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How to cure “sick buildings” with fresh air

An iconic high-rise in downtown L.A.—whose owners removed the glass from some windows—is just the latest and most literal example of a trend toward free-flowing workplaces.

How to cure “sick buildings” with fresh air
[Photo: Alexander Drecun]

The view from the gleaming high-rise at 444 South Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles is quite pleasant, as your eyes sweep east from the Central Library with its Art Deco architecture out toward Pershing Square.

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But Thomas Ricci is betting that more and more people will come here to see something else: the future of the workplace—at least as it might soon take shape in America’s second-biggest city.

“We want to change the market’s perception of a building like this,” says Ricci, a managing principal at Coretrust Capital Partners, owner of the 48-story edifice, which was completed in 1981, gained a modicum of fame as the backdrop for the NBC television series L.A. Law, and until recently was called Citigroup Center. “We’re trying to make it shocking.”

With that, he points to the southwest corner of the sixth floor, where about a year ago an extraordinary modification was made: The glass from 14 windows was eliminated—seven on each side—allowing the air to whoosh right in.

“It’s not hermetically sealed anymore,” says Ricci, a longtime veteran of L.A.’s commercial real-estate scene who has a hard time containing his enthusiasm for what Coretrust has done—or, more precisely, done away with.

Coretrust’s theory is that blowing out the windows won’t just pull in fresh air; it will also pull in corporate tenants that are trying to make their offices enticing to millennial and gen Z workers. The idea is “to help them attract and retain their talent,” says Randy Scott, one of Ricci’s two partners.

They are hardly the only ones thinking this way. Hudson Yards, the new $20 billion development on Manhattan’s Far West Side, was designed with free-flowing workspaces; myriad entertainment, eating, and fitness options; and other features specifically meant to appeal to younger employees. In turn, KKR, BlackRock, HBO, and others are flocking there.

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Yet rather than building from scratch or converting some cool old loft space into something modern, Coretrust decided to take on what is in many respects the least sexy structure there is, one that has long swallowed up briefcase-bearing men and women every day, confining them to a drab formality.

“There are millions of floors like this all over the country that are being left behind,” says Ricci.

Actually, Coretrust was not the first to open up a skyscraper to the elements. In 2017, just a couple of blocks away, the architecture firm Gensler erected a small anteroom exposed to the outside as part of an overpass between two buildings that it occupies—one at 500 South Figueroa Street, the other at 515 South Flower.

In 2016, Boston Consulting Group had three giant windows taken out on the north face of the 51st floor at 515 South Flower, known as the Paul Hastings Tower. The vista from there is spectacular, with the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains rising in the distance. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more stunning place anywhere in Los Angeles to munch on a sandwich or chat with a coworker.

[Photo: Alexander Drecun]

“Everybody feels good”

Still, the Coretrust project stands apart. You gain access to Gensler’s loggia by walking through doors that are kept shut. Similarly, the area around the open windows at BCG is enclosed; it’s essentially an indoor balcony.

By contrast, the 1,000-square-foot terrace in the Coretrust property is bounded by bifold doors that scrunch up accordion-style and are left wide open throughout the day. The result is that the flow between the inside and outside of the building is seamless. When even a light breeze enters, you can sense it throughout the entire floor—all 22,550 square feet.

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“Everybody feels good,” says Stephen Stein, managing partner at Tauro Capital Advisors, which moved in last August. Even though his office is around the corner from the open windows, “there is definitely fresh air coming through,” he notes.

“You even get the sounds of the city in a positive way,” adds Coby King, the president of High Point Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm that started leasing space on the floor last summer.

Like others working there, Stein and King particularly enjoy sitting in the terrace itself—whether it’s to hold a meeting or type on a laptop or clear their heads and gather their thoughts.

“It’s pretty damn amazing,” says Aram Nadjarian, the managing partner of Mozaic Media & Communications, which also has offices on the sixth floor. “You can take a break without fully taking a break because you never have to step out of the building.”

None of these effusive reactions surprise Rex Miller, the author of The Healthy Workplace Nudge: How Healthy People, Culture, and Buildings Lead to High Performance.

The Coretrust layout “connects you to the outside psychologically, and that reduces stress,” says Miller, who spent half a day last fall camped out in the terrace. “I love it.” Sunlight aids digestion and sleep, he explains. The naturally circulating air boosts cognition.

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All of this makes the Coretrust address a kind of antidote to “sick building syndrome”—the headaches; fatigue; shortness of breath; sinus congestion; coughing; sneezing; eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation; dizziness; and nausea that can plague those who work in poorly ventilated offices.

Not everyone is sold. Alan Hedge, a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, suggests that more rigorous evaluation needs to be undertaken inside the Coretrust building. “One of the problems potentially is that you’re in L.A.—and the air quality is not the best,” he says. “Is the air really better in there? It would be nice to measure that.”

“The real question,” Hedge asserts, “is why would you want to do it? What’s the value?”

[Photo: Alexander Drecun]

The most remarkable amenity of all

Beyond promoting health, 444 South Flower hopes to be hip. Ricci and his partners work out of the sixth floor themselves, and they’ve turned what was once a dark and dreary interior into a showpiece that you might find in Silicon Valley. It has been tricked out with the latest Haworth furnishings, a Bluescape videoconferencing platform, an indoor waterfall, natural “soundscaping” from Plantronics, digital skylights, aromatherapy, shuffleboard, ping-pong, and more. They’ve dubbed the whole floor the Workplace Innovation Lab, and the aim is to highlight for prospective tenants the range of comforts and conveniences that they can add to their own suites.

None of these amenities, though, is nearly as remarkable as the open windows. “It’s the first thing people notice and the last thing they talk about when they leave,” Nadjarian says.

It almost didn’t happen. After Coretrust bought the building in 2016 for $336 million, Ricci knew that he wanted to take advantage of L.A.’s temperate climate. His first instinct was to make fuller use of one of the three outdoor roof decks that are embedded into 444 South Flower. His tenants, however, were concerned about how disruptive those plans might be.

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Meanwhile, Coretrust hired Gensler, which already had experience with its own open-air patio and which embraced the notion of playing to the city’s beautiful weather (average high temperature in January: 68 degrees). It relished the concept of “blurring the lines between inside and out,” in the words of Rob Jernigan, regional managing director in Gensler’s L.A. office. But he, too, worried that directing people onto an outdoor deck would be less than ideal.

“There’s too much direct sunlight,” he says. “You can’t read a screen easily, and you’re just too exposed.”

And so they began to focus on another possibility that would be quintessentially L.A.: bringing the outside in. “I like that it’s a little funky,” Jernigan says.

Not all of Jernigan’s colleagues have been so enamored. Some didn’t like the notion of scarring the original architecture. “We have some purists in our office,” Jernigan says. Another Gensler architect, Michael Volk, pushed for an even bolder look. He wanted to remove the mullions and make the columns a different color so they’d “pop even more.” As it is, the series of sixth-floor openings are nothing that passersby on the street would even notice, unless they were looking for them.

Although simply taking out the glazing may appear uncomplicated, executing wasn’t easy. It also cost about $400,000.

A portion of the heating and air conditioning system had to be ripped out, and the terrace’s massive folding doors had to be hung from two new 30-foot beams with very tight tolerances. “It took a little bit of engineering,” says Jim Schladen, the president of Arcadia Inc., which supplied the doors.

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Blowing in the wind?

Even in Los Angeles, it rains now and again, and Coretrust had to make certain that a heavy downpour wouldn’t soak the premises. It also needed to be careful that the wind wouldn’t rush through at such a speed that it would cause papers on desks—or even heavier objects—to go flying.

“Wind flow patterns in a dense urban environment have a lot to do with the building geometry and the surrounding building geometry,” says Jason Munn, a senior project manager at RWDI, which conducted wind-tunnel tests on a model of 444 South Flower. “We were cautiously optimistic that this was a scenario we could work with.”

Real life has confirmed what the tests predicted: It’s not windy at all inside. And the rain has proven to be a nonissue, as the water sheets down the side of the building and barely penetrates the terrace. (Nine drains have been installed on the floor, just in case. And a partition—transparent and unobtrusive—is perched inside each window opening for added protection and safety.)

How much Coretrust’s vision catches on remains to be seen, with geography an obvious limitation.

“It’s not an element that you can plug and play in a national portfolio,” says Phil Sheumaker, senior managing director at Hawkeye Partners, an investor in the fund that owns 444 South Flower. “They’re not going to do this in Philadelphia” (where Coretrust is also a landlord).

Local realtors and others say that at least one law firm is considering copying what Coretrust has done at a building nearby. But nothing has been finalized.

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Ricci anticipates that many of those inside 444 South Flower will elect to have their windows opened, as well. “We’ve gotten a ton of interest from the various tenants we represent,” says Tony Morales, a broker with Jones Lang LaSalle. But so far, no solid commitments have been made there, either.

“For many people,” says Sheumaker, “it’s going to be too far out there.” Having open windows, it seems, first requires having an open mind.

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About the author

Rick Wartzman is director of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute and the author of four books, including his latest, The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. You can follow him @RWartzman.

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