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Commercial Real Estate

CRE Opinion: An Architectural Perspective

The distinguishing elements of Class A versus AA (Trophy Class) office buildings.
By |
Boka Powell
Don Powell of BOKA Powell Architects

Defining the criteria by which we judge the quality of office buildings is often tainted by marketing spin and attempts to justify higher rents for buildings of lesser value. One can understand the logic of a prospective tenant saying, “I know a trophy class building when I see it, but I cannot tell you specifically what sets it apart.” Here, I will outline some of the definitive elements that separate Class A from AA—but it remains the “wow” factor that sets them apart.


The initial “wow” moment may come as one perceives the building from a half-mile away, or upon arrival at the motor court, or when the grand lobby unfolds before them. An extraordinary impression is the minimum standard. A memorable experience that will last for decades is more aligned with the notion of AA or Trophy Class.

“Iconic architecture” is a term that is used far too often. One’s ability to describe a building using a few carefully chosen words, or a sketch that is immediately recognizable with a few strokes of a pen begins to illustrate the idea of iconicity or correspondence between form and meaning. Can an office building measure up to the standards historically reserved for religious and cultural symbols? The simple answer is, probably not. It is, however, more realistic to simply compare office buildings to one another. Today, modern cities are recognizable by the silhouettes of office buildings in much the same way that cathedrals defined European cityscapes of the past. On that basis, office buildings can become significant and break through to iconic status. Corporate image is enhanced when a building itself becomes meaningful to a community, a region, a country, or globally.

Reality: Outward Expression

At some point the class comparison discussion centers on tangible elements. The “wow” factor is important to the observer on several different levels. A building can be recognizable on the city skyline or within its neighborhood context. The manner in which the building profile pierces the sky or the illumination of architectural surfaces at night can establish a distinct office building identity from blocks away.

Conventional thinking for a Class A office building envelope would dictate a modest expenditure of one-half to one and one-half percent of the core and shell budget for architectural elements located above the highest occupied floor. Rooftop mechanical and elevator equipment rooms are always carefully screened and integrated architecturally with the body of the building and in accordance with the style of the architecture. Class AA office buildings frequently celebrate the top of the building by employing soaring planes of glass and metal to establish a unique signature element on the skyline. Three to six percent of the core and shell construction budget may be expended for the skyline “move.” Trophy Class buildings deliver multiple layers of detail and complexity starting at the base or podium, with threads of primary, secondary and tertiary elements rising through the body and culminating in a visual crescendo above the roof line.

Corporate signage is often considered mandatory under lease terms. When properly integrated, signage can reinforce architectural hierarchy or emphasize an important element of the design. A signage belt course at the top of the podium or a monolithic façade element can serve to ground the signage while adding variety and hierarchy to the overall fenestration. At its best, signage adds to the perception of quality and stability. There are numerous office buildings, such as the Transamerica Tower, Citicorp Headquarters, or the Chrysler Building, that have become meaningful symbols of the corporations they serve.

When You’ve Arrived: The Public Side

The arrival experience is very important to both Class A and AA building occupants.

Class A building entrances must be smartly landscaped with enhanced paving, stylish outdoor furniture, and architectural lighting. A visitor or prospective tenant should find convenient parking or standing space close to the front door. The main lobby of a Class A building should be inspiring and reassuring, with no less than 3,500 square feet of floor area, 18’ minimum ceiling heights, granite flooring, comfortable seating groups, and high-end architectural finishes throughout. Class A buildings should utilize a revolving door at the primary entrance with vestibules at secondary entries. The lobby ceiling should be treated as an important surface and thus incorporate articulated architectural surfaces and custom lighting.

The Trophy Class building arrival procession should incorporate a significant motor court, porte-cochere, a water feature, noteworthy public sculpture, and through skillful manipulation of the aforementioned elements, evoke the second “wow” sensation. Valet parking should be provided, although visitor parking in a parking structure can be effective if the space is properly finished and lit, with an elegant vestibule connection to the lobby. Soft background music and scented walkways from the garage to the lobby may be incorporated to enhance the sensory perception.

The lobby of the Class AA building must reinforce the stature of the building and create a memorable impression. The scale of the lobby is critical. Ceilings 20′-25′ create the sixth surface of a space expansive enough to overwhelm the observer. Granite floors should be provided throughout except for wool carpeted inlay areas at seating groups. Five-star hospitality quality is the standard for finishes, lighting, and furniture. A lobby concierge/security station should be visible and convenient to guests and tenants. A public area art program should be considered in either scheme. Class AA buildings should incorporate museum quality sculptures and paintings equating to at least 1 percent of the gross construction cost.

Amenities and Other Intangibles

Office building occupants can effectively share a corporate living room, conference center, fitness facility with showers/locker rooms, and a coffee internet lounge. Vibrant retail, restaurants, hotel, and entertainment areas must be situated within walking distance of the office building as a value add to the office users. Class A and AA tenants must find suitable quality, variety, and level of service in order to be of mutual benefit. Care must be taken to direct vehicular traffic to secured parking areas that serve the office users independently of the others on-site. It is possible to take advantage of countercyclical peak hour demands for office and hotel guest parking and enhance the overall tenant experience. 

Donald R. Powell, Jr., AIA, NCARB is principal-in-charge at BOKA Powell Architects.

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