Maneuvering the Complexities of Aging Commercial Office and Industrial Properties


Christina Martin and Shaun Comer

By Christina Martin, Director of Property Management and Shaun Comer, Director of Engineering, Edge Property Services Group

The protocols for executing preventive, pro-active and on-going maintenance strategies on aging commercial office and industrial strategies (defined for these purposes as delivered in the 1970s and earlier), vary widely for those considered more modern based on the age and quality of mechanical systems, overall design issues and the wear and tear toll taken on assets that have existed for 50 years or more. These issues are now increasingly timely given the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on buildings that are experiencing reduced usage or closures.Edge Property Services Group recommends the first course of action is to partner with an experienced commercial real estate services firm that is well versed in mitigating operating costs and extending the useful life of the asset.

Overall asset management considerations for older buildings

The execution of proactive preventative maintenance measures before deterioration sets in is certain for all buildings but, before enacting a strategic plan, it is critical to perform preliminary research, especially if the current owner is not the original entity. This process will uncover the ability or need to preserve outdated building systems, securing obsolete parts from other sources and the access of critical equipment that may be proprietary. Additional studies should be initiated to determine if special requirement or restrictions exist that would impact repairs intended for buildings with historical designations.

Because, in most cases, preventative measures undertaken on an aged property will be most costly than those performed on modern structures. It is also recommended to determine comps for 50 year and older commercial office and industrial buildings in the area, as well as researching proven-successful redevelopment and modernization tactics. All of this information will be extremely useful when determining the most economically-feasible course of action.

Establish the long-term plan for the building before proceeding

Once it is determined that a building is in need of maintenance to ensure the safe operation of the asset, it is critical to establish the intended ownership timeframe and long-term plan for the existing investment group. Important factors to ascertain include (1) what is the intended length of the holding plan; (2) what investment is needed for tenant build-out, tenant improvement and marketing/leasing activities; (3) how many hours and how much money is needed to execute a building maintenance plan and (4) what actions are required to maintain a safe and comfortable environment for current and new tenants. The answers to all of these questions, and more, will guide the overall approach and timing of the planned maintenance program.

Working within the constraints of older building designs

Building designs continue to evolve based on the changing interaction with real estate among end-users, the modernization of equipment and processes and the existence of materials. The prevalence of longer hallways, larger office space footprints and antiquated building systems including elevators, tend to complicate and often add expense and time to any construction program.

Subsets of these challenges related to the safety of the building include uncovering the existence of asbestos materials within the building;and the relative condition of the electrical infrastructure, mechanical systems, plumbing equipment, elevator systems, indoor air quality and fire and safety equipment.

Should asbestos be detected, a management plan needs to be formulated with consideration given between the financial and logistics options of encapsulation versus abatement. In either scenario, proper notification needs to be given to existing tenants and contractors. As the situation impacts the relative air quality of the building, testing for the presence of mold should be conducted.

A complete mapping of the building’s electrical infrastructure needs to be completed to determine the quality of the Federal Pacific breakers and switch gears as they relate to present-day code requirements and energy use. This is also true for the complete mechanical systems. The audit should focus on the condition of the closed loop mechanical piping, water treatment program, pneumatics, and outside air requirements and air distribution.

Concerning the building’s plumbing systems, it is important to determine the vital water shutoff locations, ascertain the condition of water piping systems to detect possible interior deterioration and examine the operational integrity of 50-year old gate valves. In most cases, lead was used in piping systems built prior to 1978. The checklist for the fire and safety systems include an inspection of the sprinkler system and emergency lighting. It is also important to understand the alarm monitoring requirements, hybrid systems and 120 v systems.

The technology utilized in elevator systems has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Prior to the initiation of any improvement or renovation program, it is important to determine whether hydraulic of traction systems are used, the condition of the call phones, sump pumps and pit.

The venerable adage “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” cuts both ways when dealing with improvements and upgrades to older properties. For every positive encountered by working on a building “constructed to stand the test of time” from an infrastructure perspective, there exists significant challenges based on changing technologies and the ability to find parts for systems conceived more than half a century ago. Proper evaluation, planning and patience are required in all phases of the program.

Christina Martin is Director of Property Management and Shaun Comer is Director of Engineering of the Edge Property Services Group. Edge is a commercial real estate firm providing a full complement of advisory, leasing, investment sales, management, construction, property management and engineering services to clients throughout the Washington, D.C., Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Pennsylvania marketplaces. Founded in 2007, the company currently leases and manages more than 8.5 million square feet of commercial office, flex/office, industrial/warehouse, retail and mixed-use space. Visit

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