Super Green-Washing Silicon Valley, Not Super-Green or Sustainable Developments

Business in Silicon Valley is booming again and the commercial real estate sector is hot, especially from Palo Alto to Santa Clara and up the Peninsula all the way to San Francisco. The three current giants of Silicon Valley, Apple, Google and Facebook have all recently announced new mono-development, monolithic campuses in Silicon Valley. Apple’s mammoth “Donut From Outer-space” planned for Cupertino, but bordering a suburban West San Jose residential neighborhood has received most of the publicity because, well, it’s Apple and it is massive: 2.8 million SF.

In comparison, the proposed Facebook West Campus expansion project is a bit less than 500K SF while the planned new Google campus on NASA Ames property will be about 1 million SF.

On March 14, 2013, Peter Burrows published an article for Bloomberg Businessweek titled, “Silicon Valley Tech Giants Plan Super-Green Campuses”. As a certified Sustainable Facilities Professional, I would characterize these developments as Green-Washing, not Green or sustainable developments.

Mr. Burrows lists all sorts of green features that each development will allegedly offer, but they are each the same old, tired mono-use, monolithic developments to corporate “greatness” that have been around for 50 years For example, Apple has announced that its new campus will contain solar panels and fuel cells that will generate most of the site’s electrical needs. This is a nice green feature that addresses the supply side of energy for the campus, the donut-shaped design of the main building completely ignores the site, including how to best minimize solar gain in the summer and maximize it in the winter. This means that Apple will miss out on a tremendous opportunity to show how to design a large complex center that will require a minimal amount of energy (demand) to heat and cool it. As far as I know (and nothing was cited in the article) neither Facebook or Google address solar citing in their new developments aside from designing “a parklike roof complete with mature oak trees” and “landscaped green roofs” respectively.

Sustainable facilities also mean reducing waste and the Apple project will produce a tremendous amount of waste as they are planning to demolish approximately 2.65 million square feet of existing office, research and development buildings and build an office, research and development building comprising approximately 2.8 million square feet plus a few other support buildings on the site. Such a waste as I would have liked to see a truly sustainably-minded architect see how most of the existing buildings could have been creatively adapted for Apple rather than just tossing it like an old iPhone for the latest model.

Then there are the 2,300 underground parking spaces plus the 5,800 space parking garage that will be required because Apple chose a site with virtually now public transportation in the middle of Silicon Valley. This isn’t totally Apple’s fault, but a serious problem in Silicon Valley caused by a vision in the 1960s to emulate LA’s sprawl and build an Exurb rather than properly plan an urban environment. The automobile-based transportation system and the poorly designed and fragmented public transportation systems have forced workers to use their cars for commuting as well as every other activity in Silicon Valley. For Facebook’s Barn-On-The-Bay, they are planning for “drivers will stow their cars on the ground floor of the 425,000-square-foot edifice” because again, they are choosing to build nowhere near a public transportation system. Like Facebook, Google’s new campus will be mono-use development by the bay with no VTA Lightrail or Caltrains stations nearby. To their credit, I had heard that Google originally wanted to build a mixed use development, including housing but once short-sighted city of Mountain View turned that down we will have another mono-use, monolithic development with no connection to the surrounding community like the planned Apple Donut from outer space.

It would have been great if these companies could have invested some of the money they are spending on their corporate monuments towards an expansion or improvement of our public transportation systems to help create the type of environment that their talented young employees want – a true urban environment, like San Francisco. Based on what I have seen thus far from these three developments, none of them will change that and actually contribute towards the 1960s LA sprawl that Silicon Valley has aspired to for over 50 years.

An addendum to this story six months later – The Cupertino city council is scheduled to vote on Apple’s donut campus on October 1, 2013. According to an Article in the San Jose Mercury News, they quoted a proponent of the campus who states, “This campus will be an icon, it will be one of the seven wonders of the tech world,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose-based technology analyst who heads Enderle Group.

Yes, future generations will look back at this as the epitome of unsustainable design.

“It will be a huge advantage for Silicon Valley,” Enderle said. “The campus will attract a lot of tourist traffic.”

It will certainly attract a lot of new traffic, which is one of my top objections to this project; do we really want “tourist traffic” as well?

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