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Super High-Rise or Super High-Quality? 

Jing An tower in Shanghai. Image © Gensler

China has undergone massive changes over the last 25 years, and nowhere is this more evident than in building development, more specifically the proliferation of high rise buildings. Chinese cities are conceiving and building high rises at an unprecedented rate. As a result, secondary and even tertiary cities are adjusting their skylines adjusted on a yearly basis.

However, there are only so many residential, mixed use and commercial towers that can be built before saturation occurs. And when saturation occurs, devaluation of these expensive assets will surely follow.

Take, for example, Beijing, a city where many completed buildings remain unoccupied even though the pace of development moves forward. New development and iconic design are the catalysts for the city’s continued regeneration. But in recent months, signs of a shift in design approach have begun to show. The pure quantity of floor space itself is no longer sufficient to catalyze further construction. There has been a quiet realization that a more qualitative design approach might be the needed differentiator for new projects awaiting the green light. Merely going shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor is no longer enough to claim a temporary advantage of building height or form.

Shanghai is another Chinese city that is no exception to the development explosion. The Pudong district is arguably the apex of commercial building regeneration in the entire world. The Pearl Tower, Jin Mao, Shanghai WFC and Shanghai Tower, which is currently under construction, are a testament to the high rise phenomenon. It is, however, becoming quite clear that creating new city districts does not necessarily guarantee tenants will remain committed to all that is new and shiny.

Situated on the west side of the Huangpu River, the Puxi District in Shanghai is beginning to realize that, contrary to popular belief, the dearth of high rise commercial buildings is not scaring away potential tenants. The district’s transport links and desirable location are enough to promote a mixed use lifestyle that extends beyond the nine to five business timescale prevalent throughout Pudong. It will be sometime before the large financial institutions look for space along Nanjing Road, but this is not the target market for new and upcoming commercial office development. Gensler is currently in design development for a large mixed use development in the Jing’an district. This development will exceed the standards that any building in China currently enjoys. The developer wants to gain a competitive edge of such significance that it will differentiate Jing’an from similar city districts around the world.

To create this competitive advantage, Gensler is pursuing LEED Platinum status. Notable features include large flexible floor plates and a western standard elevator service. A significant amount of natural light and excellent internal air quality should give the development an unparalleled advantage and raise the bar for any future commercial office development in Shanghai. And this type of design should hold its own in more established high rent cities. The new development will enjoy the benefits of a new metro line (Line 13), scheduled to open in late 2015. It will also feature local amenities, such as a new natural history museum and sculpture park. The development includes a new lifestyle center that will support office workers and place a heavy emphasis on food and beverage for the most junior office worker, as well as high end international cuisine. All amenities will be within easy walking distance of other transport hubs, and the existing established retail and restaurants. For the moment, the target tenants are professional service firms and multi-national corporations (MNC) as well corporations, all of which cater to the local markets.

Needless to say, in upping the ante through increased specification of current design a commensurate increase in rent will follow. Rental levels in Shanghai are market driven, so it remains to be seen whether the paradigm shift in qualitative delivery will pay the dividends the developers expect.

Gensler tracks its experience in the commercial office market. From our inception through the current day, there is an increasing belief that although the iconic status of high-rise buildings remains the desired currency, there is a burgeoning belief that standards need to improve both in the design, construction and delivery of new work. In the next 10 years, 500 new MNCs will relocate to Shanghai. Until now, the current building stock has not needed to future-proof its infrastructure. Future tenants could soon have more choice in the market, the type of choice that is common in other international locations where they already conduct business.

There will always be a demand for super high rises because such structures make an iconic architectural statement. This is true for any geographical location. Up until now, China has solely relied on the visual impact arresting skylines to drive development. This strategy, it appears, may not be enough in the future. Building occupants are realizing occupancy comfort and convenience of lifestyle amenities are critical to staff retention. Buildings that respond to these choices will soon be seen as most desirable, irrespective of their height.

Russell Gilchrist is a design director in Gensler’s Shanghai office and a global leader of Gensler’s Tall Buildings practice. He specializes in high profile architecture and master planning projects and is active in the Council for Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Contact him at Russell_gilchrist@gensler.com.

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