From the Good Ideas File: Three different strategies for entrepreneurs in historic spaces

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab has been doing some very interesting research and policy work around the environmental and sustainability implications of preserving and reusing historic buildings (short version: it’s a good thing).  This article was a particularly good candidate for the Good Ideas file because it gives you a good peek into three different types of flexible/coworking/incubation spaces — an issue that I wrote about recently over at the Wise Economy.  These strategies would fundamentally work in a lot of spaces, but I think it’s worth noting that the character of a historic building can make them more appealing for this type of arrangement — although, as I noted in the Wise Economy piece, not all buildings are ideally suited for all activities, and you have to pay some pretty serious attention to fitting the activity to the space.

This article, by Green Lab Executive Director James Lindberg, also does a good job of indicating that the conventional incubator model — give ’em cheap space and a shared copier — doesn’t have much relevance to most businesses looking for these kinds of spaces today:

Curator. Outreach coordinator. Education director. Sounds like the staff directory for a historic site, right?

Actually these are job descriptions for staff at an increasingly popular type of office building. Variously described as shared spaces, multi-tenant centers, co-working spaces or hubs, these buildings bring together a mix of tenants who share a common mission. Shared spaces offer a kind of “third place” that fits somewhere between the sterile cubicle farm and the isolated home office. Collaboration is encouraged through open and flexible floor plans, multiple gathering spaces, and amenities like cafes and game areas. Many of these offices have dedicated staff who organize training programs, educational events, tours, and community outreach.

And after a review of the three examples he had visited, James makes this observation, very much on the mark:

co working space
From Preservation Nation blog. Photo by James Lindberg

The idea of multiple entities sharing office space in historic buildings is not entirely new. All kinds of older buildings, from schools to hospitals to entire campuses, have been converted to office space for groups of nonprofit tenants. And the “business incubator” concept has long been used to support new businesses and fill empty spaces in Main Street commercial blocks and other buildings. Low rents were the key to success for many of these projects.

Affordability is still important, but changes in communication technology and workplace culture are helping to make the shared space model even more robust. Older buildings often have just the kind of open, flexible, and architecturally distinctive environments that many companies, organizations, and workers are now seeking. In years past, some of these spaces might have seemed too rough or too difficult to subdivide into private offices or cubicles. Today, nothing says “start up” or “community-based” better than the creative, low-cost reuse of a previously overlooked building that connects tenants with each other and to the community around them.


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