Apple’s New Home Base is an iPhone

Apple headquaters cupertinoThe most recent set of flashy renderings of Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, California make the goals of the building unmistakably clear. With a design from Norman Foster, the tech company’s mothership is depicted as a pristine white ring nestled in a large site strewn with greenery. When we look at the images that include different combinations of white, glass and foliage it is hard not to say “of course.” Of course this is Apple’s new corporate club house. The design is sleek and detailed for modern simplicity. Everything about the building’s appearance resonates with an image of next generation technology. It is kind of like a big iPhone. I would say that the new campus is the perfect manifestation of Apple’s entire business in almost every way, save for one thing: it is trying to be green. This new headquarters is making some strides in its attempts to be more environmentally friendly, but some key aspects still raise the question of whether it is really all that sustainable.

Apple 2.0

The “ring” encloses a massive 2.8 million square feet of space to house an estimated 13,000 employees—one third larger than Bank of America’s headquarters in New York at One Bryant Park. The building has a fair amount of terrain to buffer it from surrounding sites with the entire campus taking up an impressive 176 acres of land. According to the company, the new project will bring “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s brand values of innovation, ease of use and beauty.” In that, the company and architect have succeeded.

apple cupertino exterior

Word on the street is that the building does have some “features” that try to mitigate its environmental impact. The largest could very well be the solar panels that wrap the entire roof. Some estimates peg the total capacity at 8 megawatts, making it the largest non-utility solar installation in the country. Paired with an on-site, bio-gas fuel cell, the renewable energy production is claimed to bring the equivalent amount of power needed for the entire campus. Admittedly, building 2.8 million square feet to net-zero standards is no small gesture. To top it off, the company scooped up Lisa Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency for the Obama Administration, to serve as their Environmental Director–a tough act to follow.

I could talk about how inefficient it most likely is to produce, ship and install the single pieces of 4-story, concave glass that will wrap the entire buildings–or making an all glass building to begin with. I could talk about the questionable efficiency of stretching space out in a doughnut that is nearly 1/3 mile across rather than congregating it together or stacking it higher. We could weigh how much of the construction waste from the existing buildings on site will be recycled (or not) and how much of the anticipated new materials will be ecologically responsible. But the Achilles heel of the project comes with its siting and resulting link to car-dependence.

According to a release by the City of Cupertino last month, the new facility will include 2,385 basement parking spaces, a parking structure with an additional 5,000 spaces and a surface parking lot, presumably for visitors.

apple company garagesThe U.S. Census says the average commute of Americans is about 16 miles traveled each way in 25.5 minutes or a total of 32 miles a day. In a previous article I looked at the comparison of energy usage between driving gasoline powered cars and producing electricity. If we assume that all 7,385 cars comply with current CAFE standards (most likely a generous baseline) then each car would be responsible for around 4,145 Btus per mile for a grand total of 979 million Btus of travel energy every day.

One could argue that the renewable energy of the facility could help offset the net energy demand of its location–a fair point. Let’s assume that each kilowatt hour of solar offsets one coming from a natural gas plant. From the same former article, we can use 6,031 Btu/kwh delivered for the energy required to generate power. At a site that averages around 5.1 sun hours per day, an 8 MW solar array can yield an average of 40,800 kwh every day to offset about 246 million Btus of natural gas power production or a little more than 25% of the energy needed for workers’ commutes by car. Put another way, placing the new facility in a site that would reduce driving by half would do more to help the environment then all of the renewable energy used on the site.

For a company that could afford to spend $5 billion on a new corporate center, it is hard to imagine any serious constricting factors to dictate the final outcome. This is a facility that could have been anything and placed just about anywhere. There is no reason why Apple’s brand new home could not have been the foundation for a walkable community–either a new one or breathing new life into an old one. For all of its glitz, the roots of this new building still sit in the dated development pattern of a corporate office park, hanging its hat on automobiles for accessibility–strange for a company that prides itself on rethinking the way that we live. In order for real sustainable progress, some of these core assumptions of where we put space and how we access it need to evolve.

It’s an iPhone

Now take an iPhone. There is an argument to be made that the growth of the internet and digital media has net-positive benefits to the environment. The creation of the iPhone is a sleek, impeccably designed, convenient way to promote communication and access to information. Its intuitive design extends beyond the physical hardware to the programming itself so that just about everyone can figure out how to use it.

At the same time, we have yet to reach equilibrium with the infrastructural footprint needed to host the new degree of connectivity that we have come to treat as commonplace. As space requirements of the digital ether increase, so to grows the huge energy load of the world’s data centers. But more importantly, the iPhone itself represents the fastest growing portion of our country’s waste stream: e-waste. This is a component of trash that is incredibly resource-intensive to produce and very complicated to recycle, and it is fed by a product stream that is only designed to last 24 months before a new version is pitched to loyal consumers. A greener phone would be one that was designed to not need a case and would last twice as long.

Both of these Apple creations are well-designed pieces of equipment that promote evolution in how we live and work. On the other hand, both of them are still contributing to life-cycle patterns that are ultimately detrimental in ways that are not very forward-thinking. In the future, Apple’s game-changing perspective on reprogramming the future could be applied to the most fundamental components of its facilities. Cell phones, like office space, might currently be necessities to our way of life, but of all the ways to provide them we are still choosing the a glamorous path rather than a sustainable one.

Image Credit: City of Cupertino