2001 - High rise offices
Before the attack on the World
Trade Center in New York, the public inquiry into
the proposed 37-storey Heron Tower in the City
of London had been characterised as a debate between
aesthetics and the business imperative.
Opponents of the development,
such as English Heritage, are worried about the
impact on views of city landmarks such as St Paul's
Cathedral. Proponents, such as the City of London
Corporation, believe that without such developments
the City will fail to compete with Frankfurt and
other continental cities.
The loss of the World Trade Center
introduced two new factors into the debate: prohibitive
insurance policies and the willingness of people
to work in such buildings. This last point should
not be overlooked but the employee side of the
argument tends to be covered by health and safety
regulations and evacuation times. People rarely
seem to be asked: where and how would you prefer
The question is worth asking,
particularly in London, given the surge in high-rise
building applications that is likely if the Heron
Tower is built. One large tower - Lord Foster's
"Gherkin", is already under construction.
There are plans for at least six more 30-storey-plus
towers in the City.
Those who work in London should
have no doubt about the implications of a new
era of high-rise development. Building on this
scale will attract tens of thousands of other
workers from outside London. What will be the
implications for transport in a country whose
rail network is unable to overcome "leaves
on the line"?
A study by the Commission for
Integrated Transport published this week shows
that the UK's transport system is the worst in
Europe, with average commuting times of 46 minutes
a day. Previous reports have shown that traffic
in London has slowed to the speeds attained by
horse-drawn coaches. Is city working really the
Many Americans, it seems, have
become resigned to high-rise working but the attack
on New York has injected new paranoia into the
US workforce. ExecutiveChute, a company in Three
Rivers, Michigan, is expecting to sell up to 50,000
executive parachutes in the next 12 months, at
$795 (£564) each. "Hang it on a coat-rack,
door or in a closet, even a desk drawer will do,"
says the sales literature. But what happens in
a disaster if you are the only one with a parachute?
What about your colleagues? And what if someone
gets to your chute before you do?
The parachute is one answer to
the phobias associated with high-rise working.
The other answer is to say "no". More
than 50,000 New Yorkers are believed to have been
displaced by the September 11 attack. How many
of these, once settled in their new offices or
working at least part of the time from home, will
want to be relocated into the upper storeys of
Jack Nilles, a physicist and
engineer who used to design space vehicles for
Nasa and coined the words "teleworking"
and "telecommuting" in 1973, was recalling
last week how another disaster had influenced
working habits. When sections of motorway were
destroyed in the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake,
tens of thousands of people were left with no
option but to work from home. Thousands of ISDN
lines were installed in homes so that people could
work online and stay in touch with their offices.
A year later, long after the road had been repaired,
85 to 90 per cent of the lines were still in use.
"Disasters like this serve
to accelerate trends that were already in existence,"
said Mr Nilles, speaking at a seminar called "Organisational
Trends in a Precarious World" - held by Henley
Management College's future work programme. Fittingly,
he was linked to the seminar using video-conferencing
With or without disasters, teleworking
- the practice of working outside the traditional
workplace for some or part of the time - continues
to grow. In 1990 there were 3.4m US teleworkers.
In 2001, according to an annual survey carried
out by The International Telework Association
& Council (ITAC) , the number had risen to
Opponents of this kind of working
have often pointed to problems of social isolation
but 30 years of studies, said Mr Nilles, had failed
to turn up any supporting evidence. On the contrary,
he said, teleworkers reported significant decreases
in stress levels, felt more in control of their
lives and tended to know more of the company gossip
than those in the office. "There seems to
be a belief that people can be more effective
if they are face to face all the time. If they're
face to face all the time they're not a team but
a committee," he said.
Not all teleworking has been
successful. A government telecentre programme
in southern California had fizzled out through
lack of support, said Mr Nilles, because the centres
were opened in vacant or low-rent buildings, inconvenient
for people who might want to use them. Today,
he said, cheaper home-based technology was overtaking
the need for such centres.
Asked if "teleworker"
had become a label referring to a technical solution
for what was a social transition, Mr Nellis said:
"I guess the word 'teleworker', will appear
in future editions of The Oxford English Dictionary
as an archaic term from the 20th century. There
will be a time in the not too distant future when
this is just business as usual and we won't call
it that any more."
In the light of such predictions,
there seems little logic in enlarging our cities
either upwards or outwards but the argument for
ever bigger cities is always advanced successfully
by those who design, build and live in them. The
original skyscrapers were built because they could
be built. The materials and engineering solutions
existed to make them happen. Their height was
more a matter of prestige than practicality.
When the Chrysler Building was
capped with a 185-ft spire, the spire was a closely
guarded secret that would allow the building to
top its rival, the 71-storey Bank of Manhattan.
Contracts for the even taller Empire State Building
were signed just weeks before the Wall Street
crash. In 1932, a year after its completion, it
was nicknamed the "Empty State" since
no more than a quarter of its space had been filled.
The current economic downturn coupled with demographic
trends across Europe would suggest that a surplus
of office space may re-emerge in the near future.
Is it too much to ask that the
Heron Tower inquiry consider the welfare of workers
as much as that of the City Corporation and the
prestige of planners and architects? Safety and
commercial issues aside, what is the point of
a sky-high office if we cannot move over the ground?
© 2001 The Financial Times.
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