About a year ago ISCG, a workplace design company in Royal Oak, became its own client. It was a small business in need of new digs. The owners chose the Royal Radio building on Woodward, just over a mile from their old office and just half a mile north of downtown Royal Oak.
The decision to re-use an old building rather than build new or make do put ISCG in the same spot as many of its clients, businesses who are looking to make better use of an existing office or renovate a space – more and more an unlikely one.
“These little industrial parks or machine shops…their market is gone. Those buildings need to become something,” says ISCG’s president Robert Martin. “Now an engineering firm that designs manufacturing equipment can go in there. Or another firm, a start-up, a company that wants something different, to differentiate themselves.”
ISCG’s choice of the dark, smelly, unloved Royal Radio – albeit somewhat of Royal Oak landmark – brought shudders to some ISCG employees, many of them accustomed to looking past the plain, boring, outdated, even unorthodox buildings and seeing the potential in renovation and rehab. But when ISCG owners Mary Ann Lievois and Robert Martin brought their employees to the just acquired office Royal Radio building their faces fell, their noses twitched, their eyes strained to see inspiration – after all ISCG’s tagline is “Workplace Inspired.”
The cheesy wood paneling, the colorless work bays where CB radios and stereos were once repaired, the dank drive-in garage bay, the feeling “that you didn’t know what was going to be around the next corner, or come running out at you,” laughs Lievois.
Nevertheless, it was time, Lievois, the CEO, and Martin, the company president, believed, to take the advice ISCG has given for years: create a workplace that’s comfortable, practical, centered around personal and professional philosophies, respectful but cautious of workplace trends and focused on the future of a business – all in all, inspiring.
“Here was a chance to really demonstrate what we do and create an environment for our own people, and show what we could do,” Martin says. “We looked at the building, we thought about it, we came back, we said let’s take a chance.”
Besides showing off how cool and creative an office can actually be – from floor to ceiling and everything in between – what the owners saw in Royal Radio could be transmitted to fit ISCG’s philosophies – lots of light, collaborative workspace, a stylish kitchen and meeting/brainstorming rooms, fun and sophisticated decor, TVs for Detroit Tigers game and the latest addition, a fire engine red phone booth cut into one wall to give employees a place for personal, private phone calls. The new office, an 11,000 square feet taken down to just the walls and plumbing, would showcase what ISCG can accomplish with a building that may look like its way past its prime to potential clients and any visitors for that matter.
“We have a lot of people coming in to see, realtors, developers,” says Lievois.
ISCG is one of a growing number of small businesses that see potential – and exploit it – in buildings that appear to have outlived their usefulness. All around metro Detroit shuttered manufacturing and industrial facilities that went to their graves as the auto industry switched gears are being brought back to life by entrepreneurs, start-up firms and even established businesses wanting a fresh slate for the office.
“You see a lot of this with light manufacturing companies in Royal Oak, Ferndale, Madison Heights,” Martin says. “These buildings are located where they are for a reason..They’re near town…They’re close to busy areas or they have easy access to many places,” Martin says. “But the buildings they’re choosing need re-purposing. They may have a manufacturing plant they’re turning into engineering firm or an advertising firm.”
Most of the old facilities become offices, he says, but some are re-using the buildings for retail or mixed use.
“People are seeing the value of not building something new, of turning what’s there into something unique.. something they can make their own, put their stamp on, their signature,” he says. “What is happening is an excitement about taking a shell and making it your own.
“People want to be proud of where they are, who they are….This is kind of like we’re all proud of ISCG. A client should always feel proud of their space….
Typically a rehab, even one customized to be the opposite of a traditional, cookie cutter office, is an more affordable proposition than a new build, Lievois says.
“We can design something for any budget,” she says. “The key is to create the value.”
Besides affordability, she says, there’s an eco-minded thinking to re-use and rehabilitation.
“Sustainability is big component,” Lievois says. It’s not just the repurposing of a building, but it’s putting in the carpeting that comes from recycled materials, or having a recycling program in the kitchen, using efficient lighting.
“There’s a feel-good component to it as well,” she says.
Historical preservation, however, is something different,” Martin offers. The legal requirements, the time-line and the cost can be lengthy, but there are grants, and government and nonprofit assistance available.
“Here we gutted the structure…We had good bones. A lot of these old places have good bones,” Martin says.
Martin believes there are a few attitudes that are driving interest in the rehabilitation and repurposing of established buildings.
For one, “when you rehab it tends to be unique…a lot of companies are looking for their own signature, their own message,” he says. “You have entrepreneurial companies creating their own image, their own feel, their own culture, so a unique building is something that interests them. Companies are differentiating themselves. Facebook, websites, and the office or facilities become part of that. People no longer want an office that’s down the hallway on the left, and looks like all the rest.”
“It’s these types of entrepreneurs or companies that are driving this,” he adds. “You’re seeing more innovative companies, more start-up companies doing this.”
Another draw to an atypical office building, says Lievois, is a desire to be near downtowns.
“For the same reason that people are wanting to be near cities, where they can walk, and have a variety of businesses for what they need,” she says, “employees want the same thing and their employers want to give it to them.”
It’s why ISCG chose a developing part of Royal Oak, a half mile north of downtown. The Royal Radio rehab is part of an evolution of the company that started in 1976 as an office furniture dealer and has evolved into a full-service consultant for office needs from furniture, art, signage to design, implementation and service. With 20 employees upholding the philosophy that they are not there to sell goods but to find solutions for their clients, providing them with a place that’s as comfortable as home was important. Their customer service, workplace consultants, designers, service staff spend a lot of time at the office.
“It’s been amazing how much foot traffic has come in,” Lievois says. “People want to see what can be done with a place like this, and we believe we’ll be seeing more of it right here in the neighborhood.”
Kim North Shine is a freelance writer and Development News Editor for Metromode.