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Preservation that pays

METICULOUS restoration is costly and charming old buildings that stand empty don't pay for themselves. But boutique business in preserved and modernized buildings can pay the bills, reports Nancy Zhang.

There are boutique shops, boutique restaurants and boutique hotels. Now the desire for small-scale, beautifully designed spaces full of character has extended into the usually drab workplace.

Boutique offices are the opposite of traditional, dull, stuffy, uniform spaces where workers toil in rows. The trend toward boutique, though small, is also good news for preserving historic architecture.

Shanghai's lane houses and old-style villas are perfect for boutique businesses, which in turn make preservation commercially viable.

In an earlier article (Pondering Preservation, December 15, 2008), we explored how renovated old buildings can provide an inspiring environment, especially suited to small offices in the creative and dynamic industries.

Purists may complain that conversion to commercial use defiles the original building and its intent. Pragmatists point out, however, that renovation and maintenance are costly and say empty, museum-like restorations are not self-sustaining.

Opened late last year, Oasis Boutique Office on Baoqing Road is a commercial success that realizes this idea. Preservation that pays off.

The renovations and non-toxic paint and materials cost more than 3 million yuan (US$438,800), definitely on the high side, and took around three months.

In a grand, three-story villa, there are only 15 offices, each distinct in size, shape and character. Its tenants are small-scale entrepreneurial and creative industries.

"Offices don't have to be sterile, square boxes; they can be bright, interesting places," says Ben Ling, founder of Vinyl Group that designed and financed the project.

"We always look for low-rise places full of character," he says.

Tenants so far include foreign media offices, advertising companies and an environmental NGO.

The business model caters to their needs with flexible rental periods and full office services provided.

The office on Baoqing Road is the second development of Oasis Boutique Office projects and is a sign of increasing demand.

The first Oasis is an office on Taicang Road, near Xintiandi. Though new and completely modern, it was infused with innovative references to nature, such as corridors lined with real bamboo frozen inside layers of frosted glass.

With the new property, however, Ling's team found the old architecture provided the ideal warmth and human elements usually lacking in traditional high-rise offices.

The concept for the renovation stems from the conflicts between old and new.

"This contrast is what Shanghai is all about," says Ling. "It is what foreigners find so mysterious about China ?? the fact that there is so much history and culture and yet it is also brand new."

But Ling is less interested in the history of the place as its current character. He doesn't know how the villa was used over the years.

By the time he found it, the house was a run-down kindergarten, the last of a long line of modern reincarnations.

Perhaps not delving into the past reflects the relative youth of the designers. Vinyl's three founders ?? Ben Ling, Berwin Tanco and Noel Lee ?? are in their mid-30s, and met five years ago at parties in Shanghai.

The small, locally based design firm has since worked on many ultra-modern interiors for Shanghai clubs such as Mao, Bling and Bar Rouge.

They bring many innovations to historical renovation in the building on Baoqing Road.

Offices are fitted with new furniture and state-of-the-art facilities; the color scheme is a fresh burst of white and lime green.

Designers retain the original dark wood-framed windows, carved wood staircases, doors with period details, and high ceilings. An outdoor roof terrace gives workers a place to relax.

The building plays with the idea of old and new: Stainless steel and leather chairs in the lobby are in the semi-circular shapes of those found in traditional courtyard homes.

Antique tables in the meeting rooms have transparent glass tabletops replacing the original wood. The construction and ornate legs are visible. In the loft offices, the original wooden ceiling is hung with minimalist rectangular fluorescent lights.

The environment is a major concern. Vinyl has used environmentally friendly, imported paint from the Netherlands for all interior work.

This is extremely important, says Ling, as many widely used paints give off toxic fumes. Other green features include recycled wood used in the patio.

Ling, who has renovated old private homes, says offices are easier because there are fewer personal requirements. It is a matter of providing enough Internet connections, power outlets and predicting needs such as collapsible walls for expanding businesses.

But the process of renovating an old property is never easy.

"It's unpredictable, which is scary and interesting at the same time. If you take down a part of a wall, maybe the whole thing will come down," says Ling.

Renovation took place during the rainy season and the roof started leaking. Soon large parts of the roof were collapsing. Working on an old building means you have to allow extra time and money.

Renovation of historic property costs more than ordinary renovation - this one cost more than 3 million yuan and took three months, not long.

Green features, such as recycled materials, non-toxic paint and upholstery, cost more than conventional materials. Thus, they are often sacrificed in conventional building projects.

Fortunately for the Baoqing Road office and its tenants, the designers were also the financiers, so they didn't have to compromise.


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