Construction, Energy, Planning, Transportation

Apple vs. Google

July 1, 2011 | By Yetsuh Frank | 3 Comments »

Quite a few people have commented on the recent proposal by Apple to build a kind of suburban spaceship headquarters (pictured above) in Cupertino, CA.  Alexandra Lange at Design Observer has noted that suburban HQ’s are decidedly retro, and Lloyd Alter at Treehugger is reminded of the passage from Lord of the Rings, “One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them” and predicts the end of the creative giant (Apple, not Sauron.)

There is something kind of creepy about the uber-slick aesthetic Apple has successfully applied to their gadgets and retail stores being applied to such a massive structure. With a diameter similar to the Pentagon, the pop cultural reference it brought to mind for me was Revenge of the Sith. But that’s all totally subjective. What struck me most forcefully was the difference between this particular design solution and the solution proposed by another global tech company trying to house a rapidly growing workforce: Google.

First, let’s review the Apple proposal. The building, though only 4 stories in height is massive and is designed to provide space for 12,000 employees. Presenting the project to Cupertino City Council (see the video here),  Steve Jobs points out that the current site is only 20% green space and that their proposal will increase this to 80% landscape, achieved by placing “most” of the parking underground. I put “most” in quotes because in addition to underground parking below the main building there is a huge above-ground parking structure proposed alongside I-280. Jobs says this parking structure is 4 stories because they want everything on the site to be “human scaled,” but one wonders how a parking structure that appears to be 2,000 feet long can be considered in any way approachable. To give you a sense of the scale of parking required in places like Cupertino (where everyone drives everywhere, for everything)- Apple will reduce the surface parking by 90%. It’s a laudable achievement, but still leaves 1,200 surface parking spaces on the site. Another scale adjustment for you, the “café” in the new building serves 3,000 people at a sitting.

The scale of the exercise is daunting. How do you house 12,000 employees in close proximity to each other and allow for ease of commuting to this central location while providing enough daylight, open space and services? You can see their dilemma and how these problems might drive the solution proposed. Of course, there is already a neat solution for all these problems. Something we designed and virtually perfected long before the revelation of Angry Birds and the iTunes store. It’s a solution we tend to take for granted, which we ignore at our peril, and whose examples we’ve woefully neglected for a generation or more. It’s called a city.

As a counter example to Apple’s proposal, I am reminded of Google’s relatively recent purchase of the old Port Authority building at 111 Eighth Avenue in New York, pictured at left.

Like the proposed Apple building, the Google building is about 3 million square feet. Unlike the Apple building, the Google project 1) already exists, and 2) is located in an actual community. You know things are messed up when someone as smart as Steve Jobs can refer to the intersection of an Interstate highway and an eight lane boulevard as “the corner of De Anza and 280.” Sir, this is not a “corner”. The existing Apple campus earns a dismal 57 on the Walk Score website, which measures the availability and accessibility of services within walking distance of a location. The proposed campus location scores a horrific 40, a place dependent on automobile use for almost every amenity.

Google’s new building? It garners a Walk Score of 98, a walker’s paradise with a ridiculous number of amenities in the area. You can be assured that the vast majority of Google employees will arrive via public transportation. They will grab their coffee at a local café. They’ll drop their dry-cleaning on their way to work, on foot. At lunch, they’ll sneak up to MOMA and catch an exhibit with some friends that work for, gasp, different companies.

And this does not just have consequences for the sense of community enjoyed (or not) by the typical Apple employee. Buildings whose locations requires you drive to them have outsized environmental and public health impacts. As the folks at long ago documented, the energy used to transport employees to suburban office buildings can be expected to exceed the energy used by the building itself by more than 130%. Compared to the Google building, commuting to and from the Apple building (virtually all by car) will consume something like an additional 2.6 million gallons of gas each and every year (a rough extrapolation from the figures in the article.)  Of course, if everyone at Apple drives a Prius (a possibility, I suppose) this number will be much lower, but you get the point.

And then there is the decision to build new. The embodied energy of existing buildings has been discussed for years. But seldom are we presented with two examples so diametrically opposed to one another. Google, of course, has acquired an existing building in an existing community with existing services. There will certainly be reconstruction to perform throughout the old building. But the scale of construction required to realize the Apple project is staggering. The Apple site is about 150 acres, the Google building has a footprint of about 7 acres. Apple will demolish the entire 150 acre site; pavement, buildings, trees, roads, parks, everything. They will then construct, from the basement up, a state of the art building from materials collected together from all over the planet (not unlike their products.)  Steel from China.  Aluminum from South Africa.  Glass from, well, also China. The greenest building, as they say, is the one that already exists.

And what if Apple continues to grow? Buy the mall next door and build another Pentagon scale donut? (Despite renderings that locate the Apple project in a kind of forest nirvana- the moon of Endor?- there is actually a mall right across the street.) One wonders also about the conflict between the message of Apple’s headquarters (all of us under one roof, all the time) and their other message (you can work from anywhere.) How does the desire to build a private bubble for your 12,000 employees square with the new paradigm of inter-connectivity and flexibility?  With all the Apple employees visiting the private 3,000 seat cafe in shifts none of them will be venturing into Cupertino for their skinny chai tea latte.  If the project moves forward will there be any cafes left in Cupertino?  Where will the non-Apple employees use their Apple products?

At the end of Jobs’ presentation to the Cupertino City Council, the mildly sycophantic chairman basically begs Jobs to build an Apple store in Cupertino.  Jobs’ response, “The problem with putting an Apple store in Cupertino is that there just isn’t the traffic.” No kidding.


- who has written 261 posts on Urban Green Blog.

Yetsuh Frank is a consultant in New York City. An architect, educator and writer, Yetsuh has more than 15 years experience spearheading sustainability throughout the building industry. Yetsuh was Director of Programs at Urban Green Council from 2008 to 2011.

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3 Comments so far

  1. chris says:

    I bought some Apple stock about ten years ago and it’s done quite well but I’ve always wondered when’s the right time to sell. I’ve been waiting for a sign, an omen…

    O !

  2. Great article, Yetsuh. Many companies in Silicon Valley are locating along the new light rail corridor. Unfortunately, Cupertino doesn’t have any rail or light rail service.

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