The skyscraper, the iconic urban office tower, still captivates with breathtaking views and the thrill of floating in the clouds. The opposite of the skyscraper – a building as horizontal as a skyscraper is vertical – has caught the eye: make room for the floor scraper.
There is no set definition for such buildings, which some loosely describe as a million or more square feet in just a few stories. These earth-hugging structures have traditionally been viewed as less lofty than their soaring brethren, but in recent years floor scrapers – also known as side scrapers and landscapers – have become desirable.
Tech companies in Silicon Valley have long relied on the low-rise approach. However, their locations have also been compared to suburban office parks in suburbs that fell out of favor years ago and criticized for contributing to a time when efficient use of resources requires urbanization.
Still, some aspects of these buildings – such as the ability to access offices by stairs rather than elevators – have become doubly attractive during the pandemic.
“The interest in floor scrapers reflects our evolving views on how we come together in office space.” said Sam Chandan, dean of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University's School of Professional Studies.
Take the old post office in Chicago. The nine-story limestone landmark was built between 1921 and 1932 and is three blocks long and one block wide. If it stood at the end, it would be the equivalent of a 64-story tower. The Art Deco building was the city's main center for mail sorting until 1997. After that, it stood empty for two decades.
Real estate firm 601W Companies bought the white elephant for $ 130 million in 2016 and spent an additional $ 670 million on a project billed as the largest redevelopment in the country. Working with design firm Gensler, the developer converted the 2.5 million square feet of the structure into office space, with ceilings of up to 19 feet and restoration of brass meshwork.
The building's large, open floor slabs allow tenants to have all employees on one level. This encourages cross-departmental communication and strengthens the corporate culture in ways that are impossible when employees are spread across multiple floors of a high-rise, said Brian Whiting, president of the Telos group that handles the leasing. Prices range from $ 47 to $ 50 per square foot, and the building was 80 percent rented when it opened in November, with Uber occupying two full floors.
"We are competitive with Trophy Class A office space," Whiting said, referring to the highest quality office space, usually in a central location.
Another Chicago landmark known as the Merchandise Mart is sometimes referred to as the country's first floor scraper. Opened in 1930, the building extends over two city blocks and covers more than four million square meters.
The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia is another early example. The five-sided, five-story building, built in 1942, covers an area of almost 29 hectares.
However, in densely built urban areas where land is expensive, it has always made sense to build it up, not upgrade it, especially after the advent of electric elevators.
"Traditionally, an office building over a million square feet will have 40, 60 or 70 floors," said Phil Ryan, senior manager of the US research bureau at JLL, a real estate services company.
Floor scrapers built in this century have taken on remarkable shapes. The Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China, which was designed by Steven Holl Architects to accommodate offices as well as apartments and a hotel, consists of angular, interconnected segments on stilts. In Frankfurt, a gently curved office building called Squaire was erected over an airport railway line, which looks almost like a high-speed train that has just entered the station. And Google is planning an 11-story floor scraper in London.
In the US, technology company sites like Facebook and Google can accommodate large meeting rooms for collaborative work, all-hands-on meetings, and convenience in the form of halls. The interiors often open up to landscaped exteriors that depend on providing more work and workspaces. Apple's ring-shaped "spaceship" in Cupertino, California is only four stories high but more than a mile in circumference and surrounds a 30-acre park.
However, these vast locations are at the center of a debate about suburban sprawl and affordable housing. They have been accused of worsening California's housing crisis, raising the prices of nearby homes, causing gentrification, and contributing to increasing homelessness.
Lately, tech companies have been targeting more urban environments, shaped by the authenticity and vibrancy of cities. In 2006, for example, Google moved to a block-long building in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York that once housed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Twelve years later, the tech giant bought Chelsea Market, a former factory in Nabisco.
Projects that convert old industrial and logistics facilities as office buildings preserve historic structures that are part of the urban fabric, said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a conservation group.
"It's great that new businesses are finding use in existing historic buildings," he said. "They contribute much less to the waste stream."
However, these projects can have drawbacks. "If there are no rules about how much of the historic building you reuse it can look very uncomfortable or even cause the building to deteriorate," he said.
In New York, the Vornado Realty Trust renovated the James A. Farley Building, a former post office spanning two double-width blocks. The Farley Building is a five-story landmark in Midtown Manhattan. It was designed by McKim, Mead & White and erected in 1913. In August, Facebook rented all of the 730,000 square feet of office space in it – the largest lease signing in New York by far this year.
However, such adaptive reuse projects are usually not located in a central business district, but on the outskirts, where old buildings from the industrial age may still remain.
South of the Farley building, two former railroad structures near the Hudson River are being converted into offices. In both cases, several setback stories are added on the historic buildings.
In Chelsea, the L&L Holding Company and the Columbia Property Trust are planning to remodel the brick Terminal Warehouse built in 1891 with a floor space of approximately 700 by 200 feet. In Hudson Square, Oxford Properties Group and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board are reinventing the three-story St. John's Terminal, built in 1934 and stretching over two blocks. Google has already rented the building.
CookFox Architects is working on both projects, and Richard A. Cook, founding partner of the New York-based company, said he appreciated floor scrapers for their connection to the street.
"It's about embedding the workplace in the neighborhood instead of being big and iconic on the skyline," he said.
Such buildings can address the health and wellness issues that were at the heart of office design before the pandemic. Employees can initiate their steps by passing them on to colleagues on another part of a huge floor or climbing stairs instead of pressing an elevator button. And the large roofs can be designed for meetings and outdoor recreation.
But the pandemic has pointed to another benefit.
Because ground scrapers cover so much territory, they typically have multiple entrances, unlike the typical skyscraper that all goes through a single lobby. Decentralizing arrivals and departures can contribute to social distancing, according to experts.
The renovated St. Johns building will have three main entrances: two for pedestrians and one for cyclists, leading to a huge bike room.
However, developers plan to add nine floors to St. John's for a total of twelve floors, and the Terminal Warehouse will more than double to 13 floors. At what height does a building stop being a floor scraper?
"Given the value of the land and the desire to maximize the efficient use of the land and monetize it," said Chandan, "there is always pressure to build, just a little."