Will Apple's New Campus Be "The Greenest Building on the Planet"?

On September 22 at Climate Change NYC, Apple CEO Tim Cook, referring to the under construction Apple Campus 2, said, "We're building a new headquarters that I think will be the greenest building on the planet." While Apple is taking many laudable strides to make its new headquarters function sustainably, environmental impact must take account of more than just daily energy use.

According to a project submittal, the Foster + Partners plan for the 176-acre campus will house 12,000 employees in the 2,800,000 square foot main building and include an underground 1,000-seat auditorium. Impressively, Apple expects to generate 8MW via photovoltaics onsite and source the remainder of their power needs from renewable sources. Apple has already built data centers with on-site energy production and its products unfailingly achieve EPEAT Gold ratings, so there is no reason to doubt their commitment, particularly under Tim Cook, to reducing energy usage of the buildings they inhabit. Additionally, but less believably, Apple VP of Environmental Initiatives Lisa Jackson projects that they will leave the HVAC system off 75% of the time.

(Credit: Apple)

(Credit: Apple)

All of that said, energy use at the headquarters itself can never measure the site's full impact on the environment, and Apple's focus on that presents an uncharacteristically retrograde and narrow view of an issue from a company that prides itself on solving problems we didn't know we had.

No amount of "gizmo green", author and architect Steve Mouzon's term for "the proposition that we can be green just by using better equipment and better materials", can overcome Apple Campus 2's fundamentally unsustainable design. The project's particular construction materials, including the "6 kilometers of glass" that will be shaped in and shipped from Germany, and exacting method of construction ("Jobs insisted that the tiny gaps where walls and other surfaces come together be no more than 1/32 of an inch across, vs. the typical ⅛ inch in most U.S. construction.") all add to the embodied carbon of the building, which must be considered in any whole-life sustainability evaluation. Even such a study, however, takes much for granted. For a true understanding, the entire property plan must be called into question.

Because of the embodied carbon inherent in demolition and construction, a building achieves its greatest sustainability simply by not being torn down or destroyed for a very long time. Here, we look to the Vitruvian triad of firmitas, utilitas, venustas (solid, useful, beautiful), which itself have lasted centuries. Assuming the engineers have done their job to keep the building standing up and tabling an evaluation of beauty for a later time, it's difficult to imagine the campus's usefulness beyond what it is currently designed to do. Paul Goldberger, writing in January's Vanity Fair, correctly identifies the "inflexible" headquarters plan as "less a building than a perfectly designed object, like an iPod". How can Apple add to the main office building without destroying its singular purity or add buildings to the campus without compromising its serene landscape? Certainly it cannot be subdivided to accommodate additional tenants, as a typical office building can, in the event of Apple's unimaginable decline. When Apple expands its campus outward with more new construction or the current buildings are bulldozed, additional carbon and resources will unnecessarily be expended.

By closing itself off and looking quite literally inward, Apple Campus 2 becomes, in the words of Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, "a doggedly old-fashioned proposal, recalling the 1943 Pentagon building as well as much of the suburban corporate architecture of the 1960s and '70s". In locating its future, and futuristic, home at the intersection of an interstate, strip malls, office parks, and single-family sprawl, Apple has chosen to accept and indeed worsen Silicon Valley's current car dependent, anti-urban form.

Apple's future neighbors. (Credit: Google Maps)

Apple's future neighbors. (Credit: Google Maps)

Far away from the "Environmental Sustainability" section of the project submittal linked above, the "Transportation and Parking" section tells us that Apple will eliminate a through street with bicycle lanes, forcing traffic onto bordering streets that will then require widening. Incredibly, the campus will include nearly 11,000 parking spaces for employees, which assumes that 85% will arrive by car.

(Credit: Apple)

(Credit: Apple)

To get a rough idea of the effect of the commuter culture Apple is creating, assuming 80% parking capacity (8,800 cars) and using average area commute information (30 minutes each way at 14.3 mph and 34.3 passenger mpg), employees would create 17,952,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per year. Apple is seemingly unconcerned with the macroenvironmental effects of its decision to spend billions to isolate itself from its current environs instead of creating new places its own employees may actually want to live and spend time. Jeff Speck's Walkable City cites research concluding that intelligent millennials, the people Apple presumably would like to hire, prefer to live in denser, walkable neighborhoods, like South Lake Union in Seattle where Amazon is relocating. What could Apple, with its hoard of cash reserves and influence as the largest taxpayer in Cupertino, have done differently with its massive site?


Transported, Apple Campus 2 would stretch across the National Mall from the White House to the Holocaust Museum or span nearly from Central Park to Bryant Park.

Apple Campus 2 vs. D.C. (Credit: Josh Arcurio)

Apple Campus 2 vs. NYC (Credit: Josh Arcurio)

But unlike the National Mall or New York City, there is no going through Apple Campus 2, only around it. It is an enormous plot of land for Apple, perpetuating past notions of land use at the expense of the future. What if Apple, instead of rounding out the Pentagon, decided to create a modern Hershey, Pennsylvania?

Thankfully, Hillel Schocken, after penning an open letter to Steve Jobs, directed the creative energy of his architecture students at the University of Tel Aviv to this very question with an "Apple City" studio. Shay and Amir Levanon's "Cupertino & Apple 2030" is a thoroughly researched work encompassing use studies and precedent to inform a master plan that creates what the NRDC's Kaid Benfield describes as "a new, walkable street grid; human-scaled rental housing of various types; space for local businesses; neighborhood parks and gardens; places for retail; daycare and kindergarten facilities, not just for Apple employees but for the community; and nightlife and entertainment."

Cupertino & Apple 2030 master plan (Credit:  Shay and Amir Levanon)

Cupertino & Apple 2030 master plan (Credit: Shay and Amir Levanon)

Buildings and transportation account for 72% of CO2 emissions, and we know that urban areas with mixed uses and transit options are more carbon efficient than their suburban, economically and functionally segregated counterparts. By creating a network of blocks incorporating a variety of use, Apple could have created residential and commercial density, saving far more land than will be left green on its campus, reducing commuting time for employees who would have had the opportunity to live nearer to work, and increasing the housing supply in a contentious region.