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Drawing up a brief

A detailed building brief is a vital tool for a property search, whether or not you are working with an agent. It will spell out what you are looking for and ensure that the search is as focused as possible. This page clarifies the key requirements you should consider when putting together your brief:

You will need to decide which of these requirements are essential and which are desirable.

The 3 ways of buying a property

There are three main ways of buying a property. You may need to be flexible in order to get the building you want, but it is worth being aware of the differences and implications of the various types of ownership. 

1. Buying the freehold

This is ‘absolute’ ownership, which will give you a right to use the property as you see fit - subject to planning consent and any restrictions etc. registered on the building with the Land Registry (for example, any right of way or outstanding mortgage).

2. Buying a long lease or ‘virtual freehold’

A long lease would be, for example, one lasting 999 years. This type of purchase usually requires you to pay a premium or purchase price, similar to buying a freehold (see above).  However, the lease might also include:

  • payment of a regular ground rent to the Freeholder (this is usual but is sometimes a nominal sum)
The exact terms of the lease will be a matter for negotiation between you and the landlord.

3. Buying an existing long lease

Buying a pre-existing long leasehold interest from the previous tenant is known as an assignment. In this case, you will have to accept the terms of the lease in its current form unless you can agree any variations with the landlord.
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Size of property needed

The size of an office space is usually quoted in square feet. The amount of space you will need will depend on your organisation and how you plan to use the space, but as a general rule of thumb you will require 80 to 100 square feet of office space per desk (if space is quoted in square metres multiply by 10.76 to get the area in square feet).

The questions below will help you work out the space and facilities you require:

  • how many desk spaces do you need?
  • do you need to allow space for extra furniture (eg. bookshelves or cupboards), meetings rooms, kitchens or IT equipment such as a server?
  • do you need additional storage or archive space (either in the main office or elsewhere in the building)?
  • do you want an open plan office, or separate rooms for different teams? Open plan offices are more space efficient and cheaper.
  • do you plan to expand (or contract) significantly in the next few years? If you plan to expand, you may need to take extra space now ready for this.
  • do you have any disabled employees who require additional space or facilities or will you have visitors with such needs?
Follow this link to use our Space Calculator for a rough estimate of the size of space you'll need.

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Types of space 

A whole building   

Buying a whole building will suit your organisation if you:

  • need your premises to have a higher profile; and
  • want to have greater control over the whole building

However, you will need to commit time and resources to the day-to-day management of the whole property and you will be responsible for arranging all services (for example, cleaning and waste disposal).

A floor or unit within a mixed use building

Long leasehold (or Virtual Freehold) floors or units within a larger building are often referred to as ‘Strata Floors’. They are becoming more common as local authorities encourage developers to create mixed use schemes which incorporate offices, residential and retail use.

The management of the building as a whole is likely to be dealt with by a management company appointed by the Landlord. This means you won’t have to worry about managing the external maintenance of their building. However, you will sacrifice complete control of the space and may have to pay a service charge to a management company, who may or may not be good at managing the building.

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Location

Location is probably the biggest factor affecting the cost of a property. More fashionable postcodes attract higher office costs. However, many cities have relatively central regeneration areas where property may be cheaper. Unless your work requires a specific location, it is worth doing some research to understand what you can get for your money in different areas.

Other factors that might influence your location include:

Accessibility

  • do you need to be near transport links or in the centre of town so that clients and visitors can reach you easily?
  • is there accessible parking for use by disabled staff and visitors?
  • are there accessible routes leading to and within your new building?

Staff

  • where do your employees live? How will different locations affect their commuting time and costs?
  • are any of your employees disabled and have access requirements?
  • you need to consider the security of your staff - are there areas where they will not feel safe coming and going late at night or early in the morning?

Other organisations

  • do you need to be located near partner organisations, clients or organisations you are seeking to influence? There are often areas in towns and cities where charities cluster together.

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Quality of space

The quality of office you want will also impact upon the price you'll have to pay. Offices are usually referred to as Primary, Secondary or Tertiary. 

If you calculate what you can afford as a basic cost in £ per square foot (use our Space Calculator to help you), you can then discuss this with an agent. They will be able to tell you what kind of property is available at that price in the areas you prefer.

Primary, or 'Category A'

Considered the best quality space, it therefore costs the most. It will have air-conditioning, raised floors and lifts.

Secondary office

Usually slightly older and of a slightly lower quality. It is unlikely to have features like air-conditioning.

Tertiary

Poor quality space. Although it will be cheaper to buy, it may entail higher service costs and potentially bad working conditions.

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Use of space

It is essential to check that the premises can be used for the activities you have in mind. The activities allowed in the premises depend on the 'use class' allocated under planning permission and the terms of any lease you are taking.

Office premises in England and Wales are allocated the use class B1 (follow this link for the DCLG website for a full list of use classes) In Scotland, office premises have use class 2 or 4. If in doubt about the use class of the premises, you should phone or visit the local council's planning department.

If you want to change the use of the premises, say from a shop to an office, you will need to obtain planning permission. Applying for a change of use involves time, effort and expense, so you should try to get an informal opinion from the council before you start. Most councils have a 'Duty Planning Officer' to give this sort of advice without the need for an appointment.

Property purchases are sometimes carried out subject to obtaining planning permission or a change of use. In this case a purchaser will agree to exchange contracts with the Vendor on the understanding that they will not complete the purchase if the agreed planning permission or change of use is not achieved. This type of purchase is obviously more complex and we would therefore strongly recommend solicitors' and surveyors' advice is sought before entering into any such agreement so that you avoid becoming tied into buying a property which cannot be used as you had intended.

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Disability access

If your organisation is classed as a service provider, employer or both, then, according to the Equality Act 2010, you may be required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to policies, procedures and practices so that you do not discriminate against disabled people. 

Consider how your building will impact upon the accessibility of your organisation. If you have a disabled member of staff, take them with you when you view potential buildings so that they can assess the access first hand. With freehold (and long leasehold properties, subject to landlord approval), you are able to make alterations to a building as you see fit to ensure the building is accessible.

Follow the link for a downloadable basic checklist which you can use to assess the accessibility of the building you are looking at: Accessibility checklist.pdf

Follow this link for more information about your responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 as an employer or service provider.

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Environmental performance

Charities are increasingly aware of the importance of minimising their impact on the environment. Global climate change disproportionately affects the poorest people in society. Without taking steps to minimise their climate change contribution, charities can risk exacerbating the problems many of them strive to tackle.

Stakeholders are increasingly making the links between the work of charities and the environmental agenda, and both funders and supporters tend now to actively seek evidence that charities are addressing this issue.

The building you occupy is likely to be one of the biggest contributors to your environmental impact so it is worth considering this when you are looking at potential properties.

The environmental performance of a building can be assessed by looking at three key areas:

Building fabric

The walls, roof, windows and other structural aspects of the property will affect its energy efficiency. If you are making a freehold or long leasehold purchase you are likely to be in a position to make more changes to the fabric of the building during any refurbishment and to recoup the benefits of any investments you make.

Services

This includes the services you run in the building, including heating, lighting systems and waste disposal. If you are purchasing a whole building you are more likely to be managing it yourself and therefore have more control over the services provided and the way the building is run. 

Behaviour of occupants

Can staff open windows to ventilate rooms or will they have to rely on an air-conditioning system? Can staff get to work easily via public transport or will they need to travel by car? Think about how any potential building will help enable the occupants of the building to behave in the most environmentally friendly way.

Energy Performance Certificates

Since 2008, an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) will be required on any construction, sale or letting of commercial premises.

A request for a copy of the building’s EPC will form part of the purchasing solicitor’s standard enquiries.

In terms of deciding whether or not a building is suitable, some organisations may consider a high-scoring EPC is essential (for example, if the charity is heavily involved in the promotion of sustainability and environmental issues). Others may decide that a good, although not necessarily the highest scoring, EPC is enough.

Follow this link to Learn more about running a green office.

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