What will become of all the office space sitting vacant since the pandemic? With many remote workers showing no signs of returning to their cubicles, developers are exploring new ways to revitalize these once-bustling commercial properties. One potential solution: light manufacturing.

With its expansive parking lot, leafy surroundings, and brick exterior, 8 Federal St. in Billerica, Massachusetts, looks like any other suburban business park, but step inside and you’ll see an exposed concrete floor where you’d imagine beige nylon carpet and machinery where there used to be desks. Gone too is a good portion of the second floor, which was removed to allow 32 feet of clear height to accommodate storage and racking.

“As you might imagine, suburban office space is not a particularly great asset these days,” says John O’Leary, project manager at Rhino Capital Advisors.

The Boston-based developer acquired the 80,000-square-foot building, previously occupied by a biopharmaceutical company, in January 2021 with plans to attract some kind of manufacturing tenant.

But converting the property into a state-of-the-art industrial facility required more than remodeling. The costly, inefficient electric heating system needed to be overhauled, and fuel was required to power manufacturing equipment. Located in the outskirts of Boston, the building was too far removed from the nearest natural gas line.

Propane, on the other hand, was readily available to get the project moving.

Eastern Propane & Oil installed four 1,000-gallon propane tanks at 8 Federal St. in Billerica, Massachusetts, to support a new manufacturing tenant.

O’Leary worked with Darren Germain, commercial sales manager at Eastern Propane & Oil, a full-service propane and oil company serving New England. The two determined that, not only was an electric-to-propane conversion possible, but it would also provide real cost savings by upgrading the old electric rooftop HVAC units to lower-cost propane-powered heat.

“We were able to definitively, confidently say to folks that yes, we will be bringing in propane, which will allow service to any potential gas equipment that might be necessary and also just overall reduce utility bills,” O’Leary recalls.

Today, 8 Federal St. is the headquarters of Boston Materials. The company makes carbon fiber composite materials for building products, ground transportation, and electronics, among other applications. The custom facility includes a factory, warehousing, and machine shops on the first floor, and office space and R&D labs on the second.

The project called for four 1,000-gallon tanks to meet the Btu demand of the new rooftop HVAC units, the manufacturing equipment, and a large make-up air unit that exhausts condensation, a byproduct of the manufacturing process. Germain worked closely with local officials to smooth the way for the propane installation. That required securing an engineer to draw up the plans, getting a license from the fire chief, and working with the health and building departments to get the green light.

Germain and O’Leary are proud to breathe new life into the property, which provides enough space for Boston Materials to expand if needed and quadruple its manufacturing output.

Photos from Rhino Capital Advisors and Eastern Propane & Oil.