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COVID-19 showed a developer that offices could be unhealthy. So he’s building a healthy one in Malvern.

The design contains no conference rooms, cafeterias, or communal areas where employees could cluster. Instead, there will be private balconies, high-end air flow, and more entrances and exits.

A rendering of The Aire, a "healthy" office complex planned in suburban Philadelphia.
A rendering of The Aire, a "healthy" office complex planned in suburban Philadelphia.Read moreCourtesy of NORR

Developer Mark Nicoletti is designing office buildings around a pandemic.

The selling point: health.

That means no conference rooms, cafeterias, or communal areas where employees could cluster and spread germs. Instead, Nicoletti said, there will be private balconies, high-end air flow and filtration systems, and more entrances and exits so employees wouldn’t have to congregate at elevators, stairs, doorways, or halls.

“Why would I stay in an unhealthy building?” Nicoletti, one of the chief executives at the family-owned Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. (PSDC), said upon announcing his grand plans for the Aire, a three-building, 750,000-square-foot “healthy” office complex in Chester County. The complex will be a rebuild of the property PSDC bought from Liberty Property Trust last year for $10.2 million.

“That’s the question,” he continued. “The alternative is there’s going to be a new generation of buildings. We’re not going to be the only ones doing this. In the last 10 years, you saw these office buildings that have huge common area lobbies and amenity spaces that are shared by everyone in the building. The Aire doesn’t have any of that.”

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Although construction has not begun, the Aire, to be located in Malvern near two major thoroughfares — the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Route 202 — could be ready for tenants by the end of 2022.

A major player in the region, PSDC owns about two million square feet of commercial property in Philadelphia.

The new space, Nicoletti said, will have post-pandemic appeal.

Many businesses will have the option to renew leases or move by the time the complex is finished, he said, noting that he expected companies would forgo a larger office in favor of a smaller but safer one as the COVID-19 pandemic has led some companies to realize that they could let employees largely work from home.

“They’re going to test their landlords to not just downsize but give them rent concessions to stay,” he said. “If you want me to stay in an ‘unhealthy’ building, I have to look at the economic reason to do that.”

The Aire would likely cost 10% to 15% more per square foot than the average rate for high-end office space in the region, Nicoletti said. The average in the Philadelphia metro is $32.85 per square-foot, said Stephen Kriz, first vice president of advisory and transaction services at CBRE, the commercial real estate and investment firm.

“What the Aire seeks to do is really give the corporate user the ability to instill confidence in their employees that they’re given a safe return to the workplace,” he said.

The decision to build the Aire comes even as regional office occupancy has dropped by 2.9 million square feet since last April — a figure reminiscent of vacancy rates during the Great Recession, according to the research firm CBRE.

As of the fourth quarter in 2020, the office vacancy rate in downtown Philadelphia — which spans Market West, Market East, Independence Hall, and University City — was 13.4%, according to CBRE. It was 10.6% in the first quarter.

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The vacancy rate in the suburbs grew to 18.3%, CBRE said, up from 15.9% in the first quarter of 2020. CBRE defined the city’s suburbs to be from Lower Bucks County to the West Chester area. The vacancy rate in South Jersey, which encompasses Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, was 16.4%, an increase from 15.8%.

Though office vacancy rates during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Recession are similar, CBRE analysts said, their futures could be vastly different.

Even when U.S. employment rates ticked back up in 2009, employers allotted roughly 175 square feet per employee, compared with 250 square feet pre-recession, CBRE found. Now, during the pandemic, they could scrap the office entirely as a cost-cutting move and allow many employees to keep working remotely.

One possible saving grace: Philadelphia’s robust life-science sector, with its specialized labs and offices, all but necessitates employees to work on site.

COVID-19 taught others that office space was disposable.

Last summer, Bryn Mawr Trust announced that it had decided to allow 40% of its 635 employees to permanently work from home. The company then sold its office and ended two leases in Bryn Mawr, as well as another lease in Chadds Ford.

Nationwide Insurance also said last year that it was closing several of its offices that included a 220,000-square-foot space in Harleysville, Montgomery County, in favor of having employees work remotely. The company’s other facilities were in Gainesville, Fla.; Raleigh, N.C.; Wausau, Wis.; and Richmond, Va.

“The degree to which companies adopt work-from-home in the aggregate is still unclear,” CBRE wrote in its fourth-quarter Philadelphia office marketplace report, “but this effect will be a headwind for office recovery moving forward.”

Construction has not yet begun at the Aire, Nicoletti said. The buildings will be at 13 Atwater Dr., 15 Atwater Dr., and 6 Great Valley Parkway. He declined to provide a cost for the project.

“Healthy buildings are going to transform the market,” he said. “This won’t be a trend. This will be the standard.”