The Challenge and Promise of the Vertical Campus

Kay Sargent, director of workplace strategies at Lend Lease, explores why the vertical campus — as opposed to the suburban corporate campus of yesteryear — is the natural outcome of both urban regeneration and new city development.

GE-Electronics-Park
GE Electronics Park in Syracuse, New York, 1948. Image courtesy of the authors.

In recent years, the world’s population has experienced an unprecedented migration to urban settings. The shift is driving the growth and densification of cities worldwide. A 2104 study by the United Nations shows that 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban settings today; that percentage is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. That represents a projected increase of 2.5 billion urban dwellers, an influx that is not only transforming existing urban areas, but driving the development of new cities, as well.

This migration to urban settings comes with significant impact to designers, building owners, developers, and city planners. In this article, we’ll explore why — as we strive for more building efficiency, effectiveness, and employee engagement in this new landscape — the vertical campus is the natural outcome of both urban regeneration and new city development.

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How the suburban corporate campus came to life

The suburban corporate campus model that many of us are familiar with was defined over decades and was originally the result of a backlash to the poor living and working conditions of the 19th century industrial city. During the Great Depression, city planners developed several major design movements to mitigate the poor conditions. These movements often encouraged migration to more rural settings, inspiring the development of the first suburban campuses.

In 1952, Business Week made this bold statement about GE’s new suburban R&D campus in upstate New York, pictured above:

“Work goes on in a campus-like atmosphere that the brainy youngsters” — emphasis ours — “seem to go for.”

With that, they defined the primary asset of the new environment as its ability to attract young talent in a place well beyond the reach of the (then) undesirable urban environment. The model was, and often still is, based upon the principle of segregation — designing separate spaces and facilities for living, working, learning, and playing. The goal was to focus on and maximize the functional aspects of each, resulting in siloed building types. Greenbelts surrounded city components, and industry was separated from independent zones for housing, offices, recreation, and circulation. The corporate campus was borne on the backs of these principles and revved up the pace of decentralization that has long shaped our cities.

The balance between suburban and urban workplaces is now tipping in favor of denser working and living conditions. Today, we are focused on more blended, mixed-use solutions that are revitalizing urban zones and catering to neo-urbanites.

Louise Mozingo, a professor of environmental planning and design at UC Berkeley, notes that if your office was expanding in the post-war economy, you had three choices of location:

  • Downtown presence at a relatively high price;
  • Small offices in suburban retail zones with limited parking; and
  • Newer planned districts at the urban periphery.

By the end of the 1950s, the market for exclusively white-collar facilities in the suburbs spurred private investment in office parks. These quiet campus-like environments were most often self-contained, small tracts of land. Strict control of setbacks, landscaping, land-use, and design features resulted in orderly, controlled environments. That, coupled with the expansion of urban highway networks, created a suburban landscape dotted with office parks by the 1980s. The onset of urban flight was clearly in motion.

In reality, cities and towns have suffered from strategies that segregated functions and favored vehicular movement. Although efficient and economical in terms of construction and management, the resulting places do little for social cohesion and cannot be mistaken for diverse, vibrant neighborhoods. Despite decades of suburban growth, a new model is emerging today. The balance between suburban and urban workplaces is now tipping in favor of denser working and living conditions. Today, we are focused on more blended, mixed-use solutions that are revitalizing urban zones and catering to neo-urbanites.

A look at the emerging urban campus typology

There are two paths emerging as the world copes with these population shifts. The first is the regeneration of urban areas within all global cities. In the U.S. alone, there are over 87 billion square feet of commercial space, providing tremendous opportunities to upgrade and repurpose for new uses. The second is the development of new cities in previously uninhabited areas of the developing world. These new urban centers — like Xian, with a 5 year growth projection of 523 percent, or Chengdu with a 435 percent projected growth in the coming years — are developing at a tremendous pace, according to a report by McKinsey Global Institute. Based on statistics from the same study in India alone, a city the size of Chicago needs to be built every year for the next ten years just to keep up with demand.

Rapid expansion brings with it the challenge and responsibility to use resources wisely, improve infrastructure, and develop the social fabric of cities, resulting in the definition of a more sustainable model for the future.

The migration to urban settings comes with significant impact to designers, building owners, developers, and city planners. Rapid expansion brings with it the challenge and responsibility to use resources wisely, improve infrastructure, and develop the social fabric of cities, resulting in the definition of a more sustainable model for the future.

The shift is also being fueled by the millennial generation’s propensity to work and live in vibrant locations that don’t require owning a car, as well as newly retired baby boomers seeking to downsize and live in city centers. Both seek similar things: accessible amenities, proximity to activities, and a thriving culture that blends work, community, and personal settings. Urban environments must also be livable. A metric by The Economist ranked five essential factors and their relative contribution to livability:

  • Stability, 25 percent
  • Culture and environment, 25 percent
  • Healthcare, 20 percent
  • Infrastructure, 20 percent
  • Education, 10 percent

Urbanites are seeking a mix of housing, retail, entertainment, dining, and easily accessible work places. The combination of these spaces in enlivened urban cores spur investment and development, and raise the quality of life for urbanites. As a result, cities throughout the world are embracing an increasingly dense future, and to do so, they must leverage verticality.

How to “think vertically”

In a 2015 study, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) identified the distinction between nine-to-five downtown markets and 24-hour urban markets as the key to superior investment performance. Trends in capital flows, occupancy rates, and relative pricing changes help define this distinction. The “24-hour city” concept has become part of the common lexicon of the real estate industry and of city planners. For economic viability, density is required and cities-within-the-city turn the streets up into the air and stack daytime and nighttime use of the land, leveraging a mix of co-dependent activities within the same structures. The challenges of today — rapidly rising land costs, limited or aging infrastructure, zoning restrictions, shifting demographics, tightening economic drivers, and escalating environmental concerns — are driving the upward development of communities and blending of zones within buildings. The vertical campus, in the form of progressive high-rise towers, incorporates a variety of settings and amenities that support working, living, and playing.

The vertical campus, in the form of progressive high-rise towers, incorporates a variety of settings and amenities that support working, living, and playing.

Of course, the vertically stacked model is not without its challenges. In developed cities, urban planners are challenged by pre-existing density and fixed infrastructure readiness. In emerging centers, developers are often starting from scratch with limited infrastructure, services, and utilities. Orientation, parking, security, and local amenities are often undefined or unreliable in many developments, hence the emergence of self-contained districts or communities within the greater city.

Table courtesy of the authors.

Internally, the vertical campus is challenged by height and increased density and the ease of access for occupants. Connectivity externally with the surrounding community and internally between occupants distributed on stacked floors is a key part of creating a sense of place and community. Other components that need to be addressed for a successful vertical campus model include:

  1. Connectivity

    In the idealized campus setting, the ability to create vertical connectivity and compelling spaces for interaction is primary. Vertical connectivity is encouraged by features such as sweeping interior atriums, interconnecting stairs, and atrium-oriented balconies linked to each floor by stairway. To further activate the space, link bridges, common gathering spaces, and meeting rooms are contained within the atrium.

  1. Convenience

    Sky lobbies and common space off the atrium are often used to create a place for convenient satellite services and serve as a point of congregation. These “activity hubs in the sky” can significantly shorten travel times between work areas and spaces that provide social relief as well as common services. They amplify (without replacing) functions that are provided in the work settings, and their constituents tend to be more localized, bringing groups and teams together, allowing for cross fertilization.

  1. Amenities

    The desire for convenience includes meeting work and personal needs via on-site or adjacent amenities. Highly sought after spaces include coworking or communal workspace, food and beverage service, retail shops, fitness facilities (both indoors and out), banking, concierge, medical clinics, auditoriums and conference centers, gardening areas, and prayer rooms. In the vertical campus, these amenities are more likely to belong “to the building” as opposed to any one occupying group.

  1. Multi-use conversion

    Buildings today need to be designed to not only adapt to changing tenant needs but changing functional needs, as well. Hence the emergence of mixed-used facilities. As regional needs shift, so must the ability for the vertical campus to scale up or down on housing needs, office needs, and retail and/or service needs. What start as apartments may morph into hotel rooms. Office space might convert to retail zones. This type of “emerge/exit strategy” planning is common in more traditional campus environments where multiple buildings are involved but is essential to the long term success of the vertical campus, as well.

  1. Connection to nature

    The desire for access to natural elements, not just to natural daylight, has resulted in the introduction of biophilic elements, living green walls, emphasis on views and vistas, and outdoor patios and terraces throughout the vertical campus. This will often include leveraging rooftop space to capitalize on views.

As important as these success factors are, occupant experience is still the underlying driver and the most important determinant of success. As new urbanites and millennials establish themselves, they are looking to work, live, and socialize within a tight, manageable environment. There is an underlying desire for urban authenticity. They seek cities that are walkable, vibrant, have easy and accessible transportation, and provide social and professional experiences. We cannot lose focus on the fact that we are designing space for people; their needs are paramount.

The right floor plate is the key to success

There are the obvious differences between horizontally and vertically oriented campuses, e.g., outward expansion versus upward, predominantly suburban location versus urban, larger floor plates versus more compact ones. But there is also a fundamental difference in how they each connect people, and the values of the organization generally establish the preference. More traditional suburban campuses connect horizontally with visual contact being the key. Vertical campuses connect vertically through stacked floors, potentially linked by open atriums, light wells, stairs, and elevator cores.

In the vertical environment, few things can influence success more than an efficient floor plate, as there are many of them, and the manner in which they are stacked and then linked is critical. To ensure the earlier claim of “most sustainable urban development model” with efficiencies approaching 90 percent, getting the following criteria right is key:

  1. Efficiency

    Highly efficient floor plates are due to:

  • Structural and planning grid alignment, enhancing efficient planning;
  • Perimeter columns, maximizing tenant flexibility; and
  • Net to gross target for base building efficiency nearing 90 percent.
  1. Effectiveness

    A key contributor is in providing physical and visual “continuity” with an optimal module to support the dominance of team-based work. The most effective attributes include:

  • Creation of high quality team-based environments for knowledge exchange through physical and/or visual connections;
  • Supporting ease of accommodating alternate configurations; and
  • Ease of reconfiguration of tenancy layouts to suit changing business needs.
  1. Depth of space

    Specifically to gauge the penetration of natural light in support of:

  • Quality work environments beneficial to human health and productivity;
  • Quality social environments for human interaction; and
  • Quality environmental outcomes including the reduction of operating costs.
  1. Sub-divisibility

    The potential for a floor plate to be sub-divided into multiple tenancies, all with good entrances, egress, and configurations, providing:

  • Optimum options for landlords to meet tenant demands with flexible spaces; and
  • Tenant occupation flexibility to suite changing organizational requirements.
  1. Office floor efficiencies

    The prevalence of stacked office floors demanded a focus on efficiency. Floor plate planning embraced the following tenets:

  • Activate arrival spaces around the stair and through the core;
  • Concentrate built space against the core to allow access to light and increase views for all staff;
  • Create a network of pathways to connect vertically and horizontally across the floors;
  • Create collaborative spaces at nodal points between neighborhoods and locate meeting spaces throughout the building to promote movement and integration of teams across floors;
  • Dedicate large blocks of space for built zones which do not break the contiguous nature of the floor plate, in order to maintain connectivity of staff; and
  • Locate public shared spaces at the atrium edge to activate the space and connect building occupants.

What the emerging work environment looks like

Many factors contribute to the development of corporate environments. Building the ideal workplace is about choice, agility, and balance. Work environments today are changing as well to support the blending of work/life/play patterns. The workplace of the future needs to be flexible and agile to respond to the constant change we are experiencing today. People desire healthy environments that are sustainable and support human-centric well-being. Businesses strive for efficient and effective spaces that foster innovation and support employee fulfillment. To achieve it, spaces need to have a strong sense of place, be both horizontally and vertically connected, connect to natural daylight and views, and, of course, exude an energetic buzz.

The vertical campus successfully integrates the physical qualities and social aspirations of the idealized campus in a vertical application.

To achieve this we need to embrace the notion that one solution misfits all. Providing a variety of spaces and choices that can accommodate the various tasks the workers of today are faced with should all be part of the equation. The value of connections and relationships is increasingly recognized as more valuable than the knowledge of individuals, especially as we are entering the age of the nomadic worker. It is predicted that, by 2020, 40 percent of the population will be contingent workers. Supply and demand for the talent means the workplace must be designed to attract the best and brightest. We need to create space that gives people choices and allows for concentrating, collaborating, socializing, and learning. Work was a place with boundaries, now work is generally accepted as occurring anywhere at any time. Work was once a place focused on “me” space; now work is about shared, collaborative “we” space.

Over the past several decades, perspectives of the idealized workplace from the various stakeholders on a societal, municipal, organizational, and individual employee level have changed considerably. Each idealized campus — the suburban low rise, the denser urban mid-rise, the densest vertical high-rise — has had both positive and negative attributes which ultimately balance if properly aligned with occupant goals and aspirations. For the past 50 years, there has been a preference for workplaces in suburban settings. But now we are facing a considerable trend toward urbanization, and our focus must shift towards solutions for creating the urban experience people are seeking today.

The vertical campus successfully integrates the physical qualities and social aspirations of the idealized campus in a vertical application. Urban planners, developers, and design firms are looking to create authentic experiences with functional spaces in vibrant communities. A vital element to their continued success is enabling the ability to incorporate flexible design strategies so the building can adapt over time. The vertical campus is the natural outcome of both urban regeneration and new city development as we drive for building efficiency, effectiveness and employment engagement.

Steve Hargis, a global consulting leader at Woods Bagot, also contributed to this article.
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1 Comment

  • So if we are going vertical (and I agree with Kay) why don’t we expand the idea to offer people little escape conversation pods adjacent to elevators. Like we have little quiet areas all over open plan floors. The elevator ‘pitch’ last maybe 30 seconds. If it is engaging why not hop off and spend 15 minutes chatting and then get back on? Just a random design thought.

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