13 Things You Need to know Before Buying or Leasing Office Space




13 Things You Need to know Before Buying or Leasing Office Space

You’ve visited countless spaces – some for lease and some for sale. You’ve poured over sales sheets and compared costs. You’ve done the research and have decided to buy or lease some new office space. Are you sure you’re ready to sign?
close up of hands signing a contract

13 Things You Need to know Before Buying or Leasing Office Space

You’ve visited countless spaces – some for lease and some for sale. You’ve poured over sales sheets and compared costs. You’ve done the research and have decided to buy or lease some new office space.

Are you sure you’re ready to sign?

No matter which direction you’ve chosen, you will need an occupancy permit or a building permit. Before you sign your “X” on the line read on to learn these 13 things you should be aware of to get the most value possible from your new office space.

Is the space big enough?

This may seem like such an easy and obvious question, but it often isn’t. An occupied space looks so different than an empty space. It’s hard to visualize how your team might fit – especially if you’re planning to move walls around.

A question came in from a colleague to a committee I sit on about the percentage of space to set aside for storage in a theatre. The designer typically uses 12%, but the owner believes 5% is enough.

The best solution is to list out the spaces you need, how they are used and who is using them. You will typically see a spreadsheet like this in a Functional Space Program. When you run into the question of percentages for storage, go deeper and draw out the lighting racks, and soft goods hampers that will be stored there. It’s hard to argue with a clear image.

Is the space too big?

This is not a common problem! That being said, are you doing horizon planning to understand how your organization is growing? What about work from home scenarios? A surprise many companies are discovering is they are not able to save space as employees work from home because they can all be in the office at the same time at least occasionally. So, there are times when the office is full, and times when it feels empty? What’s your strategy for that?

The real benefit of horizon planning for your architecture is to understand how your space requirements have changed until now and projecting what you may need in the future. Most companies grow and require more space. Is renovating or moving an expensive option, or can you invest the difference for when you really need it?

What is the existing building occupancy classification?

All buildings are classified into a particular building occupancy depending on their intended use. With a building occupancy classification determined there are further options for the structure and combustibility based on area, the number of storeys, and whether or not the building is sprinklered.

The National Building Code of Canada uses the following base groups:

A – Assembly

B – Care Occupancies

C – Residential

D – Business & Personal Services

E – Mercantile

F – Industrial

Some base classifications are further divided into Divisions to describe their use and life-safety requirements more accurately.

A common scenario has an owner converting a warehouse (Group F Div 2) into offices (Group D). This will typically trigger additional minimum exiting requirements and may require the installation of sprinklers.

Do you need sprinklers?

It’s not only a change of use that may trigger the requirement for sprinklers. The building you are buying or leasing was built to the relevant code of the day. You may find yourself renovating to a level that the Code Authority believes causes a complete upgrade of your life safety systems. The challenge here is the requirement for a code upgrade is purposefully nebulous and you won’t always know how far you can go until you begin.

The good news is that sprinklers are not always a prohibitively expensive option, can reduce your insurance costs, save lives, and kill aliens.

How many washrooms do you need?

While we’re on the subject of the existing building’s classification, do you know how many washrooms you’ll need? Different uses require different numbers of toilets and sinks. And remember that the minimum number of facilities required by code is literally the worst you’re allowed to do. If all the teachers are trying to fit a bio break into a very short recess period – the code minimum won’t do. Have you ever seen the line up at the intermission at a theatre?

In addition, if you choose gender-neutral washrooms, you will have other factors to consider depending on your approach. Individual toilets and sinks are the best option for privacy and security but take up a lot of space. Full height partitions with common sinks are a good compromise, but not everyone likes to answer Mother Nature’s call so close to others.

Does the space meet barrier free access requirements?

Barrier free access and universal design requirements are constantly being upgraded. Minimum requirements include barrier-free paths of travel, accessible washroom(s), working areas, entrances, and parking.

Equity and diversity are important components of our society. Your approach to creating an inclusive environment will always reflect on your organization. It’s hard to argue to a Human Rights Tribunal you didn’t have the money to make someone’s life equitable. The minimum is absolutely necessary, but not always the best choice.

Do you need to renovate?

Based on all the above information: do you need to renovate? There are very few situations that allow for a new owner or tenant to move into a space without renovating. Cosmetic changes don’t typically require a permit, but moving a wall, adding plumbing, or electrical outlets for new desks certainly does.

Depending on the extent of that renovation, you will need involvement from different kinds of professionals. Architects are the most common for life safety and accessibility requirements. Structural engineers are required for adding support beams. Mechanical engineers are used to confirm ventilation requirements are met. Electrical engineers will ensure your electrical inputs match your outputs and integrate smoke and fire alarms. You may even need a civil engineer if you are changing the amount of rainwater that enters the sewer system, or a landscape architect if your zoning requires it.

Is your budget adequate?

No. It never is. Everyone wants to save money on their construction projects. A very simple interior renovation starts around $50/sq ft. A renovation project will run around $190-225/sq ft. New construction can range from $350/sq ft and up. The air traffic control tower I designed in 2016 cost approximately $800-900/sq ft.

But that’s just the “hard” construction costs. Other “soft” costs include demolition, equipment, permits, administration, project management, design fees, and contingency. During the tender period the general contractor needs to keep their pencils sharp and give you the best price possible. Once they’re under contract they are less motivated to keep those pencils sharps for change orders. Some GCs are better than others, but it’s an important part of their profit margin.

It’s important to realize that a total construction project includes both hard and soft costs. For an estimate of soft costs you can start with 50% of the construction, meaning the total project cost is 1.5X construction costs.

Know your limiting distance…

Okay. You’ve decided to renovate. Let’s bring some light in by adding some windows to the south side. Why weren’t they there in the first place? The limiting distance.

It’s important to keep a fire in a building from spreading to its neighbours. Windows and doors are considered “unprotected openings” in a wall. The limiting distance is a ratio of the size of the openings in relation to the distance to the property line. The ratio varies depending on the building’s occupancy, the size of the overall wall, and whether there are sprinklers.

There are almost always ways to add natural light to your new space, but it’s probably the most complicated part of the Building Code.

Zoning requirements

Do you know the planning zone you’re in? Does it allow for the kind of occupancy for your type of business? If you’ve ever played the game Sim City, you know the basic three types of zones for planning districts are:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Industrial

And, just like building classifications, zoning is further subdivided to encourage certain types of development where the planning office believes it will benefit the community and discourage others and keep industrial areas away from where people live.

These zoning divisions are in a constant flux as cities adapt to new lifestyles, aging demographics and climate change. Temporary variances are usually possible but expensive. Permanent variances are time consuming and also expensive.

Are you in a restricted development zone?

Transitioning zoning areas are the most complicated. A city like Winnipeg with an urban airport is very convenient, but that means there are height restrictions along flight paths. The noise of the aircraft may preclude certain types of developments like residential as well.

Also, as more cities work to increase their tax base through densification, they may not allow single family detached homes where you want to build. And, because the city planners are fun people, you may not be able to build your multi-family housing where there are only single family detached homes.

What are your parking requirements?

While we’re on the subject of zoning, it’s important to understand that each type of building in its particular zone will have unique parking requirements. The warehouse you bought will have different parking requirements than the office you are converting it to. These parking requirements are off-street and will include accessible parking spaces as well as spots for bicycles and maybe even car-pool spots.

Do you only need an Occupancy Permit?

After all of that… sometimes you only need an Occupancy Permit. Your best option is to engage an architect early on and determine if your cosmetic changes meet the municipality’ requirements, or if changing your business model to Internet mail order triggers a change of use from Group D to Group F Div 2.

An architect’s seal goes a long way to providing the municipality the assurances they need to give you occupancy. The fine for non-compliance is always more than the cost of early consultation.


Buying or leasing office space is one of the largest investments you will make in your business both in time and money. The typical process of due diligence ensures title and liens are in order. The architectural considerations for your due diligence are not well known and almost never considered until well after signing on the dotted line.

By following the suggestions above you will save yourself money, time, and headaches.

Next Steps

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