Manhattan Office Space – An Architects’ Perspective from Marc Spector

For my inaugural podcast of “Conversations with Cohen,” I interviewed Marc Spector, Principal at Spectorgroup, an architectural firm in New York. Marc and I met a few years back and we now collaborate on a host of projects together. He’s got an incredible and inspiring start-up story that would surely make Oprah proud. I brought Marc on to hear some more about that American dream story and get his thoughts on the future of office space in a post Covid-19 world. Here are some of those highlights.

Spectorgroup’s Story

Marc’s father, Michael Spector, started Spectorgroup off in a garage on Long Island in 1965. In the beginning business was tough going, so Michael decided to try and make his own luck. He hopped on to a commuter train into New York City every day and would talk super loudly about architecture so everyone in the car could hear him. One day the CEO of Allstate Insurance came over and told Marc’s dad he’d learned so much about architecture from him that he wanted his help designing Allstate’s new headquarters on Long Island. All that hard work and perseverance paid off, and Michael got his first big break. Today, Spectorgroup is an international practice with multiple offices across a variety of disciplines.

The Office of the Future

Thetalk in the real estate market is all about what office space will look like post Covid-19. Suggestions have ranged from de-densification to anti-microbial fabrics. Marc made it clear that his thoughts are a contribution to a greater dialogue. In fact, Marc and Spectorgroup are working with executives from other major architectural firms in the New York area to generate a common message for Manhattan office space that they hope will be put out by the American Institute of Architects.

New Opportunities that Arise from Covid-19

As we transition back to the office, tons of questions are going to come up as people will be concerned with entering buildings, touching surfaces, or crowding into elevators. To alleviate some of these concerns, Spectorgroup has compiled a list of preventative measures, primarily from a sanitation or purification perspective. Some of these ideas are:

  • Pivoting office seats 90 degrees so that employees are never directly facing each other.
  • Adding sanitary sink stations around the office for added hand-washing availability.
  • Introduction purification-type plantings that can detoxify and purify the air.

There’s also been talk of a whole new “touchless economy” (as Marc likes to call it), with things like touchless entry points into offices, fully touchless handsets and telephones, etc. It’ll open up tremendous opportunity for new businesses to emerge to solve some of these issues that office space will be looking out for.  

Will Companies Go Remote or Add Space?

Every month I like to put together a little segment called “How’s the Market,” where I take a look at some recent trends and try and offer some insight into where I think the market will head moving forward as well. Something I thought about the last month is the issue of densification in office space which has happened in downtown as well as midtown office space. It’s been a real trend over the last few years for employers to make open concept plans where some employees share desks and consolidate into smaller spaces. Over the last few years, there’s been about a 30% decline in office square footage, as an average of about 200 sf per employee has dropped to under 170. I asked Marc about how he thought this trend may manifest itself moving forward given that companies may want to increase that square footage but many lack the funds given the economic climate.

Marc acknowledged the dramatic densification that’s been happening in office space over the last few years mentioning that some of Spectorgroup’s clients have gone as low as 100 sf per employee. The flip side of the densification is opening up larger collaborative spaces in the office for a host of activities. Marc pointed out that enlarging a company’s footprint may not be the first stage here but reconfiguring the current spaces so there’s more personal space and smaller collaborative spaces may come first.

So, what about working remotely? Marc thinks that could be a trend but doesn’t see it becoming as widespread as others may think. Spectorgroup themselves have employees who have been working remotely for a while and have a professional environment in which they can productively work, but that doesn’t work for everyone. I asked Marc about the importance of face-to-face interaction from his perspective. He shared that as an architect he thinks it’s critical for folks to have some face-to-face interaction at work but added that, of course, Spectorgroup will honor their clients who prefer to do more remote work. In fact, a trend that Marc can see playing out, is interspersed remote days for employees, in particular as we begin to transition back to the office.

How to Move Forward

Given all the above information and uncertainty with the direction businesses will go in, I wanted to hear from Marc how he would advise clients to move forward. As we had discussed before, lots of businesses want to change things up in their office space to offer better health and safety measures for their staff. While Marc thinks a lot of changes will happen in the transition period back to the office, he sees less of a shift long-term. Ultimately, Marc feels this will be in our rearview mirror, similarly to what’s happened with other crises.

Before diving in, Marc mentioned that it’s important to distinguish between clients with active projects versus those with completed projects. In regard to the active projects, Marc pointed out how the current halt in construction in New York has given Spectorgroup and their clients time to reassess and rethink how they might plan out the space. New measures are easier fixes as they haven’t finished the building yet. In contrast, clients with projects that were completed a few years back are a different story. Those needs really run the gamut according to Marc. Some clients want to keep things simple and just add some hand sanitizers around the office while others want to make wholesale changes to layout. It seems to be really case specific and personal for each company.

An Architect’s Advice

Changing gears from the topics surrounding Covid-19, I wanted to hear a bit about advice Marc can offer from an architect’s perspective on the complicated leasing process. Marc told me that Spectorgroup always tries to be involved in the lease negotiation process so they can offer their clients guidance from an architectural standpoint.

Something really important is the concept of “loss factor,” essentially the idea that there is a difference between rentable square feet and useable square feet. At Spectorgroup, the architects will come on board the negotiation process and offer some expertise to their clients on what the actual useable square footage is in a potential space and help ensure their client gets a deal that’s more indicative of that number. Other areas they focus on giving their clients info on is air conditioning, temperature, humidification, electricity, and so on. One area I found to be really interesting is the concept of “egress” – the ability to safely get out of your office space in the event of a fire or other evacuation. In a fire you can’t use the elevators, so Marc and his firm will make sure all the stairs have proper width and access in the case of an emergency, particularly that it aligns with their client’s space and size.

Based off all these concerns, Marc told me Spectorgoup won’t let clients sign leases to the chagrin of some commercial real estate brokers when they don’t think they meet the baselines requirements their client has. While architects don’t necessarily give their clients counsel when it comes to legalities, free rent, or some other leasing issues, Marc feels it’s his responsibility to give counsel when it comes to anything architectural. He likes to call his team the “last line of defense.”

A Little Something Extra…

Marc’s a University of Michigan alum and bleeds blue and yellow – he never misses a football game. And his favorite Zingerman’s sandwich? That’s the Georgia Rueben, a hefty sandwich that subs out pastrami for turkey. Take a look here to check out all that Zingerman’s got to offer. Click on this link if you want to check out my full video interview with Marc. And lastly, learn some more about Spectorgroup on their website.

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