Tag Archive for #architecture

WFH is Here To Stay. But.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and spread across the US, we all became subjects in likely the greatest remote work and telecommuting experiment ever. Abruptly, and on an ad-hoc basis, millions of us brought our offices into our homes, and just kept on working. Overall, the work from home (WFH) experiment is succeeding. And not only that, it’s succeeding under conditions far less than ideal. It would be one thing if we were working at home and the kids were in school. But our kids are home, too, challenging us to balance both our kids’ needs and our bosses needs under the same roof at the same time.

We’ve learned, thanks to widely available broadband, home WiFi networks, and teleconferencing software that works remarkably well despite the security and data scraping issues, that physical offices aren’t really all that important anymore. We’ve been able to work effectively without them even if there have been some strains in the transition.

This lesson has not been lost on the C-Suite crowd. As we start to think about how to reopen offices, keeping public health and liability concerns front and center, they will not pass up the opportunity to shift their companies’ occupancy costs to their employees while they cut their companies’ office space requirements. The savings will drop right to the bottom line, and they’ll be richly rewarded as the stock-based part of their compensation zooms in value. While I’m familiar with the arguments about how “social” we all are, how we need to be with one another, and how important face-to-face collaboration is, we’ve proven by our actions that there is another way. And when management decides what’s best for the company, the matter is pretty much settled, especially in this time of record-high unemployment and spreading insecurity.

Looking ahead, I believe that we will see a lot of office space reduction in the coming year, whether in the form of consolidation, lease renegotiation wherever possible, greater use of reconfigured co-working or flex spaces, or other space-shedding strategies. And WFH will be a big part of the “new normal”. Overall, we’ll see lower head counts and more square feet per person, also known as lower density.

The office spaces that do survive this shift will be different. While the adjustment is just getting under way, changes are coming. The most obvious thing will be spreading out people in order to maintain social distancing, which is the only strategy proven effective in containing and controlling the spread of this terrible virus. And the impact will be significant. In New York, the ratio of worker to space dropped in recent years to as low as 80 square feet per person, as companies packed people in to manage their occupancy. Look for that allocation to at least double as employees are spaced further apart both for the sake of their health and the companies’ liability. Bench seating will become a relic of the recent past, and quickly. I doubt anyone will miss it.

Constant, routine daily cleaning and disinfecting will become the norm, both within office spaces and in building common areas. That will significantly increase operating and maintenance costs. Individual tenants will have to shoulder their own internal costs, but expect to see landlords trying to pass their increased costs through.

The concepts of attendance and start times will have to change. In nearly every office building, the elevators are the bottleneck. Queuing people up in the lobby spaced six feet apart, and limiting the number of people in each elevator at any time means that it will just not be possible to move people upstairs the way we used to just a few short months ago. When there is a vaccine, this problem may go away. Until then, expect to see a lot more flexibility in office starting times, limits on capacity beyond those imposed by office layout changes, work shift setups along the lines of factory work, and other concepts. Some will work and some won’t.

The biggest change will come when management looks carefully at how they use the space they have, and what their people actually do in that space. Then they’ll figure out how to prioritize which tasks actually have to be done onsite and reconcile those space needs in order to use less space more efficiently. Hoteling concepts are probably dead; after all, why pay for transient space when your people will work from home? We may see new designs for spaces for teamwork and collaboration onsite, taking into account social distancing criteria, while relying on WFH for what used to be individual offices or cubicles. An idea that may work in some businesses would be to keep everyone working remotely and only bring people in to make the important “in person” new business pitches or similar presentations. These are only a few ideas. There will be others.

Look for changes in mechanical systems. I think we’ll see new interest in increasing outside air changes, possibly ditching return air plenum designs in favor of ducted returns, attention paid to internal airflow, consideration given to operable windows, ultraviolet duct sanitizing systems used more widely, and other concepts. Proximity systems could also be expanded. Most office workers these days already have a key fob or ID card for access; there’s no reason they can’t be used to control a broader range of things. And hands-free washrooms could easily become the standard going forward.

Those are just some of the physical changes we can look forward to. As we start talking seriously about reopening, WFH needs to be developed from its ad-hoc format to a more fully featured way of working.

Home offices or workspaces have to be upgraded and improved. It’s one thing to spend a couple of months doing videoconferences with your laptop balanced on your knees as you juggle your notes, all the while backlit by the light pouring in your living room window as your fellow video conferees look up your nose. It’s another thing to spend a substantial part of your career that way. To really perform at one’s peak, remote workers need a comfortable workspace separate from the family. That requires dedicating a space in your home for work, in effect losing the use of it by you and your family. It also requires investment in the form of, possibly, physically modifying your home. There are also operating costs incurred, be they paper, printer cartridges, or other supplies that used to be available at the office. We may also see new house and apartment plans evolve to include a usable home office or workspace. Apartment dwellers, especially in the small units built in this current cycle, will be particularly challenged. One idea could be for their landlords to convert the ground floor retail spaces to intelligently, and safely, designed resident work spaces. Retail is failing, so this may be a way to make lemonade from lemons. No matter the solution, there is a value, and a cost to the employee to be accounted for.

We all have to learn new presentation skills. We may not all be anchormen or women, but we do need to improve the way we look on video. There are also a lot of tools and tricks to presenting oneself better on video, all of which are part of a truly successful WFH setup. Again, it takes investment in hardware, software, and training. And costs that the remote worker will have to bear.

The “time bleed” has to stop. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people working from home put in an extra three hours a day. While, as professionals, everyone accepts putting in some extra time as part of the landscape, three hours a day extends to 750 hours a year. Consider that a standard working year is around 1,900 hours; working an additional 750 hours is the same as putting in around an additional 40%. Since it would be naive to expect a commensurate raise, the solution is a social one. Companies and employees have to recognize that working from home requires clear limits and a clear understanding of start/stop times. Most important, employers must understand and respect these limits.

The tax laws need to change. By shedding office space and pushing the WFH model, companies are shifting their occupancy costs to the staff without compensation. Since all of this will be done as a cost-cutting move on the employers’ side, and since it’s unlikely that the companies will turn around and share those savings with the staff, the Federal and State governments should step in and do what employers can’t be expected to do: provide tax incentives or other rewards to people who work remotely. One way would be to drastically expand the range of office-at-home tax deductions. Another way would be a tax credit for individuals, in other words a dollar-for-dollar reduction of tax liability based on the annual value of an employee’s home office or workspace. Since the big companies have been vacuuming up all kinds of tax favors in recent years, not to mention stimulus dollars recently, it’s only fair that employees get their share.

Child care will be a bigger and more urgent issue. On one hand, having our children see what we do to put bread on the table can be a valuable part of learning and becoming a good citizen. On the other, our kids need us when they need us, and they can’t always be expected to understand the demands of working. The school day is also shorter than the work day, and so something has to close that gap. A good start would be respect and understanding of the family’s needs, and an acknowledgment that those needs really do have to be balanced with company’s needs. One solution could be a greater use of flex time, or shift setups that allow working couples to stagger their days to provide continuous child care. Another solution would be reliable, broadly accessible after school programs. Along with this, child care tax credits should be broadly expanded so that employees at all levels can get help with the cost of child care, whether it is day care, after school programs, special needs support, or other qualified activities that working parents need in order to attend to their children’s’ needs while performing at a high level while working from home.

The WFH experiment has, among other things, finally killed off the stigma of working from home. When I started my business, I worked from home, as have many others. I will never forget the sneers that greeted me when I acknowledged that, and the presumption that I was somehow less professional because I didn’t have an “Office”. But, when newscasters, entertainers, and even political candidates work from home, all of a sudden it’s OK. As companies of all sizes across the US push this, it will be even more OK. Meantime, the lack of an office is now an equalizer, and those of us who’ve been doing it for some time have the advantage: we’re space-efficient, nearly paper-free, and very tuned in to how we look on Zoom. Advantage the WFH crowd.

Make it Even Bigger

With yesterday’s announcement, Governor Cuomo brought a needed sense of urgency to the redevelopment of the Farley Post Office and Penn Station in Manhattan, a now nearly twenty year saga most notable for its total lack of progress.

It’s a great start, and an ambitious plan, but not ambitious enough. Here’s what should be on the table.

Evict Madison Square Garden. Back in 2013, the City Council wisely declined to grant MSG management a special permit to operate in perpetuity, and instead gave another ten years. The clock is ticking, and now it’s time for the Council to close ranks, dig in, and make it clear that MSG has to find another site, build it out, and vacate. No extensions.

Tear the Garden Down. It’s old, it’s outmoded, and the fact that a even Newark has a better-designed arena should be a regional embarrassment. It also sits on top of the busiest, most important train station in the country. No half measures here, no insertion of a glazed entry in place of the theater. Tear it all down and build a new, state-of-the art railway station that will serve the region for the next century or so.

Dump Moynihan Station. It’s a seductive repurposing of a building, a relic of 1970s design thinking that appeals only to the preservation/adaptive reuse crowd. For the rest of us, it’s a poorly conceived plan that would never be quite right. Not even Amtrak wanted any part of this one; even they didn’t want their waiting room a block away from the train platforms. If the project had been done twenty years or so ago, when first proposed, it would have been here already and we would have seen just how flawed the concept it. By living with it.

Move Madison Square Garden. Here’s a radical proposal: tear down the west half (or more) of the Farley Post Office and replace it with a new, up-to-date Madison Square Garden with all the amenities and features that a 21st century arena needs. Preserve the magnificent portico and principal façade on Eight Avenue and incorporate it into the new complex (rail and entertainment) in a creative way befitting the times we live in. As for the west half, yes, McKim, Mead & White designed it, but it’s a loading dock for heaven’s sake. Let’s preserve what’s worth saving and remake the rest in our contemporary image.

OK, how do we pay for all this? Fair question. The knee-jerk reaction these days seems to be to get a private sector developer onboard, give them a piece of the action, in this case the retail space, and turn them loose. The problem is, developers, like all business people, have their own agendas, which are usually not aligned with anything resembling the public good. The other problem is that this approach didn’t work with Related and Vornado in control of the Farley Post Office project, which is why they are out and a new RFP is coming. The alternative is Federal money, and lots of it; there’s a very strong argument that this is a national growth driver that deserves Federal money. Add to that a massive state bond financing, and a requirement that the private developer selected to build all this should be able to finance whatever piece of the action it gets upfront, and we should get there. You can read the NY Times article here http://nyti.ms/1THfP90.

Time to think really, really big. Maybe even huge.

Reflecting on 1 World Trade Center

With Michael Kimmelman weighing in on 1 World Trade Center earlier this week, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was an Associate at SOM back in the mid-1980s, where it was my privilege to work with many of the very talented architects and designers who eventually played leading roles in the design and construction of 1 World Trade Center.  Unfortunately, talent and hard work are too often placed in the service of disappointing ends.

While SOM’s execution is superb, Mr. Kimmelman’s overall assessment was too kind.

Even so, when SOM shoved Daniel Libeskind out of the way, and I have no doubt that their fingerprints are all over that one, we were done a great service.  Daniel Libeskind is really in the business of winning architectural competitions, a great business by the way, but not necessarily the same business as actually making the buildings that his renderings conjure up.  As seductive as the renderings may have been, and they were, and as heartfelt his accompanying “Memory Foundations” essay was, and it was the best part of his entire submission, the resulting buildings would have been even more disappointing than what was really built.  The fault, though, really lies in the plan, which was flawed from the beginning.

Before that beginning, there was a far better plan back in 2002, proposed by Beyer Blinder Belle, another well-known and very well regarded New York firm.  BBB’s plan clearly showed that they had reflected on the costly lessons learned from dozens of failed urban development projects since the 1960s.  Unlike the plan that finally took hold at the Trade Center site, BBB discarded many of the now-discredited planning strategies that go back nearly sixty years; more if you count the original sin, which is LeCorbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris from the 1920s.

Beyer Blinder Belle’s proposal charted a new course.  Streets destroyed for the construction of the original WTC would be restored.  The office space lost would be completely replaced, but in a series of smaller buildings, more appropriately and urbanely scaled.   There was an opportunity for mixed use development, so that people could live, work, dine, drink, meet, greet, take recreation, and enjoy fuller lives all in one neighborhood.  Open spaces would be woven into the new urban fabric, creating a harmonious rhythm of built and open, brick and green.  Many different architects would design individual buildings, creating variety, interest, and excitement.  There would, of course, be a memorial, perhaps more intimate and less bombastic than what is there.  And the economics would be more manageable, the growth more flexible and organic, responding to true market forces, not subvented ones.

The opportunity was there to reimagine urban development and redevelopment, and establish New York in its rightful place as the city where great ideas come from.  You can see at least some of that proposal here http://to.pbs.org/1nHZi6E

The reaction?  A resounding chorus of disdain and derision led by the late Herbert Muschamp, Mr. Kimmelman’s predecessor at the Times, and joined by the mainstream press, even, inexplicably, by Ada Louise Huxtable.

Mr. Muschamp, suffering from what I can only understand as a severe case of cultural inferiority, railed against BBB’s proposal, even going so far as to call it “blah, blah, and blah”, advocating instead a collection of office towers, each designed by a global superstar architect, arrayed as if in a kind of museum of late-career-toppers by the superannuated darlings of the global architectural press.  Mr. Muschamp seemed to believe that by building these things, New York would finally get “good” architecture.  The fact is, New York has lots of talented architects, and plenty of good buildings; while developers may need them to push their wares, New York as a city doesn’t need branded starchitect buildings the way, for example, Milwaukee needed its Calatrava, or China needs just about everything.

Chances are, given George Pataki’s delusions of national office, the Port Authority’s internal machinations, and the power of not only Larry Silverstein but the entire New York real estate business, no other plan stood a chance, and the press went along for the ride. Still, one has to wonder what form the discussion would have taken had Mr. Muschamp and others considered the logic of BBB’s plan, and advocated its more evolved thinking, instead of championing the outmoded ideas that have driven the planning of the Trade Center site.

There’s cause for cautious optimism here.  Mr. Kimmelman has had some success in his advocacy for the relocation of Madison Square Garden, the demolition of the current Garden, and the construction of a world-class new Penn Station.

That’s a project we all can, and should, get behind.