Tenant improvements (TI) turn commercial spaces into places where businesses can thrive. These design and construction projects can vary in scope—from building out previously unused square footage to completely gutting and remodeling a space for a new use.

According to the State of Oregon, a licensed architect or structural or civil engineer is required to design and stamp any TI project in a building greater than 4,000 square feet or 20 feet in height. This law protects life safety and ensures buildings meet local, state and federal building codes.

The prospect of creating the perfect space for a business is often exciting but can also be overwhelming, especially for those business owners who haven’t previously gone through the commercial design and construction process. With that in mind, the following 10 tips will help guide you through the process and, hopefully, save you time and money.

1.  Select already built-out spaces.

Some demolition is usually necessary to obtain the layout you want, but an existing space is typically less expensive than building out from scratch. Many existing features are reusable for new businesses—think doors, interior windows, lighting, plumbing fixtures, carpet, ceiling tiles and cabinetry. What you don’t have to purchase and install saves money.

2.  Discuss municipal system development charges (SDCs) with your commercial real estate broker and building owner.

If your TI is a change from an original use (for example, a retail space turning into a restaurant) the municipality might require SDCs. Make sure you have a clear understanding of who’s paying those fees. It could be you, the building owner or a shared responsibility between both parties.
3.  Make sure you have a complete architectural design and construction team.

As mentioned, you’ll need a licensed architect or engineer to create, stamp and submit your drawings for permit, but also make sure you have a general contractor on board who understands your needs and budget. Ask your architect for recommendations early on—a contractor brought in during the design stage can assist with cost estimating and offer mechanical, electrical and plumbing sub-contractors to develop drawings for permit applications. The reverse is true as well. If you’re starting your TI by hiring a contractor, you’ll want to follow up by securing an architect. Doing so can help ensure the space you’ve selected meets your operational needs and TI budget.

4.  Understand architects offer many different services that can fit within your needs and budget.

Not only can your architect assist in getting your building permit approved, but he or she can also provide space planning and programming, fixture and material selections, structural coordination, assistance with energy incentives, retail design and more. Architects can also perform feasibility studies and accessibility evaluations for a potential business location and help with site selection. This information can help with financial decisions as you do your business planning. Most standard design fees typically cover just the document production and permit correction responses, but additional contracts or hourly rates can include architectural services beyond basic permit acquisition.

5.  Jurisdictions can and will enforce laws and codes.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other accessibility requirements ensure that all customers and members of the public can use your business location, regardless of disability or physical challenge. Your architect is an accessibility expert and can make sure rest rooms, door opening weights, handicap parking and ramp slopes, bar and dining seating, aisle widths for clear passage and reach distances all comply with ADA standards.

6.  Buildings are different, just like people.

Whether you’re looking at refurbishing a small modernist-era building and replacing HVAC, windows and insulation, or you’re moving into a young, mixed-use building with post-tensioned concrete floors, each one can have very different structural systems, exiting and fire protection needs. It’s up to the architect and engineers to determine which codes need to be followed, depending on the building type, use, age and overall condition.

7.  Restaurants, cafes and bars present unique challenges.

You’ll need to set up initial meetings with the county health department and obtain your alcohol and server licenses and/or U.S. Department of Agriculture reviews to make sure nothing is overlooked in your business’ layout. Find a reputable kitchen equipment vendor who can provide equipment drawings to the design team for coordination (your architect can help with this as well). The jurisdictions performing permit reviews will always ask to see material and equipment cut sheets of your restaurant. Also, pay careful attention to sinks/dishwashers, floor sinks and Type I and II hood requirements.

8.  Medical, chiropractic and dental clinics also present unique challenges.

Architects work with vendors to locate and coordinate specific medical equipment needs. Whether it’s consulting with a structural engineer to enforce the floor where a CT scanner will attach; working with a physicist to provide adequate lead lining for x-ray rooms; providing soundproofing between exam rooms for auditory privacy; or coordinating finicky plumbing and pumps in dentists’ offices, your architect can account for the detailed requirements of each piece of equipment.

9.  Energy efficiency plays a big role for successful tenants.

As energy codes become stricter and the availability of incentives for efficient lighting, appliances, HVAC systems, water conserving fixtures and window and insulation values rise, it’s clearly a win-win situation to select the most efficient materials, systems and equipment on the market for your TI. Payback can vary from just a few months to a few years, depending on incentives available and the scope of improvements made.

10.  Follow your schedule and know your budget.

You must let your architect and contractor know how much you can spend on your TI. Not only is the construction budget necessary so your architect can specify materials accordingly, but your general contractor needs to get bids from sub-contractors. The project team needs to understand your schedule for beginning work; submitting for jurisdictional reviews; permit submittal; and the anticipated timeframe for permit acquisition. Your move-in date should take into account how many days are needed for set up and inventory, final inspections and certificate of occupancy, and what date was agreed upon in your lease negotiations.

Seth Anderson
Seth Anderson

Seth is a Principal Architect.