Why The World’s Most Innovative Companies Are Stuck In 20th-Century Offices

And who’s getting it right.

Why The World’s Most Innovative Companies Are Stuck In 20th-Century Offices
[Photo: cheng8/iStock]

When Apple talks about its new Cupertino campus, the company almost always refers to its 2.8-million-square-foot Foster + Partners-designed ring. It speaks about the technical complexity of achieving a curved glass structure and boasts about the 30-acre park inspired by fruit orchards at its core. Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, proudly proclaimed it to be “one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world.”


But here’s a dirty secret: Most of the new structures on the 175-acre campus weren’t constructed for employees tasked with fulfilling Apple’s innovation mandate; they were designed for gas-guzzling, exhaust-spewing cars. Apple had to build 11,000 parking spaces for the campus’s 12,000 employees. Square footage dedicated to cars outnumbers square footage for people by more than a football field.

[Photo: Steve Proehl/Getty Images]
Zoning code mandated at least one new parking space for every 285 square feet of office space constructed. It’s a case of outdated planning codes reinforcing bad urban design, and it’s a problem that’s taking place all over the Bay Area and impacting all new construction, not just Apple’s.

Despite ample research about how car-centric urban design is making us sickdiminishing our quality of life, and contributing to inequality–and conversely how cities with strong multimodal transportation systems are livable–the Bay Area can’t shake this nasty habit.

SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, spent a year plunging into the problem of 21st-century work taking place in 20th-century spaces in its recently published report, Rethinking the Corporate Campus: The Next Bay Area Workplace. “The Bay Area leads the nation in patents, and most of the giants of the digital world are based here,” SPUR’s report states. “But the office environments where this work takes place do not reflect the innovation occurring within.”

It’s not just archaic policy that’s to blame for this phenomenon; it’s a combination of economics, corporate culture, and geographic constraints. But a handful of companies are implementing a better way to build and setting an example for the region.

[Photo: EFA2015/iStock]

A Geographic Toll On Commutes

The suburbanization of work–business parks that are remote and isolated from urban areas–is decades in the making. It began as a post-WWII construct in the Midwest and on the East Coast and spread to the West Coast and has perpetuated ever since. Sprawling, land-consumptive campuses symbolized success and power. In the Bay Area, these offices were built in areas that were on the fringes of communities where real estate was cheap, but totally inaccessible without a car. Now, the consequences are being felt acutely.


Consider a few facts from SPUR’s report. Eighty percent of the jobs in the Bay Area are located in auto-dependent areas. Zoning codes are reinforcing this–like the parking rule to which Apple adhered–and by insufficient investment in public transportation. If there’s no viable alternative to cars, commuters don’t have a choice.

New jobs in the Bay Area, which are mostly in knowledge-based industries like tech, aren’t near public transportation–only 28% of new office development has occurred within a half-mile of regional transit–which makes employment dependent on cars. Over 75% of workers commute by car. This is an inequality problem–job opportunities are only accessible to people who can afford a car. It’s also terrible for the environment. Private cars contribute to 28% of the Bay Area’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is the single largest source of this type of air pollution in the region.

Car-dependent work has contributed to traffic congestion, which is at all-time high levels in the Bay Area. Since 2010, there’s been a 70% increase in congestion delay for commuters. The only metro region that’s worse off than the Bay Area in terms of delays and commuter stress is Los Angeles.

Businesses are bearing the brunt of this problem. Job sprawl “threatens long-term economic competitiveness by making it more difficult for employers to access, attract, and retain talent; isolating workers from the benefits of density to productivity and innovation,” SPUR’s report states. “It also increases company costs of doing business by introducing the pressure to provide transportation programs and amenities that are typically available in cities.”

Companies have been forced to develop private transportation networks to get their employees to work. According to SPUR’s report, there were 37,000 daily boardings on 765 shuttle buses in 2014. (That’s a lot of buses clogging city streets and highways.) The problem has become so dire that Facebook began offering cash incentives for employees to live within a 10-mile radius of its Menlo Park campus.

The ripple effects spread regionally. SPUR’s report estimates the value of time wasted in congestion at $5 billion per year. Moreover, low-density developments, like office parks, require more infrastructure–like sewage, water, electricity, roads–per capita.

[Photo: Steve Proehl/Getty Images]

The Unexpected Financial Reason Why We’re Stuck In the Past

The rapidly fluctuating sizes of Silicon Valley companies has also reinforced its suburbanization. If a company suddenly needs to expand, it can build a generic office relatively quickly, and inexpensively. Moreover, if the company needs to downsize, it can easily sell or lease these nondescript structures.

“The model is standardized and predictable so it can be financed, built, leased, and reinhabited quickly,” SPUR’s report says. “The need for an exit strategy is a common driver of the form and location of Bay Area jobs. Each building (or group of buildings) includes its own exclusive parking, so it can be easily sold or leased.”

Additionally, surface parking in corporate campuses is its own form of contingency planning; it’s easier to repurpose this land than it is to reuse a parking structure. Moreover, it’s easier to sell the land, too, if need be.

[Photo: disorderly/iStock]

Insularity Is Also At Fault

Through its research, SPUR found that companies liked suburban-style offices for their perceived benefits for operations, like enabling work styles and guarding trade secrets.

“Security is often given as an explanation for workplace designs like the low-slung, multibuilding campus in a suburban location,” SPUR’s report says. “It is also one motivation for providing worker amenities on campus, reducing workers’ time spent in public spaces (and away from work). This aligns with some firms’ desire to create an insular and cohesive corporate culture in a cloistered setting.”

Additionally, office parks allow developers to build structures with expansive footprints. As SPUR’s report says, buildings with large, open areas–at least 60,000 square feet of usable space–are highly desirable in Silicon Valley since they can be easily adapted to accommodate different work styles.


“They are in some ways the spatial expression of the flatter, less-hierarchical management structure associated with Silicon Valley,” SPUR says in its report. “Vertical circulation between floors, in contrast,
is widely seen as an impediment to seamless collaboration. As one executive put it, ‘the minute you have to choose whether
or not to get in an elevator is the minute you don’t.'”

[Photo: drserg/iStock]

How To Design 21st-Century Offices

There are some exceptions to the suburban norm, as SPUR points out in its report, and these case studies could inform how the Bay Area builds its offices in the future.

Uber is doing Bay Area development right–a rare bright spot in the company’s constellation of abhorring business practices, including fostering a hostile and corporate culture, tracking users without consent, and evading law enforcement, among others–by siting its forthcoming office in downtown Oakland, just a short walk from a regional train stop. Samsung’s new Silicon Valley headquarters is located in downtown San Jose, is across the street from a train station and has retail on the ground floor. The file-exchange company Box leased office space above a Caltrain station in downtown Redwood City.

Some developers are leading the way, too. Bay Meadows, a mixed-use neighborhood spearheaded by Wilson Meany, believed that offices would want to lease space in an area with housing, retail, and entertainment. Its bet paid off. When SurveyMonkey couldn’t expand in downtown Palo Alto due to planning constraints, it moved to this ground-up development in San Mateo. In San Ramon–a wealthy East Bay Enclave–the Bishop Ranch office park is attempting to urbanize itself by adding multi-family housing and a Renzo Piano-designed retail center.

With its report, SPUR hopes to bring Bay Area office design into the 21st century. In 21 points, the nonprofit outlines strategies that involve local government, private sector companies, developers, architects, landowners, and more. For example, it advocates siting new offices near existing transit infrastructure, updating zoning codes to allow more development near transit, and investing in new transit infrastructure–fairly obvious strategies. But then it gets more granular in suggesting unconventional economic mechanisms to make these strategies financially feasible, like leveraging a fee on commercial developments based on how many vehicle miles traveled it expects to generate and offering employees cash if they choose alternative transit options.

Without tackling the problem through updating building and zoning codes, financial incentives, and better design, 20th-century planning will endure and the Bay Area will inch closer to total gridlock, its famously high quality of life will suffer, and the region’s innovation economy could become stifled.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.