Curator. Outreach coordinator. Education director. Sounds like the staff directory for a historic site, right?
Actually these are job descriptions for staff at an increasingly popular type of office building. Variously described as shared spaces, multi-tenant centers, co-working spaces or hubs, these buildings bring together a mix of tenants who share a common mission. Shared spaces offer a kind of “third place” that fits somewhere between the sterile cubicle farm and the isolated home office. Collaboration is encouraged through open and flexible floor plans, multiple gathering spaces, and amenities like cafes and game areas. Many of these offices have dedicated staff who organize training programs, educational events, tours, and community outreach.
What makes this trend particularly interesting for preservationists is that old buildings are a perfect fit for this new office category. Last month, I organized a tour of shared spaces in historic buildings here in Denver, as part of the 13th annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference. We visited three local landmarks that have recently been converted to create workspaces for groups of tenants with similar missions. Each stop illustrated a different model for how to organize a shared space.
The Emerson School (where I have a desk) is an 1885 schoolhouse rehabilitated by the National Trust to create a center for historic preservation and conservation organizations, including Historic Denver, Colorado Preservation, Inc., HistoriCorps, and Downtown Colorado, Inc. Opened in 2012, the Emerson School is an example of a multi-tenant, nonprofit center, where a group of like-minded organizations come together under one roof to foster collaboration and control the costs of occupancy. Fueled by the growth of the nonprofit sector, hundreds of centers like Emerson have emerged across the country, linked together by a national organization that provides training and resources. Denver alone has 29 multi-tenant, nonprofit centers and a city-sponsored initiative to support them.
At Galvanize, a bustling hive of technology-oriented start-ups in the former Rocky Mountain Bank Note Building (1929), we saw a for-profit example of the shared space model. More than 300 tenants occupy every corner of this 30,000-square-foot historic building, from seats at shared tables (a.k.a. “hot desks”) in the central atrium to dedicated workstations in the mezzanine to more traditional office suites around the perimeter of the building. Training courses and community events are offered regularly and an in-house café is open to the public. Co-working spaces like Galvanize are popping up in cities across the country, drawing entrepreneurs out of basements, garages, and coffee shops. Many are in older buildings, including 1871, a co-working space in Chicago’s historic Merchandise Mart, and CoCo, which occupies the trading floor of the 1902 Grain Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis.
The third Denver example from our shared space tour is the Posner Center, which opened last year in a former horse barn built in 1882. Blending the nonprofit and for-profit models, the Posner Center brings together more than 30 international development enterprises. Tenants range from nonprofits like Engineers Without Borders to a company that is creating and distributing solar-powered light bulbs for developing countries. Like Galvanize, the Posner Center offers a range of leasing options, including “seats” in a common area that are included as part of a basic monthly membership fee. Lectures, events, and a summer farmer’s market help foster a sense of community that extends into the surrounding neighborhood.
The idea of multiple entities sharing office space in historic buildings is not entirely new. All kinds of older buildings, from schools to hospitals to entire campuses, have been converted to office space for groups of nonprofit tenants. And the “business incubator” concept has long been used to support new businesses and fill empty spaces in Main Street commercial blocks and other buildings. Low rents were the key to success for many of these projects.
Affordability is still important, but changes in communication technology and workplace culture are helping to make the shared space model even more robust. Older buildings often have just the kind of open, flexible, and architecturally distinctive environments that many companies, organizations, and workers are now seeking. In years past, some of these spaces might have seemed too rough or too difficult to subdivide into private offices or cubicles. Today, nothing says “start up” or “community-based” better than the creative, low-cost reuse of a previously overlooked building that connects tenants with each other and to the community around them.
James Lindberg is planning director for the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.