Is It Back to the Future for the Suburban Office Building?

The coronavirus is causing a lot of companies to reconsider their moves back to downtown. Many are looking at suburban satellite offices.

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Suburban office building with big parking lot
Is it back to the 'burbs for office buildings?.

 Contrastaddict/ Getty Images

A few years ago, suburban office buildings were turning into "see-throughs," what we called glass boxes so empty that you could see right through them. I previously wrote about how a lot of companies were moving downtown because they couldn't get young employees to work for them, many of whom didn't even have drivers licenses. One tech executive told me that the suburban office building in his business sector is functionally obsolete. 

Then came the coronavirus, and everything has changed. Suddenly, crowding employees into subways, elevators, and packed open offices doesn't look so attractive to anyone. It will be harder to get to the office; even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) recommended that everyone drive to work alone. (They had to change it after many complaints to "biking, walking, driving or riding by car either alone or with household members"). The CDC recommendations range from barely doable to ridiculous to impossible in a modern urban office building. It all sounds unpleasant, even compared to zooming from the basement. 

cube farm
is it back to the cube farm for office design?. Nikolaevich on Getty images

It's a different story in the suburbs. Office buildings often had huge floor plates where office planners of the eighties and nineties could plan massive cube farms. Neo in the Matrix or Peter in Office Space had more room in their cubicles than a senior manager would have today. They could afford to do that; suburban office space was cheap. The land was cheap. The construction was cheap. And it all gets a giant subsidy, as a commenter noted, "shouldered by the employees who need to buy, insure and maintain a reliable car that can cover the usual long commute." Ray Wong of the Altus Group tells the CBC:

"The suburbs make a really interesting case because they're about half the cost of downtown office space," said Wong. "And it gets you closer to some of your workers. In the suburbs, you get a bigger bang for your buck for residential also, which could appeal to workers who have been isolating in tiny downtown condos."

Companies left these buildings and followed the young people downtown, but now might be following them back to the suburbs. More young people appear to be buying cars, and more young families are tired of being trapped in tiny apartments and are thinking of getting out of town. James Farrar of City Office REIT tells CNBC:

"I think you will see more and more tenants leave the city," he said. "There will probably be more satellite offices where people don't have to be downtown. There will be more part-time working from home." 

Those who want to keep working from home be allowed to do it; if everyone hops in a car and starts driving to the office, we will have more pollution, more carbon emissions, and lots more congestion. Cities and suburbs are going to have to try and mitigate this; now that we have e-bikes that can eat up those suburban miles, it's time to build out bike lane infrastructure everywhere, not just in dense cities. 

There's a Real Opportunity Here, to Actually Fix our Suburbs

We have always been fans of urban life here at Treehugger, and recognize the benefits of density, of bringing people together for that creative bumping and collaboration. But I have also written:

"There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity."

In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is promoting what she calls the 15-minute city, where work, culture, entertainment, and all of our needs and wants can be met within a 15-minute walk. That might be a bit short for a North American suburb, but a 15-minute e-bike ride covers a lot more ground. The return of the suburban office might not be a bad thing, if it is thought of as a satellite, one of a constellation of offices on the main streets of neighborhoods and towns, where people who do not want to work from home can get to easily and quickly. If we design 15-minute suburbs, then this might not be such a bad thing.

Not So Fast

IBM Headquarters Rochester Minnesota
IBM Research Facility by Eero Saarinen. UMtopspin via Wikipedia 

It is fun to remember why we got those suburban headquarters of big companies in the first place: civil defense. The best defense against nuclear attack is sprawl because the devastation of a bomb can only cover so much area. Shawn Lawrence Otto wrote in his book Fool Me Twice: 

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for "dispersal," or "defense through decentralization" as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction "away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development," and "the prevention of the metropolitan core's further spread by directing new construction into small, widely spaced satellite towns."

Now everyone is heading for the hills, for the lower density of the suburbs and the satellite office buildings, when in fact the first outbreak of Covid-19 in the New York area was in the suburb of New Rochelle, and it's now raging through small midwestern towns where the meatpacking plants are. 

We almost destroyed our cities 60 years ago, promoting suburban low-density development. Shawn Otto wrote:

These accommodations for defense brought about an immense change in the fabric of America, altering everything from transportation to land development to race relations to modern energy use and the extraordinary public sums that are spent on building and maintaining roads— creating challenges and burdens that are with us today, all because of science and the bomb.

Let's not make the same mistakes again.