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Millennial Lifestyle Is Setting New Trends in High-Rise Development

In the face of rising urban populations and rapidly changing lifestyles, the challenge is not simply to build high-rise structures. We need to build high-rise communities. The future is not just taller. It’s also more crowded, more diverse, more collective – and more solitary too.


Designing With One Eye on the Future

Anticipating the future has always been a challenge for designers, developers and planners, but high-rise buildings bring these questions into sharp relief. The sheer scale of super and mega-tall towers is a completely new typology for humankind – people have never attempted to live, work or play together at such heights, in such numbers. And the energy and expense involved in demolishing tall towers means that they will have much greater longevity, and will have to accommodate more change than conventional buildings over their lifespan.

The towers we build today may still be standing in cities that will be completely different than the ones we know. This means they need to be designed with one eye on the future, and enough flexibility to adapt to whatever else comes their way.


Digital Natives Will Dominate the Workforce

One of the most significant trends already influencing designers is the coming-of-age of the ‘millennial’ generation, born towards the end of the 20th century. By 2020, millennials will comprise half of the global workforce, and they already outnumber older colleagues in the US.

Millennials are characterized as footloose city-dwellers, overturning many decades of suburbanization. They are also ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with the internet, mobile phones and social media, and that will have the furthest-reaching consequences, says Peter Weingarten, principal at Gensler in Oakland, California. “It’s not about age, it’s about the experiences you have that influence who you become as a human being. Clearly the context of digital technology has had a profound impact on how people perceive experience.”


It’s Not About Ownership, It’s About Experience

Weingarten has noticed that millennials have very different priorities to the post-war baby-boomers now reaching retirement age: “Boomers wanted to own stuff. They were encouraged to value domain. What’s my status at work, where’s my house, do I own a car? Now it’s not about the ownership of things, it’s about the experience of things.” This is partly through necessity, as recession has diminished the prospects of home ownership for many. But it’s also because digital technology makes it easier than ever before to temporarily acquire things people previously aspired to own. ‘Collaborative consumption’ apps such as Airbnb and Uber give smartphone users instant access to homes and cars anywhere in the world with just a few swipes and taps.

With a world of instant information in the palm of their hands, millennials also demand more from the spaces they occupy physically. They prize quality of life and easy access to shops, entertainment and places to spend time with friends, and prefer to live in urban areas that are walkable and well-connected.


Attracting Talent and Seeking True Connectivity

Millennials are now luring employers back into cities too. During the 20th century, many firms left downtown areas in favour of suburban campuses – a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US found that the proportion of jobs in American city centres fell from 63% in 1960 to just 16% by 1996. This trend has begun to reverse – according to the Brookings Institution, the number of city centre jobs grew steadily by 0.5% a year between 2007 and 2011, compared to an annual loss of 0.1% on the peripheries.

Not-for-profit Smart Growth America carried out a survey of 500 companies who had moved back into cities, and found that by far the biggest reason was to attract and retain talent: being located in a vibrant, amenity-rich neighbourhood with good public transport links was seen as a key differentiator.

More Than Just a Technological Marvel

Millennial culture is characterized by a blurring of the lines between work and leisure, which is inevitably reshaping corporate structures too. Companies are adopting less hierarchical models, says Weingarten, and workplaces have to adapt. “Employees are no longer just workers, they’re entrepreneurs, and there’s much more of a sense of community-based coaching and mentoring in the workplace. We see this all the time when we sit down with our Fortune 500 clients who are looking to go into these mega-towers and super-tall buildings. They leverage mobility and technology, but want to see more true connectivity than just what is offered by technological solutions, so the new high-performance building is not just a technological marvel, it’s also a cultural touchstone, it’s a brand beacon, it’s an innovation accelerator.”


Interaction – the Key Driver Behind Innovation

The quest for innovation is also driving higher occupancy levels and much bigger floorplates, says Weingarten. He quotes a famous MIT study that began in the 1970s: “If you work on the same floor as someone, you have a 95% chance of running into them in the course of your day. We know that face-to-face interaction is the key driver behind innovation, so that’s a very important statistic.” If people are on different floors, this drops to 5%, and if they’re in different buildings, it’s just 0.02%.

“You’re lucky if you see them at all as you’re traversing the asphalt of the parking lot to get to your car.” Where there are no constraints on space, companies would ideally want floorplates to be as big as possible – Apple’s new Cupertino campus will have circular floorplates with a circumference of more than a mile, with approximately 840,000sqft of space on each of its four floors – but recent studies show that there is a diminishing return after a certain point.

Vertical Campus Arrives to Downtown

Such expansiveness clearly isn’t possible in the dense grid of a city. But designers are finding other ways to create the interactivity of a horizontal campus in vertical form. Woods Bagot is designing a ‘vertical campus’ for a client in Jakarta, which features a broad range of amenities in the base and a series of interconnecting atria spiralling down the building to bring people together.

“When you think about high-rise office development over the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of the metrics are consistent,” says Woods Bagot principal John Britton, based in San Francisco. “Critical factors include floorplate efficiency, tightness of the core, effectiveness of elevators, and appropriateness of lease spans. Now there’s this increasing focus on the human aspect of a development – a chance to look at buildings through the lens of an occupant, at the quality of life that the building can help them to achieve. For us, that’s a new challenge and a new way to look at buildings.”

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