Do We Even Need New Office Buildings Post-Pandemic?

Even the smartest guys in the room can't predict the future.

The JPMorgan Chase & Co. building at 270 Park Avenue July 19, 2006 in the Manhattan borough of New York City.
The JPMorgan Chase & Co. building at 270 Park Avenue July 19, 2006 in New York City.

Michael Brown / Getty Images

Everybody is wondering about the future of the office. Many companies are considering going hybrid. According to The New York Times, JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, Salesforce, and Target are among the many companies that are "giving up expensive office space."

JPMorgan Chase, in particular, is an interesting case study. CEO Jamie Dimon recently wrote a letter to shareholders explaining how the pandemic has affected their real estate decisions:

"Remote work  will change how we manage our real estate. We will quickly move to a more 'open seating' arrangement, in which digital tools will help manage seating arrangements, as well as needed amenities, such as conference room space. As a result, for every 100 employees, we may need seats for only 60 on average. This will significantly reduce our need for real estate."

Treehugger has been following how Chase manages its real estate for a number of years, critiquing the company's decision to demolish the Union Carbide Building, also known as the JPMorgan Chase Tower and most recently named 270 Park Avenue. The high-rise office building was designed by Natalie de Bloise of Skidmore Owings and Merrill and is one of the largest buildings ever designed by a woman architect. It was described by one critic as "among the finest of its kind."

270 Park Avenue, also known as the JPMorgan Chase Tower and formerly the Union Carbide Building
270 Park Avenue, also known as the JPMorgan Chase Tower and formerly the Union Carbide Building.

Julian Wasser/Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Its replacement is being designed by Foster + Partners, who were signatory to Architects Declare, a volunteer-led initiative rallying architectural practices to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency. The network includes two goals relevant to this project:

  • Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon-efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice.
  • Include life cycle costing, whole-life carbon modeling, and post-occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use.

I wondered if we were in a new era where architects should be held accountable for the environmental impact of their work. But no. Since then, Foster + Partners has left Architects Declare, saying the network was critical of its work designing airports, noting: "We were advocating a green architecture before it was so named."

JP Morgan Chase Leed Certificate
JP Morgan Chase Leed Certificate.

USGBC

The problem with the demolition of the Union Carbide Building is not only the 1,518,000 square feet of space being replaced but that the 707-foot tall building was completely renovated to LEED Platinum in 2011, which was likely a gut renovation right down to the frame. It's really barely out of warranty, mostly a 10-year-old building, and definitely not at the end of its useful life.

It's being replaced with a 2,500,000-square-foot building, about 40% larger, while cutting back on staff present in the office by 40% which "will significantly reduce our need for real estate." In other words, everyone could have fit quite comfortably into the existing space. They didn't even need this new building.

Planning diagram

New York City Planning

But Dimon isn't stopping now;

"Finally, we still intend to build our new headquarters in New York City. We will, of course, consolidate even more employees into this building, which will house between 12,000 to 14,000 employees. We are extremely excited about the building’s public spaces, state-of-the-art technology, and health and wellness amenities, among many other features. It’s in the best location in one of the world’s greatest cities."

According to my very rough calculations, using a primitive calculator, replacing the 1.5 million square feet of office space will generate upfront carbon emissions of 64,070 metric tonnes of CO2, This is for a company that made commitments to sustainability:

"Minimizing the environmental impact of our physical operations continues to be an important part of the global sustainability strategy at JPMorgan Chase. We will meet our 100 percent renewable energy commitment in 2020 by generating and purchasing energy and corresponding RECs in an amount equivalent to the total megawatt-hours of electricity that JPMorgan Chase consumes globally over the year. Expanding upon our 100 percent renewable energy target, we commit to become carbon neutral in our operations beginning in 2020. This commitment will cover all of JPMorgan Chase’s direct carbon emissions from our corporate buildings and branches, indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, and emissions from employee travel."

Of course, there is not a mention of embodied carbon; there never is. They are not offsetting the megawatt-hours consumed making the aluminum or offsetting the carbon from making the concrete and steel for this building. No matter that a molecule of carbon dioxide emitted upfront is just as bad as a molecule of operating emissions. But as we keep saying, when you look through the lens of embodied carbon rather than operating carbon, everything changes.

This brings us back to the pandemic. As one investor told The Times, "We are just going to be bleeding lower for the next three to four years to find out what the new level of tenant demand is." It is certainly going to be lower than it has been, as companies realize how much money they can save by only providing desks for 60% of their workers and how much less workers cost when they are in Poughkeepsie instead of Park Avenue.

Union Carbide Building On Park Avenue In New York City
Union Carbide Building On Park Avenue In New York City.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

With less demand, other wonderful buildings like Union Carbide can be restored, and brought back to their former glory, with more than enough square footage to accommodate everyone. Jamie Dimon says "we never prepared for a global pandemic," but we all can learn from it: things change. We don't have to knock everything down and replace it, we can fix it instead. And Chase and everyone else needs a new definition of sustainability that recognizes this.