Landing Tenants, Evading Costly Construction Is Driving U.S. Speculative Office Development To New Heights

Following the Great Recession, many developers this cycle have been hesitant to move forward on office projects without a tenant signed to avoid the mistakes of the last downturn. But some have changed their tune of late and say, to capture a new era of business and avoid higher construction costs, shovels need to hit the ground posthaste. 

The 130M SF of total U.S. office product under construction at the end of 2018 is down from a cyclical high of 136M SF at the end of 2016, according to CoStar Market Analyst David Pierce. Speculative office development, or development without a tenant attached, is up 37% over the past two years, accounting for just over 46M SF of office currently under construction. 

Developers around the country say it all comes down to capturing tenants in a late cycle and avoiding high construction costs that don’t appear to be abating anytime soon. A continuing trade war with China, which is already driving the cost of U.S. infrastructure projects higher, also threatens to escalate prices for already costly office projects. 

“I think if you were to poll the real estate community in Boston and top-tier markets, those who go spec first generally win,” Boston-based Skanska USA Executive Vice President and Regional Manager Charley Leatherbee said. “In order to harvest and get these tenants, you have to have product available.” 

Skanska is no stranger to speculative office development, both in Boston and elsewhere in the U.S. The developer went spec on the 400K SF office component at 121 Seaport in Boston’s Seaport District. The building is now fully leased to Alexion Pharmaceuticals and technology company PTC and sold in December for $455M. The developer is also going spec on Two Drydock, a $128M, 225K SF office in the Seaport. 

Skanska has also built spec office projects in Seattle and Houston, and Leatherbee attributes the success to tenants needing space quicker than ever in leading markets. The days of companies inking leases as far as five years in advance are over. Skanska in particular is looking to capture business from rapidly growing companies with immediate space needs. In Boston, Leatherbee sees no problem in going spec on projects around 500K SF, but cautions against going much larger.