The modern trend to build taller office blocks knows no bounds, but will new ways of working mean collaborative working spaces replace them longer term? Chris Beanland investigates

From London to New York and Shanghai, skyscrapers continue to rise towards the clouds as potent visual symbols of economic might.

But could these forests of office towers one day become surplus to requirements? Might future city-dwellers find themselves living in buildings designed for businesses – like One World Trade Center or the ‘walkie talkie’ – but which are converted for residential use?

The scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might first appear. Many tall office blocks have been converted into residences since 2000, from the Rotunda in Birmingham to the Cleveland Trust Tower in Cleveland, Ohio, designed by renowned architect Marcel Breuer.

“We have too many towers being built in New York with the same kind of office space – what we call ‘Class A’: big floorplate, corporate amenities office space. There are two buildings to go [up] at the World Trade Center site, as well as multiple new towers in and around Hudson Yards,” says American commentator Alexandra Lange, author of Writing About Architecture.

Why are we still seeing so many office skyscrapers built? There’s money in commercial property – 2015 was the second-strongest year of investment in UK commercial property ever, with £67.5 billion worth of investment, according to CoStar Group. Only 2014 was stronger. And there’s demand. Savills reported that the take-up of office space in the City of London in January 2016 was 23%, up on the 10-year average for January.

‘THE LONG-TERM OMENS FOR TALL OFFICE TOWERS SEEM MORE PERPLEXING’

“In the past 12 months we have seen the top rent achieved in both the City and the West End reach uncharted territory as a result of high levels of demand combined with a constraint on supply. In particular, the City has seen significant rental growth over the past two years, which has largely been spurred on through the introduction of towers such as the Leadenhall Building and 20 Fenchurch Street,” says Ben Raywood, Commercial Researcher at Savills in London.

“Therefore, do I see a cause for concern for new towers? In short, no. These towers are all being constructed within the heart of the City, where insurance and financial services want to be situated, providing the type of consistent demand that is necessary to fill up a one million square foot office. “There has been an increase in demand from the tech sector too. Some tech companies can now afford tower space and wish to promote an increasingly corporate feel.”

Meanwhile, US companies such as General Electric have ditched their suburban campuses for city centres.

The long-term prospects of tall buildings

Yet the long-term omens for tall office towers seem more perplexing. We’re in the middle of a workplace revolution in which new technology enables us to work smartly; anywhere from the kitchen to the coffee shop to a rented desk in the new generation co-working spaces.

“I don’t think we will move to a society where more people work at home – and average apartment sizes in New York and London would work against that end – but I do think the size and shape of work and workplaces is changing. We will need more co-working spaces, collective offices (where multiple small firms share a space), and small and medium workplaces,” says Lange.

Already, smaller ‘curated’ co-working hubs such as London’s Second Home have set the tone for the tech economy of the next decade. In the same vein, last year Grant Thornton launched an innovative new business space at its St Albans office in Hertfordshire.

The open, modern venue, which includes a business lounge area, a 30-seat theatre, noise-cancelling booths and a CEO room for board-level meetings, is designed to bring business leaders together to work, connect and develop. The big three tech companies (Apple, Facebook and Google), which are spending billions on new headquarters in California, have also opted for flexible campus layouts; not corporate skyscrapers.

As London and New York’s acute housing crisis continues, converting redundant office space into flats doesn’t seem so pie in the sky.

“It is not impossible that there may come a time when massive office blocks are no longer necessary. Home working could become the norm for virtually every business in the not too distant future,” believes Trevor Kent, a former president of the UK’s National Association of Estate Agents.

“Indeed, there’d be a whole new slant if the redundant office block went residential and the employee remained there but as ‘home’, rather than ‘office’. Stranger things have happened in the property market.”

Illustration: Harry Haysom