Why Your New Company Needs an Old Building
Every company needs a home. Even the towering giants of online commerce desire a cozy place to hang their virtual hats (and sometimes more than one cozy place, as attested by the current bidding war for Amazon's HQ2). While many a corporate mythology might dwell nostalgically on the "we started in our garage" trope, no startup wants to linger in the carport for very long. Once your business gets sure footing, you're going to need digs.
Choosing a location for a growing enterprise is no small matter, even in today's everything-online-all-the-time climate. Factors to consider include foot traffic, accessibility, infrastructure and much more. As the editors of Entrepreneur remind us, your address speaks volumes about your company, declaring loud and clear what matters most to you and your brand.
As you consider where to hang your startup shingle -- uptown or down, suburbs or exurbs -- let me encourage you to borrow a little wisdom from the playbook of America's greatest advocate for urban design, Jane Jacobs. In her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs famously wrote, "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings" (emphasis mine).
Before you think I'm advocating that you build your brand in a chintz-covered B&B or some derelict warehouse without windows or running water, let me clarify what is meant by "old buildings." For most of the 20th century, historic preservation was associated with ladies-who-lunch and house museums, where the childhood homes of local icons, say, were restored just as they were in the distant past, for tours at $5 a head, to keep the lights on.
I am not talking about those kinds of old buildings.
I'm talking about the newer, more progressive, more sustainable sort of historic preservation -- known as "adaptive reuse" or "adaptive new use" -- where an organization adapts a beautiful historic property for a contemporary purpose, retaining the most distinctive ornamental elements and the durable bones of the building, while reshaping the interior with surprising art and human-centered design.
The rehabilitation of a historic property might seem a chore. After all, you're knee-deep in the work of building your company. But before you consider new construction out on the edge of town or leasing a storefront in an empty shopping center, consider these three reasons why adaptive reuse might be exactly what your new company needs.
1. Adaptive reuse generates more jobs than new construction.
Entrepreneurs are naturally civically minded citizens. You know that your business is both good for you and also for your community, helping increase the tax base and raise the quality of living for others through salaries, profits and investment.
If economic impact matters to you, consider that while $1 million spent on new construction generates 30.6 jobs, the same investment in adaptive reuse actually generates 35.4 jobs. Why? During a talk to the Preservation Council of San Jose (California), preservationist Donovan Rypkema explained: "As a rule of thumb, new construction will be half materials and half labor. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, will be 60 to 70 percent labor with the balance being materials." In other words, with adaptive reuse, more money stays home. Historic preservation is no charity. When done well, it's a potent economic generator.
2. Adaptive reuse demonstrates your company's concern for sustainability.
As I have advocated elsewhere, "The greenest building is the one that already exists." Like an Omega Speedmaster or a Tom Beckbe field jacket -- products designed to be worn for decades and passed down to the next generation -- historic structures were built to endure through many different owners and purposes.
The reality is, contemporary architecture is not built for the long haul. In a 2015 TEDx talk ("Our Disposable Architecture"), urban designer Jennifer Bevan warns, "Whereas a century ago, it was reasonable to expect new buildings to span multiple generations, today, disposable architecture is the new normal." According to the EPA, the U.S. produces over twice as much construction and demolition debris as everyday garbage.
The solution? Use the buildings we already have. So many American cities are filled with hearty and proud structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries, handsome buildings of brick and iron, timber and stone. Reuse. Repurpose. Reimagine.
3. Adaptive reuse promotes mental and physical wellness.
From recent iGen college graduates, to the ubiquitous millennial herd, to the diaspora of gen X, Americans want to move back to cities. In a letter to The New York Times, Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, explains why: "[N]eighborhoods that include older, smaller buildings house significantly greater concentrations of jobs in the 'innovation economy' than do areas with only larger, newer construction."
But, it's more than that, because living in cities allows young professionals to live a kind of childhood idyll of walking or riding their bike everywhere. A study by Arup actually reports that the privilege of walking to work, compared to a long commute, increases someone's happiness "as much as if they'd fallen in love." Find a historic building to call yours, and your company can anchor this joyous urban migration.
And just in case you're wondering, this is not gentrification we're talking about here; adaptive reuse fosters a diversity of human activity across economic strata, creating a community with thriving churches, schools, playgrounds, grocery stores and growing companies, including yours. If your new company is to have a long and happy life, bringing joy and value to clients and customers across the years, then consider taking the long view and finding a historic property to call headquarters.
The great revolution in heritage conservation and adaptive reuse has only just begun. I've spent four decades living out this philosophy at the university I founded in 1978, and I encourage you to do the same. When it comes time to leave the "startup" garage and spread your wings, I say: Go downtown.