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How to get the private sector to pay for your civic building

How to get the private sector to pay for your civic building

Often my work tackles the problem of needing to ‘optimise’ or redevelop civic land uses into accommodation that the commercial market would be interested in paying for.

The usual strategy targets underperforming, unwanted accommodation that is costly to maintain at the end of its lifecycle. Part of the space would then be converted to commercial use, which should make enough profit to pay for the initial redevelopment and maintenance costs.

Sometimes this is quite easy to do (such as adding a coffee cart on an urban street front), but often the demand is not there, or costs to improve such aged infrastructure just don’t stack up. 

Therefore I would suggest a change in mindset to avoid getting into this pickle in the first place; after all, what you are planning/building today is actually the historic stuff of 2065, and it is very difficult (and costly) to fix something retrospectively

If you can answer these three questions up front, you’ll be set to ensure your building is financially supported by the private sector.

Question 1: How easily could this building adapt to a change in technology or demand for the service it is intended for, in say, 10 years’ time?

Instead of saying; ‘This is the design we need in order to teach 60 kids high school today.’ Or; ‘the better performing libraries look like this today”. Let’s ask ‘What do the kids need to learn to get jobs in six years’ time when they leave?’, or ‘What will the community do for leisure in five to 10 years?’

Unfortunately most civic buildings are often built without assuming a change in demand or use in the next 10 or so years.

Even though we can’t know what the future holds, we can still prepare for it by building ‘fluid’ buildings. Think versatile floor heights, floor spans, facades and structural elements. Structure that can be extended, subdivided and easily internally re-fitted to meet changing needs.

For example:

  • Locate services so ‘common areas’ are minimised if a floor is to be subdivided
  • Allow space for a small secondary entrance, so a second tenant could share a building without compromising security
  • Position the building on a site so there is excess land for an extension to one side
  • Build a single storey structure to a strength that will support a second floor

Question 2: If my agency/division/department that occupies this building didn’t exist tomorrow, who would (and we are thinking the private sector here) buy or rent out this space?

The fluid building design from Question 1 will make the building more attractive to the private sector. But instead of cutting functional design corners to save money, or limiting the design to a very specific purpose, consider incorporating commercial standards for the most obvious private sector uses into the design.

For example:

  • Allow space for ‘commercial style’ foyers at the bottom of buildings that could be converted to offices (they could be used as offices or utility rooms in the meantime)
  • Ensure windows take advantage of views and light
  • Retail is better exposed to foot or car traffic on the ground floor. (Don’t think a larger retail space necessarily converts to more money)
  • Allow for potential public use of loading docks, need for waste traps and after office hours access
  • Consider additional parking requirements 
  • Consider security in your design

Question 3: If you are going to fit out a space that involves serving the public in some way, what are the elements the public really want and some would be willing to pay for?

One example I recently witnessed was at a school in their music room. The Principal had asked the following question, “If we are to design a music room, what are the key areas of music that the music industry thinks are important for children to be exposed to?”

In preparation of the room, they actually went to the music industry and posed this question. This resulted in recording and mixing studios, as well as other music industry features, in addition to the traditional music classroom. 

It’s important to research what’s really needed and wanted from the space.

Let’s think of it in civic terms. There is simply providing a service, or there is providing a service in a way that is so good, people would actually pay to use it.

For example:

  • A school hall used by a soccer school franchise on the weekends
  • Industrial design rooms designed in such a way that plant and equipment could be rented out to local artists
  • School music recording rooms could be rented out after hours to musicians
  • End of journey facilities and a building gym could be designed to be licensed by a local 24 hr gym franchise (and your office workers could Zumba at lunch time to boot)

OK, so how does this make money?

Create a versatile building design with functional design elements that meet private sector standards and fit it out so that certain members of the public would be willing to pay for it.

If you do that, you will make sure that your building has the ability to be financially supported by the private sector.

How to get the private sector to pay for your civic building
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Belinda Lawler

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