubs for economic growth, education and culture. Today, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine them from a diverse, inclusive and respectful perspective to fully establish the healthy, thriving cities of today and in the years to come.

— This article originally appeared in the July issue of Texas Real Estate Business magazine. 

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