Tenant Buildouts: Building Up

December 12, 2022 | By: Ian Reeves and Mark Schroeder

Commercial workplaces make up a huge proportion of real estate and economic activity and require skillful navigation to create. Having a great place to work is about more than space or furniture; it’s about having a home base that’s a hub for operations, values, and culture.

Even though some organizations seem to have this down to a science, the fact is many tenants find themselves in uncharted waters. Whether you’re a start-up or new organization, face expansion, relocation or are grappling with the evolution of what a workplace is, having a good sense of the process is imperative.


There are many, many factors that go into anticipating project costs and it’s important to lean on your Broker and Architect to establish the foundation of a good Project Budget. Leaning on your project partners can be invaluable in making sure expectations are realistic and all components of a project (not just construction costs) are being managed. The Brokers will typically negotiate “Tenant Improvement” money financed by the lease that will help offset the cost of your build-out, and make sure other lease terms that impact the budget are managed.

Your design partner can help here as well by offering competitive “Soft costs” (like design fees, engineering fees, graphics/signage, etc.), as well as providing guidance on level of design, initial product specifications, etc. by applying their experience in the industry, types of projects and the associated cost/SF for reach type of project, they can begin to set the expectations for level of design.

Although your design partners can lay some great groundwork for your project and managing your expectations, be forewarned that there are world events that are skewing the entire budget process including but not limited to supply chain disruption, labor shortages, backed up permitting and construction delivery, etc. Even the best preliminary budgets need to be actively maintained/managed throughout the entirety of the project!

The Design Process

As a property is selected, a design partner on-boarded and budgets are formed, it’s time for the design process to kick into high gear! You are going to hear phrases used like:

  • Visioning
  • Test-Fits
  • Schematic Design
  • Design Development
  • Construction Documents

These are industry standard terms defining specific stages of the design process.

Each stage has an associated level of information that is provided to all parties as the project progresses; each stage builds upon the previous one until the contract documents are completed and built by a qualified contractor. Information is key and the Architect’s first order of business is to gather as much information from you as possible.  As stated before…it’s not just about space; it’s about the parts and pieces that makes your company unique, what you do, how you do it and why you do it!

Get ready to talk about how the sausage is made; overall business practices, specific business units, employees, adjacencies, and all the functional ingredients that will make your space complete. The architect must become very intimate with your company so that they can best determine how they will provide the necessary design elements for current size, future growth, desired look and feel of the space, branding, design trends, etc.

Don’t be shy…any and all pertinent information that will help the designer create an environment that will survive, maximize your ability to attract and retain talent in the workforce and thrive well into the future is the overarching goal! As the design progresses, you and your design partner will work closely to refine early ideas, balance your program with final drawings, and make sure your project’s getting the most out of the property you’ve selected.

A good design partner will also ensure your vision is communicated clearly through the design by establishing a clear sequence of experiences, brand messaging, and a look and feel of design elements, like color schemes, finishes, furniture and architectural spaces not only work well, but inspire.

Building Considerations

Lastly, base building considerations are key to making sure the nuts and bolts of the things like restrooms, IT access and infrastructure, controlled access in/out of your suite, etc. are all working smoothly. Construction Documents are a set of detailed instructions that contain plans, elevations, sections, specifications, details, etc. that define every relevant project detail to communicate scope clearly to the awarded contractor.

These documents also include the relevant consultants and trades including Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing engineers as well as Low Voltage, AV, and often specialty consultants like Structural engineers, Acousticians, or others. All relevant drawings are compiled into one set of Construction Documents that are submitted to the jurisdiction for a building permit.

Once again, the selection of a great design partner paramount when working with consultants and the jurisdiction; their experience within a particular jurisdiction will help guide the project to accommodate the pertinent building codes, provide specifics, information, reports, petitions, etc. that may be required and include any particular jurisdictional nuances necessary to obtain the building permit.

It must be noted that a common misconception is that Construction Documents and the Construction Process are exact, and every aspect of the design/construction has been accommodated. New construction must always tie into the existing building in every regard; the best laid plans sometimes require changes to meet these existing situations and the construction process must remain fluid to deal with the particular challenges that happen on every project. That said, your project team is your eyes and ears throughout the process keeping you informed regards to design/construction changes for the unique issues uncovered during construction and how they affect schedule, budget, etc.

Full disclosure of construction issues or seemingly minor adjustments including their proposed solutions, project impacts, costs, etc. should be vetted by the team so that an informed decision is made on how to best to proceed.  Once again, communication is key!

Next Steps

Ultimately construction completes, furniture installs, and your workforce moves into a great new space! Does that mean the process is complete?  No.  As you live in the space there should be periodic assessments regarding the functionality of the space itself, workplace configurations, flow, utilization, etc. It’s important to keep in mind that how we work is deeply personal and even the best designed projects may face ongoing opportunities for adjustment, learning or improvement.

Having some flexibility baked into your program, utilizing furniture that may be adjusted and reconfigured and making sure your workforce knows the culture your space supports is a naturally growing effort will not only allow more resilient adaptation; but will empower your teams to take ownership and pride in making your new workplace amazing for years to come.

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