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Ask the Architect: Do I Need an Architect for a Tenant Improvement Project?

Ask the Architect: Do I Need an Architect for a Tenant Improvement Project?

It is very rare that a company is able to find an existing commercial space that is exactly suited for their business needs. A building might be in the ideal location with the right amount of square footage, but the space itself could be too open or too compartmentalized for the way the business operates. Or perhaps the existing plumbing or electrical systems won’t support the type of equipment that is used by the business. At the very least, a business owner will want to personalize the space with their own finishes or elements like built-in workstations.

Commercial landlords typically understand that they will need to allow their tenants to make some changes to the space in order to make it suitable for their business operations. Landlords often will include these “tenant improvements” in the terms of the lease. In tenant-friendly rental markets, the landlord will pay for all the improvements, or at least a good portion of them—especially if the improvements will add value to the building for future tenants as well. In rental markets that favor the landlord, the tenant may be on their own to pay for any desired improvements.

If the tenant improvements are purely cosmetic (new paint, new flooring, etc.), an architect would not need to be consulted. However, most tenant improvement projects involve changing the layout of a space, which often includes adding or removing walls. In these cases, hiring an architect is almost always necessary.

So, when should you bring in an architect to start working on your tenant improvement project? As an architect who has been involved in tenant improvement projects Long Beach, California for more than a decade now, I highly recommend bringing in an architect before signing a lengthy lease on a commercial property. An architect will be able to tell you if the changes you want to make are feasible and/or within your budget.

Once the lease is signed, an architect can work closely with you to come up with space planning ideas that will help with workflow and that will improve the employee and/or customer experience.

Once all tenant improvements are agreed upon by both the tenant and the landlord, an architect can draw up the plans that will be submitted to the city for approval. With commercial spaces, there are very strict ADA guidelines that need to be followed, as well as local building codes. A good architect will do code research and consult with other professionals like engineers and energy efficiency experts to help keep your project from being held up in the approval process. A tenant improvement architect can also work with general contractors to make sure the project is completed according to the plans and to keep things moving forward.

In other words, an architect can be a valuable partner to a business owner during the entire tenant improvement process—not just during the design portion of the project.

“Ask the Architect” is a regular column of Businessing Magazine. It is written by Mark Grisafe, owner and lead architect at Grisafe Architecture in Long Beach, California. If you have a question for the architect, send it here, and you may see it answered in a future column.


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by Mark Grisafe // Mark Grisafe is the Owner and Lead Architect at Grisafe Architecture. He's known throughout Long Beach as a talented architect who creates spaces that are not only beautiful, but also highly functional.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.