Issue 270: 2021 03 11: Less is More

11 March 2021

Less is More

By J.R. Thomas

Here is this week’s competition.  Both of the following statements cannot be correct; just indicate which one is right.

  • The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live and work. Most of us will spend significant amounts of time working from home, visit the office much less, commute to work by train or car less frequently, and travel if possible shorter distances, to local hubs perhaps.
  • London has a desperate shortage of office space, and it is vitally important that to accommodate the anticipated growth in office workers in more and larger (and, especially, taller) office buildings be built in city centres; in particular, in the City of London.

Got it?  It has to be number 1, doesn’t it?  All the major banks have announced over the past few weeks that as leases expire they will be giving up office space, in the City, in the regions, and even local branches (if you have one, go and use it quick!).  Only this week Nat-West, the bank that used to call itself Royal Bank of Scotland, announced that it will give up all its emergency and back-up space this year, as it has realised that the bank can operate from employee’s homes. But it is not just banks; insurance companies, investment funds, accountants and management consultants, all have said that they will encourage homeworking and need less city centre space.  Two major firms of lawyers – lawyers are big users of prestigious and central office space – have said they expect to significantly reduce their office requirement.  Norton Rose Fulbright, and Fieldfisher, both City of London firms, have said that they think that over time that they will need perhaps 50% less office space than they currently occupy – though expecting their businesses and number of employees to grow.

Not only do big office space users think they will need less space – some of their future remaining office floors will be in new places, in local hubs which will be used to bring employees together for team working, conferences, specialist transactions requiring personal communication, and disciplinary proceedings.  OK, we made the last one up, but you can’t really bawl the juniors out by Zoom.  Can you?  These new hubs will need first class IT links, carparking, and public transport links, and to be cheap and flexible.

That seems clear enough.  City towers bad, edge of town office sheds good, dining room table best.  But hang about.  As cynics say, to find the truth, watch the money.  And in the last few weeks a lot of money has been heading, not into regional hubs or cheapo offices, but into yet another generation of high-rise towers in the City.

Just finished is 22, Bishopsgate, which its developers hope will not become better known as “the Wodge” (the Wodge it is then), a massive slab of steel and glass containing 1.3 million square feet of offices and essential ancillaries to office life such as a nail bar and a climbing wall (on the inside, not out).  It has 60 lifts and accommodates 12,000 employees if they all come into work on the same day.  It is arranged on 61 floors and has been described as “the most majestic of London’s skyscrapers”.  Well, so says its letting agent; you may think it is the ugliest and dullest design so far; we will forebear to comment.  It is likely to be the last of the obese towers for a while; fashion is now thin and tall and the stack of applications sitting on City planners desks is for slender; and as high as possible.  That as it turns out is often not that high; the City likes a sense of movement in its skyline and rights of light and problems of pedestrian flow in the narrow City streets can impact on high occupational buildings.

Last week Tenacity, a Hong Kong developer, got permission for 33 floors at 70 Gracechurch Street.  We are not informed as to how many nail bars that will include, but like every hip tower it will include a viewing platform, so eager tourists can see as far as the next building, and a garden to inspire, no doubt, many a suburban back plot.  Tenacity certainly deserve their name; a few weeks previously they also got planning consent for 30 floors at 55 Gracechurch Street.  Also on the way, perchance, is 100 Leadenhall Street, 52 floors, right next to the Cheesegrater and towering over the Richard Rogers Lloyds Building.  In its day that was not quite the high point of the City, which was the 42 floors of the NatWest Tower, but Mr Rogers, by putting all the technical stuff on the outside and the offices inside, caused a sensation and created a tourist attraction.  The NatWest Tower is itself an odd shape – not, as the City tale had it, a vanity showing of the NatWest logo, but dictated by rights of light and plot ratio rules, now abolished.  The Cheesegrater too was not designed as it is just to be original, but to lean out of the protected long views of St Paul’s Cathedral.  100 Leadenhall imitates the Cheesegrater shape and leans out of the sightlines, but you may presume (correctly) that the protected sightline corridors have become narrower, and the best view may be through the glass walls, if they are built.

8, Bishopsgate is on 50 floors, and will be 560,000 square feet of offices.  That sounds tall and thin, and the top bit certainly is, but it gets, like so many of us, fatter lower, and resembles nothing so much as a pile of different sized cereal boxes piled up.  No 1, Undershaft, behind Bishopsgate, is taller than its neighbour, 73 floors and 270 metres (lowered by 20 metres to avoid the City Airport flight paths, comfortingly).  Although it got planning consent in 2016 no substantial work has yet begun.  It will be a thin elegant cube, raised 10 metres off the ground so that the public can pass underneath and not notice it.

Alas we do not have space to describe 2 Finsbury Avenue, just approved, nor the massive Bishopsgate Goodsyard scheme, just outside the City; nor the many high rise schemes to the west and south-west of Westminster.  And the Editor forbade us to make the many obvious jokes about Norman Foster’s Tulip – not in his garden, but a 305 metre viewing platform to be grown in the City with no purpose other than to look down on every other building.  Planning consent was rejected, unusually for the City, though it may yet resprout.

So what is going on?  And who will be right?  The many and massive developers in the City, and around London; or the providers of fold up home desks and suburban shed-hubs?  Somebody – and you should worry about this, because much of your pension and insurance money goes into property development, – somebody may lose a lot of money.

Oddly, we have a sneaking suspicion that the tower developers may be placing the correct bet.  The era of the office is far from dead, and the splendours of home working are already ceasing to delight.  People like to work alongside other people, they like to separate the functions of their life, and maybe most to the point, productivity seems to be much greater when people are gathered together under the boss’s beady eye.  There will be more flexibility as to hours of work, no doubt, and arriving and leaving times, but the joys of office life will return.  And if you are lucky, with a view.


tile photo: Fred Moon on Unsplash

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