The information age is breathing life into many old buildings in major cities where finance, entertainment, communications, and health-care offices increasingly cluster downtown.

These big-city offices are in vogue. Downtown offices are quickly being occupied by urbanites desiring fun, neat-looking buildings in the hub of a subway system. Building architects, owners, and occupants all seek the convenience and comfort pre-World World II structures afford.

Ironically, buildings erected at the turn of the century through the 1930s are the best ones for accommodating HVAC, cable trays, and other mechanical and electrical equipment for today's office organizational patterns. Features like a larger floor-to-floor height and windows that open make these buildings more accommodating than contemporary structures.

Office-building renovation no longer means just the "plain vanilla" desk and cubicle renovations of the past 30 years. Increasingly, developers want to make the most of their investments, providing the very best communications and power wiring and in the copious raised floor and ceiling spaces. Warehouse and apartment buildings that are renovated into offices often feature the latest power wiring and datacom equipment.

Big cities offer first-rate telecommunications infrastructure because the geographical concentration of customers allows vendors to invest more in fiber optics and other equipment. New York, for instance, has established the $42.5-million Discovery Fund, which has invested in nine "Silicon Alley" startups and has set up "smart" buildings wired with high-speed communications lines and other digital amenities rare in older New York buildings.

Information America, one of the nation's leading data processing service companies, recently moved to downtown Atlanta from a midtown Atlanta location. "Since we employ very highly skilled technical and creative people, the work environment needs to encourage freedom of expression as well as stimulate interaction among our employees, most of whom are under 30," said company president and founder Buck Goldstein.

Although the concept is new to Atlanta, the idea of creating a special campus environment in an urban setting for high-tech businesses has worked successfully in New York and Boston.

The biggest hurdle for owners and architects doing renovation is finding enough qualified tradespeople and contractors to do the work. If contractors are busy with new construction projects, it's hard to get them to bid on redevelopment-mainly because it is more difficult.

This year's model office To start this difficult work, corporations first call on architects to refashion old downtown factories and warehouses into office space. Architecture can be a powerful transforming agent that helps solve two key problems facing today's businesses: cutting costs and boosting productivity.

Today's architects start an office renovation project by analyzing the business organization and cultures, breaking down work into its component parts, and then planning actual work. The immediate goal is to simply work out the space requirements, but it is much more analogous to management consulting than construction.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., have a few ideas-including the use of plug-and-play infrastructures and more employee control over the environment. They're testing them out in an office-of-the-future created atop the campus's historic Fine Arts building. Dubbed the Intelligent Workplace (IW), the 7000-sq-ft space is a $4-million model for improving the workplace. The model works for new construction, but it better resembles space found in old buildings.

The IW emphasizes the importance of the worker, making convenience and worker comfort paramount. The interior emphasizes daylight and natural ventilation. It includes operable windows and large expanses of insulated glass. Bolted together at the site, the steel structure has open-web trusses that can accommodate mechanical ducts, and other components. All workers in the experimental office can control the temperature of their own work space with a Personal Environmental Module (PEM) from Johnson Controls. Floor diffusers can be relocated as needed. Daylighting, the main source of illumination, is controlled through automatically adjusted, motorized, light redirection louvers. Task lights are also used.

A key feature of the IW site is the high degree of flexibility regarding the placement of power, data, and voice circuits. Modular, 19-inch-wide "satellite closets" allow circuits to be easily reconfigured. Installed below the raised floor system, an open cable tray system has divided channels for electric power and data circuits.

Managers are looking at information technologies in terms of where they can take their companies in the long run-either by changing the nature of their business, increasing revenues or limiting costs. Their employees will be plugging into a worldwide hyper linked network, where multiple forms of information from many sources can be quickly accessed, filtered, organized and processed. The telecom infrastructure must provide suitable support. Thus, the structured cabling system that is installed during a renovation has to support long term objectives for data and voice communications.

Voice and data lines The superior bandwidth and low signal loss over distance (attenuation) make optical fiber an attractive choice for supporting an office network. Fiber-optic cable can easily overcome the 100 meter total distance limitation of Category 5 UTP and allow the use of centralized optical fiber electronics. Let's look at a Chicago office site where true accessibility and flexibility are provided. Designers planned the electrical power distribution and the telecom system to meet current and future requirements.

Each workstation cubicle and each private office has eight electrical outlets and four Category 5 unshielded twisted-pair wall jacks (allowing for both modem and future video capability). As a result, any of the enclosed offices can be easily transformed into open, workstation space. Although voice and data lines are located on different wiring distribution frames in the facility's data center, cross-connection allows each distribution frame to borrow capacity from the other. Raceways and cable trays carry circuits under an access floor and deliver them up to spines in the modular furniture system. To limit harmonic disturbance caused by computers and other electronic equipment with switched power supplies, the design has five 20-A branch circuits for each group of six workstations.

Two branch circuits are for computers, two for noncomputer use and the fifth for two laser printers. A cellular phone network is linked to the firm's private branch exchange (PBX) system, allowing visitors to use the firm's 16 portable telephone sets within the office confines.

The office-to-home conversion Developers are also finding that obsolete office buildings are a prime source for creating residential apartments. Rendered "unrentable" by changes in the marketplace, increasing numbers of office buildings in downtown urban areas are being converted from offices to residences. Although these buildings vary in age, they typically have mechanical systems, infrastructures, and floor plates that make them ill-suited for today's needs. However, a number of developers have found that many of the office buildings built near the turn of the century have floor plates that are conducive to residential use. From a space layout standpoint, these buildings typically have widths of 55 ft to 70 ft that make for great double-loaded corridor residential units.

Other key considerations in determining suitability for conversion include suitable window areas, views, and the building's architectural significance. If the building meets these criteria, the developer may start to explore the idea of listing the structure on the National Register of Historic Places. This procedure may make the structure suitable for federal tax credits under the National Register of Historic Places. However, many times federal tax credits-typically 10%-aren't sufficient to support these projects. Local and/or state government must be willing to provide financing or tax abatement. In many cases, without city hall's assistance it's not going to happen.

In Chicago, for example, to spur office-building-to-resident conversions, city officials plan to use $300 million generated by the North Loop tax incremental finance district to provide infrastructure improvements and subsidies needed for redeveloping the East Loop and parts of the Central Loop.

This help can be a real boost for a developer because one of the tougher estimates is determining the demand for rental units. In a many cases it is not possible to measure the demand because the developer is "pioneering." Finding occupants is often complicated by the lack of amenities, such as parking and grocery stores, in office districts. Because a project has to attain a critical mass before retail comes in, a developer looks for consumers whose primary interest is living in the downtown area.