Wiring up business parks for the internet age

Copyright: David Lawson- Property Week Feb 2000

Fat pipes, thin pipes, flood wiring, CAT 5, switchers, T1, servers - geekspeak is taking over the property world. It is no longer enough to open a map, find  a motorway or airport, blank out tough local authorities and green belts, then run to a friendly fund manager with the location for a business park. You first have to take an evening class in high technology.

 But is it all really necessary? Have we moved from a computer on every desk to buildings that are virtual computers? Not yet. The most cutting edge developments are still little more than conventional boxes: a bit more space in the floor and ceiling for wiring, higher capacity risers, a few showpiece websites, but still remarkably similar to existing space next door.

 'No-one really knows what technology tenants will require two years down the line,' says Adrian Hill, offices agency and development partner at Healey & Baker. That means it would be foolish to take a punt on fitting out buildings with today's visions.

 The solution is an old favourite: 'flexibility'. You give occupiers the ability to  increase capacity or tear out the nearly-new and replace with something not yet imagined.  'Buildings are not going to change very much. The way they are used will change and we must make allowance for this,' says Richard Exley of  MEPC, who has 10m sq ft of business parks under his wing. They will be more intensively occupied  because of changing work practices, so there will be more air-conditioning and wiring. Greater outsourcing will demand more high-bandwidth cables linking into service providers.

 'That does not mean putting in flood wiring today. It means providing for that possibility tomorrow. We are still at the beginning of such changes,' says Exley.

 At Stockley Park, long considered the template for business parks, a standard building is being built for that most high-tech of tenants, Cisco. But the electronics company  is also working overtime to install a mass of cabling linking its  other buildings on the park.

 'If my designers say to me they want to put in four ducts, I tell them to put in 44,' says Andrew Vander Meersch, veteran manager of Stockley. 'You can never have too many ducts.'

 He sees the landlord's role as an enabler, offering the capacity for new technology rather than imposing it. Exley is more sceptical about going hell-for-leather towards yawning spaces under floors and in ceilings. 'What happens when wireless comes in?' he asks.

 Vander Meersch  has considered this possibility  while planning the final phase of Stockley. 'But this may not happen for years. In the meantime we must plan for tomorrow. If there are redundant spaces left in the floors, they are at least useful for plenum air-conditioning,' he says.

   Health fears and innate conservatism have held back introduction of wireless technology, says Trevor Silver, development director of Akeler, which has a reputation for pushing forward the boundaries of new technology. 'It will happen, but not today,' he says. 'I have never had a tenant come to me asking for wireless.'

 He sees the crucial factor as getting services onto sites rather than dictating what tenants will use  within buildings.  'Most want fibre optic connections. Every 50,000 sq ft building has a huge volume of data flowing in and out. It is becoming standard practice to link these cables to servers within the building and let the occupiers sort out their internal systems.'

 That is where the extra space may become crucial. Slab-to-slab heights are being pushed  from  3.3 metres to 4 metres. Jayne Holliday, a surveyor with the Prudential planning Oxford Science Park, sees this as the main change for a new generation.  Risers connecting floors are also being designed for double their current capacity.

 'You really need to provide as much space as is economically feasible,' says Hill. Chiswick Park in west London, which is being touted as the pattern for tomorrow's urban parks , will have 3 metre floor-to-ceiling heights, 400mm raised floors and extra-large risers.

 'We are providing occupiers with the capacity to choose from  four different cable operators into the buildings,' says Chris Hiatt of Jones Lang LaSalle. 'You can't dictate to the kind of global customers that will take this space. They will decide for themselves what service to use. The important thing is to give them the choice.'

 This connectivity is also appearing on the Internet, with  web sites which double up as advertising space for letting space and for the tenants already there. MEPC has one at its New Square development near Heathrow, and so have Park Royal and  Chiswick. This is not new, however. Gavin Davidson of MEPC put the company's Milton Park  estate online around four years ago.

  'I'm a bit cynical about the pulling power of advertising space on a web page,' says Tim Heatley, head of business parks at GVA Grimley. 'But intranets are another matter. I'm a great fan.'

  Linking occupiers within parks is today's news rather than some possibility for the future. It not only gives tenants a sense of belonging but spreads useful information such as as traffic problems and car pooling, business services and e-mail.

 Further down the line these networks could prove vital infrastructure for the kind of all-in management being promoted by  Arlington. New technology plays a crucial role in the business services division set up under Howard Bibby, which enables tenants to outsource non-core activities.

 This is the one area where a landlord can take on the role of fitting out because it is acting for each tenant's specific requirements. Remarkably, it is not just cutting-edge companies that want this. Sales director Peter Daniels points out that a refrigeration company cast off its traditional, old-fashioned ways at Oxford Business Park, asking for  a 'structured workspace' service.

 Heatley agrees that it is not just dot com companies boosting the interest in higher technology. 'All companies are learning to work differently. You have to make allowance for the fact that this change will accelerate.'

 Connectivity with the outside world could prove a vital factor in the success of business parks. That means access to trunk fibre-optics could become as important as motorways. Slough Estates is expecting big things since a loop was extended from the main Bath Road trunk around its flagship park.  'It will be crucial for tenants to be close to these cables,' says UK leasing director Bruce Usher.

 The cables will also bring in new kinds of tenant. Switching centres are being set up as the telephone exchanges of the Internet. Slough has just let 25,000 sq ft to Global Crossing. It also owns an ageing office building at Winnersh, near Reading, where Intel has taken an assignment from Hewlett Packard to create  a 100m pound  'server farm'.

 Developers may have to spend more time in future cuddling up to servers like BT and NTL to ensure they are not left behind. Relations with power suppliers will also be important.  Guy Marsden of Highbridge Properties points out that a tenant like Proctor & Gamble creating a service centre on his 1m sq ft Cobalt Park in Newcastle, will require far more than the standard supply.

 Again, developers cannot go as far as fitting extra sub-stations. 'But we can provide the space if they want to put them in.'  That comes full circle to the general philosophy that developers need to offer flexibility rather than electronic whizzery. The first phase of Highbridge's Sherwood Park development is geared not just over-sized ducting for more intensive use but  extra space for expansion across the internal courtyard.

 This kind of generosity may not come cheaply. Nor will it be covered by premium rents. Marsden says Cobalt is set at about the market rent  for the area. But it may  become a necessity in future to achieve pre-lets, which should more than pay for  higher specifications and reductions in net lettable areas.

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