Considerations for building in dense urban areas

While many issues involved in these types of designs are universal, there are some that are specific to the building type or location when it comes to dense urban areas, with some being specific to a particular city.

By Brent Felten and Bret Willett March 2, 2020

It’s no secret core growth in dense urban areas is on the rise. From cities like Austin, Nashville, and Atlanta that are experiencing massive spikes in development through revitalization, to more established cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, growth is rampant. While spaces in these areas present many benefits, they can also involve some unique challenges when considering dense urban areas for a retailgroceryrestaurant or workplace location.

Opening a location in a dense urban area generally involves building out a tenant space in a high-rise building or renovation in a highly populated downtown district. While many issues involved in these types of designs are universal, there are some that are specific to the building type or location. For example, a client looking at a street level retail store in a Chicago high-rise will need to address stack effect, but a new restaurant in downtown San Francisco could face utility availability issues. Understanding these possible issues ahead of time can help protect the both the project’s cost and schedule.

Below & behind

When opening a location in a dense urban area, one of the most important considerations prior to even signing a lease is thinking about the building systems. Understanding not only what will be needed for the new space but also what is already existing in the building can help avoid costly discoveries and/or delays during construction, or worse. When clients come to us in this situation, we typically perform a site assessment that addresses two main questions:

  • What’s below the floor? Whether it is the subway or a Subway, the building systems will be affected by whatever is located underneath it – and all around it for that matter. From utility infrastructure availability to sounds and smells coming from adjacent businesses, there’s a lot that impacts the building systems
  • What’s behind the walls? Whether it’s a workplace taking over a retail space or a restaurant moving in where a grocery market once was, in a dense urban area, one of the only constants is change. By understanding exactly what kinds of building systems are currently in a space, and their condition, we can help our clients make an informed decision when selecting a site.

Five common project obstacles

While the owner and architects are thinking of how to layout offices in a space, where to put aisles and tables, or the way shoppers will move through a retail store, the engineer is thinking about the unseen factors that impact a person’s experience in any given environment and what could get in the way of a successful project.

  1. Properly-sized equipment. One of the more important roles of a mechanical system, beyond keeping the space at a comfortable temperature, is keeping the right outside air level in the space. While most floors in a high-rise are sealed, a certain level of outside air is required by code to maintain healthy air quality. Making sure the new space achieves proper levels can be difficult for larger areas, like kitchens, that produce more heat and don’t have direct access to outside air.
  2. Roof space or equipment placement. In dense urban areas, things are, well, dense, and space is at a premium. It’s not just usable floor space either. Often, ensuring there’s adequate roof space for necessary equipment is an important consideration prior to construction.
  3. Noise mitigation. In general, the bigger the equipment the greater the noise impact. Whether on a roof top in a densely populated area or on the mezzanine floor, managing the acoustic effect of equipment while maintaining proper operation is vital. Beyond standard systems, noise pollution can come from things like emergency generators, that aren’t only a concern in emergency situations but during routine testing as well.
  4. Existing system capacity. Spaces like restaurants and grocery stores require large amounts of electricity. Refrigerators and cooking equipment often place demands on the electrical system that are greater than they were designed to support. This is very common in historic renovations, like old warehouse conversions. Sometimes that can mean adjustments at the main utility connection, and depending on which side needs to be adjusted, landlord or city, a project could have to absorb that cost.
  5. The charm factor. The current revitalization trend has increased the frequency of historic renovations. Whether that means bringing retail to an old factory or a coworking space to an old factory, one of the reasons businesses and patrons are drawn to historic spaces is because they look and feel historic. And in addition to the increased coordination with the landlord and city, the complexity of bringing modern systems to a space that was designed before they were even invented, without disrupting the original design or charm, can be challenging.

Preparing your project

It’s easy to look at that long list of potential difficulties and think engineers are going to crush your hopes and dreams. The truth is, involving an engineer early in the project one of the following can help avoid potential pitfalls and understand the realistic needs of a new space.

That said, a little bit of imagination can go a long way when identifying a solution that meets the codes and standards (aka rules) while also meeting the client’s needs. Designing in dense urban areas can throw some curveballs at a project, but we’ve been working with our clients for years to overcome these challenges to create some amazing spaces from flagship retail to modern workplaces and everything in between.

We recommend bringing your engineer to the table early so that you can be aware of the potential obstacles of your dense urban area. Once we’ve performed a site assessment, we help our client’s review their lease and understand what they should address before they go too far.

The best building systems are the ones no one knows are there. When you enter a space and there is no thought to visibility, temperature, or safety you’ve entered a successful project. With us, it doesn’t matter if you’re opening your doors in rural Nebraska or downtown LA, we’ll be there to help you make informed decisions every step of the way – from selecting the right space for your needs all the way through to the final punch and beyond.

This article originally appeared on Henderson Engineers’ websiteHenderson Engineers is a CFE Media content partner. 

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Brent Felten, Retail Practice Leader, Henderson Engineers; Bret Willett, Specialty Retail Practice Leader | Associate Vice President, Henderson Engineers