From the outside, the notion of real estate development is generally seen as a straightforward equation of risk and reward. Those willing to assume the largest of risks lead the line for the greatest rewards and behind them builders, architects, engineers, subcontractors, material suppliers and myriad others eagerly cue up in a revenue chain led by the daring few who see prosperous potential on every corner. On the inside, however, the equation isn’t quite so simple. The prospect, for example, of envisioning and then actually developing an attractive, efficient, leasable, LEED Gold commercial office space that hits the market in stride with desire tends to be many years in the making.
Take the corner of 13th and Walnut in Boulder, where a new 63,000-square-foot commercial office property known as the Wencel Building stands today. Outwardly, the Wencel Building is a sleek composition of traditional and contemporary materials – solid red-brick massing with classic accents tied together by a dynamic modernist central link in glass and metal. Much like the primary equation in real estate itself, the Wencel Building is deceptive in its simplicity and within lies a far more elaborate and compelling story.
“Success in commercial real estate tends to be the long game,” cheerfully reflects Jeff Wingert, a partner with W.W. Reynolds Cos., the proud owners of the Wencel Building and quite a few other strong build-and-lease developments in Boulder. “The visioning plan for the Wencel Building stretches back to late 2007,” continues Wingert, “so nearly a full decade of contemplation and hard work to deliver a market-ready product that meets our expectations for integrated development.”
Wingert is quick to point out that success in his business is also a product of the company he keeps. As such, W.W. Reynolds is particular in its selection of project partners. For the Wencel Building, Wingert chose Studio Architecture of Boulder, and long-time construction collaborators Wyatt Construction. Working toward an integrated CM/GC delivery, the three parties began concept investigations from the city of Boulder’s entitlement process, which formally considered the development parcel to be a half-block of contiguous space. Bound by a historic 1890s era building most locally would think of as simply Old West Brick (Renaissance Revival), and the Colorado Building, the site offered an L-shaped wedge of developable space that also happened to have a historic carriage house along the back alley stealing a corner of buildable lot.
“The site’s unique configuration sandwiched between a historic property with thriving retail and Boulder’s tallest building initially led to some fairly typical thinking,” comments Jeff Dawson, a principal with Studio Architecture. The initial direction was to fill the space with as much square footage as the site allowed and get through the city’s challenging permitting process as efficiently as possible. W.W. Reynolds has a long history of commercial success, however, and understands that the kind of companies taking premium office space in Boulder expect quite a bit more than simply square footage. They want dynamic, energetic space that represents forward thinking and compels intellectual performance.
With the primary challenge in focus, the team began designing a commercial office property that would attract commercial tenants; maximize the leasable square footage; respect the surrounding historic and professional context; get through the city’s rigorous permitting process efficiently; and simultaneously become a jewel in everyone’s portfolio – certainly quite a bit more than a simple risk-reward equation. It was from these overlapping orders that the building’s form began to assume new meaning and, almost organically, the design turned unexpectedly inward sufficiently solving the challenges while simultaneously embracing contextual drivers well beyond the obvious.
“The centerpiece of the design is an internal courtyard,” imparts Studio Architecture’s Director of Design Aldo Sebben. “An open spine weaves its way through the entire program and becomes a dynamic informer of all other spaces.” Bisecting the building horizontally, the courtyard is a multilevel ensemble of interstitial spaces linked together by a series of staircases, mezzanines, pass-throughs, and overlooking terraces that serve a variety of purposes. Beyond merely affording building occupants access to exterior space, the courtyard also allows daylight to penetrate the building’s internal offices; creates an inviting public gathering space; and celebrates Boulder’s history of through-block connections that blur the line between private and public use. With the overall design focused on the internal courtyard, the creation of a lively animated space will be a critical contributor to the site’s long-term success. Sebben has strategically inserted a motion-activated interactive lighting display that will respond to the footfalls of stair-users, illuminating with each step taken as they pass through.
A hidden treasure in more ways than one, by introducing the below-grade courtyard space into the design, the development team also was able to realize an increase in leasable square footage in a surprising way. Taking advantage of a provision in Boulder’s DT5 zoning codes, below-grade square footage isn’t counted against the Floor Area Ratio zoning requirements, which stipulates the ratio of gross square footage to developed land area. Wingert estimates that by inserting the courtyard space into what would have been the basement of the building, the property is able to achieve a 15 percent increase in overall leasable square footage. With these spaces benefiting from the infusion of daylight and animation afforded by the courtyard, W.W. Reynolds will still be able to secure desirable lease rates despite the offices being physically underground.
With the courtyard driving the building’s practical organization, Studio Architecture was quite deliberate in its efforts to respect the surrounding context and in doing so greatly facilitated the ease of the navigation within the city’s permitting process.
“We worked toward developing an uncomplicated exterior that would illustrate a warm, natural embrace of historic Boulder,” shares Dawson. The primary design incorporates classic red-brick masonry forms common to Boulder’s historic past, detailed by beige lintels, sills and parapets. Along Walnut Street the traditional treatments are deliberately partitioned by the modern intervention serving as the primary entrance while also being an enticing precursor to the open spine. Here the exterior is abundant glazing, metal panels, and terra cotta block referential in color and texture to the city’s municipal offices just a few blocks beyond. Through very deliberate placement, the entrance to the ground-level mezzanine passage overlooking the courtyard also frames the once-hidden carriage house – a subtle rejoice of the relic’s having survived more than a century of surrounding development.
Dawson and Sebben also note that W.W. Reynolds has been instrumental in developing a whole host of properties along Canyon and Walnut, and throughout Boulder. “Their experience working with the city on so many successful developments has really been about embracing the design guidelines,” says Sebben. “Following their lead, we were able to develop a contemporary, nonargumentative vernacular in this building that responds favorably on all four sides and results in the kind of architecture the people of Boulder naturally expect.” \\