THE INC. LIFE

Will Google’s New London Headquarters Usher In a New Trend in Office Design?

Some believe that the “landscraper” is about to become a trend.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 07 Dec 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Skyscrapers are so 20th century. In 2017, the architectural buzzword is "landscraper."

Google broke ground on its new London headquarters in November, set to be built in the city's King's Cross neighborhood. When it's complete, the huge 1 million square foot building will be home to some 7,000 employees.

Unlike most massive urban structures, the new Google building won't be towering, but rather sprawling. At 1,066 feet in length, it's nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall. It will be equipped with offices, basketball courts, gardens, and swimming pools.

Google hasn't said when it expects the structure to be complete, though when it first revealed the plans in 2013, it was hoping to have the building open within three years. A 2015 Business Insider report put the cost of the project at an estimated $1.3 billion.

Some, including futurist Amy Webb, have hailed the project as the new trend in office design. Writing in What the Future, Webb points out that new advancements in elevators will soon allow them to move laterally as well as up and down. "Buildings could be built to be longer and lower," she writes, "and drones could buzz overhead, delivering goods and performing services."

Sounds groovy, right? But how likely is this to become a trend, really? After all, one of the main reasons cities began growing vertically was because of the limited space down below--and that variable isn't changing.

"It's really going to be market dependent," says Jamie Witherspoon, director of architecture at Detroit-based firm Bedrock. Certain cities, especially many densely packed East Coast ones, offer limited opportunities for horizontal expansion. "New York City is the birthplace of the skyscraper for a reason," he says. "Islands like Japan, Hong Kong, Manhattan--any time you're constricted, you have the tendency to go vertical."

Better U.S.-based candidates for landscrapers, then, might be cities with more open real estate around them, like Austin, Dallas, and Phoenix. Even a densely packed, tech-heavy city like San Francisco has opportunities nearby: As Witherspoon points out, thanks to the availability of real estate, most of the expansion in Silicon Valley has been lateral. The new Apple Park is a perfect example--a 12,000-employee campus that's just four stories high but built on a roomy 175 acres.

Other company's homes in Silicon Valley, like Google's headquarters there as well as Facebook's, have focused on the campus approach as well. David Galullo, CEO of New York-based design firm Rapt Studio, says that such a layout is more effective at building and maintaining a certain culture for a huge company.

"There haven't been too many examples," Galullo says, "of successful vertical communities that truly feel like they're integrated, and have a sense of how things grow and how people move from one place to another. Building communities horizontally has always been easier and more readily accepted making them vertically."

Rapt Studio recently designed the Southern California headquarters of sneaker company Vans, where it was important to the company culture that employees could skateboard from location to location. For Google, he says, the company has similar desires when it comes to biking. With a horizontal setup, there's also the opportunity for easily accessible shops, food outlets, and lounge areas that employees can stroll right into without taking an elevator. "So from the standpoint of making a community," he says, "it makes perfect sense."

There's also the matter of space efficiency. In a tall building, Witherspoon says, large sections of any floor are dedicated to elevators and stairwells, for both safety and structural purposes. Horizontal designs aren't hindered by such restrictions, allowing them to use space more efficiently.

Yet that won't nearly negate the costs of needing huge swaths of land to construct a new headquarters. So while the landscraper might work for some businesses, it's unlikely to become a sweeping trend. "It's how you weigh your priorities," Witherspoon says. "The companies that want to prioritize that type of horizontal construction will probably seek out areas where you do have a lower cost of land, and they'll weigh that against factors like transit access and, how your building would fit, contextually, with what's around it."

Galullo is slightly more skeptical. "Do I see everybody moving to this overnight? No," he says. "But it'll be interesting to see how it shakes out."