Will tomorrow's cities have skylines?
If working from home is the way of the future, who will bother to build tall buildings?
Ford tells 30,000 employees that work-from-home options will remain after the pandemic subsides: Cities are always going to have at least some magnetism due to agglomeration effects. But the pivot to broad acceptance of working from home (WFH) and hybrid working models might detour a lot of future commercial office construction. Just because some workers may always need to be within reach of the home office (as opposed to the offices in their homes) doesn't necessarily mean that we will forevermore need to stack them floor after floor above one another.
■ In other words: If your skyline doesn't have skyscrapers now, maybe it never really will. Or, if it does, they won't be purely commercial, but will be multi-use right from the start. The "vertical city" may yet have its day.
■ It's not like the multi-use building is a new concept. Living "above the shop" has been an accepted mode of habitation for centuries. Quite obviously, farmers have long lived where they worked -- but the connection between dwelling place and workplace remained strong even after the Industrial Revolution got well underway. We still use the phrase "cottage industry", often without realizing that the term quite literally refers to work that can be produced from home. Even in modern times, buildings like the John Hancock Center have been intentionally designed for mixed use, as places where people might live, work, and shop.
■ The question is: How might the financing for tall buildings change? Life insurance companies (like John Hancock) once had significant incentives to build giant, long-term buildings. Among other reasons, insurance companies with lots of incoming float from premiums might look at that float as a cheap way to fund major construction if the interest rates available to other builders were very high. If you have ready money and your rivals have to pay 10% interest rates (or higher), then getting into the business of owning tall buildings can be very attractive.
■ But the interest rates that prevail today are literally a fraction of the rates that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that comparative advantage has evaporated for insurance companies. And if demand for office space might truly be on a long-term downward trajectory (thus putting downward pressure on the rent payments they could hope to collect), that doesn't bode well for new construction. Will those conventional backers of big buildings be as interested in new mixed-use projects as they were in the skyscrapers of the past? Moreover, now that it's easy to invest in bundles of real-estate properties through tools like REITs, insurance companies and other investors have less incentive to invest a great deal in significant properties of their own rather than to spread out their investments into chunks that can be bought and sold with greater ease.
■ It seems less and less likely that companies will build many office towers (like the Chrysler Building or Sears Tower) in their own names, and there's usually at least someone's ego to stroke when building bold new towers. If it's not the executives in the C-suite, who will it be? The answer to that question may well shape the future of many American skylines -- or decide whether they will be remarkable at all.