Skidmore Owings Merrill’s proposed new tower for San Francisco

Think the words “Green Skyscraper” are an oxymoron? Whatever your feeling on energy-guzzling giant steel monoliths…. “green” super-towers seem to becoming quite the rage, from the myriad of green monstrosities going up in Dubai and Bahrain, to New York’s LEED Platinum Bank of America Building, to the new sustainably-minded World Trade Center designs – developers around the globe seem to be trying to outdo one another no longer just with height – but also with the “greenness” of their super tall skyscrapers.

Now the city of San Francisco is jumping on the green skyscraper train with brand new plans to build the west coast’s tallest skyscraper ever as part of the new Transbay Terminal development.

Skidmore Owings Merrill’s proposed new tower for San Francisco

This new transit station proposed for San Francisco is proposed to be equivalent to Grand Central Station in New York City — a major transportation hub which will connect a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles (any day now…..we’re waiting, Arnie…)

The three proposed skyscraper designs, by SOM, Pelli Clarke Pelli and Richard Roger’s Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, are all over 1200 ft (nearly 1/3 higher than the current skyscraper champion in San Francisco, the 853 ft Transamerica Pyramid). All feature large wind turbines on the roof to provide renewable energy for the building. Wind turbines certainly make sense on buildings this tall, as the amount of wind in San Francisco at 1200 feet is likely to be significant.

Despite the nice gesture of the wind turbines, we’re a little skeptical about the environmental ramifications for a tower this tall in San Francisco. First of all, the amount of construction materials, labor, and especially steel that is needed to make something like this structurally sound is going to be enormous. Then there is the issue of all of the light that is going to be blocked by this tower, and impact the shadows are going to have on buildings and parks around the tower. And finally, the possibility for massive earthquake damage in a building this high in San Francisco scares the *&#! out of us. Of course we realize that any designs that actually get built will be seismically engineered up the wazoo to deal with this very issue, but since we’ve been “waiting for the big one” for the past 20 years, the idea of setting foot in any one of these designs makes us a bit nervous.

Our favorite design – proposed by Skidmore Owings Merrill

In terms of the designs themselves, we weren’t initially too bowled over by the images getting publicized in SFGate and the local newspapers. However, upon closer inspection and some digging around SOM’s website, we turned up a bunch of stunning renderings which have us warming up to this new San Francisco skyscraper idea.

In our opinion the best of the bunch is the SOM design, which twists from base to top in an elegant torque, surrounded by a flower-like lattice structure. The shape of the SOM design almost looks like an inverse Transamerica Pyramid, and we feel this aesthetic is in keeping with local skyscraper flavor. Since all three designs incorporate wind turbines, we’ve got to hand it to all the teams of architects for making an effort to be environmentally thoughtful. The green transit hub proposal is certainly a step in the right direction, and we are proud of San Francisco for taking bold steps and trying to make new developments more sustainable. We hope the SOM design is picked as the winner for the transit hub, as this is one design we would be proud to see bringing San Francisco to a new level of cosmopolitanism, and helping to establish San Francisco as the world class city it is.


+ Skidmore Owings Merrill Transbay Terminal Design

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  1. Nomoremaos March 6, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    You are concerned with steel, labor, shadows and earthquakes?! Visit a 100 cities in Asia to see why your viewpoint Is the reason why American cities are second rate.

  2. Fred September 23, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    There is a need for more jobs near mass transit systems. The more that cities expand the more people have to drive their cars to get to their jobs. The bay area already has enough traffic and by consolidating jobs in a central area will benefit everyone

  3. John September 19, 2007 at 12:38 am

    real nice city plans , better than ugly buildings spread over the country side , were you only can come by car , this buildings are ” cleaner ” and so modern , I from the Netherlands were space is a problem , this buildings are so much better ,

  4. racheblue August 13, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    I agree with eco-tom. How can a skyscraper be green regardless of how many wind turbines it has on it. There is no need for a building this tall.

    Sam said: “Why so critical of building vertically? Would you rather have this much office space sprawled across numerous locations in the suburbs? Then you would have all the pollution overhead of setting up a thousand small offices rather than one large one. They wouldn’t be building something this big unless they knew they could fill it with tenants, and those potential tenants are going to set up shop somewhere”

    I’m sure the building would be full but that’s not necessarily a good thing. We need to re-think how we work to avoid sky-high buildings crammed full of people. If more of us worked from home more often or even just near to home, we would use less resources (less travel pollution, less energy to power large building etc. Sure we still need power on a local basis but this can be reduced by more efficient local offices and working practices and using current buildings rather than making building new ones for no real beneficial reason.

    i believe we should focus on making what we already have more sustainable and efficient instead of building new offices that only increase the problems we ought to be trying to solve.

  5. eco_tom August 12, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    “Many” people may support the construction of a tower but they are not part of the structure. It IS a risk to build this in a quake zone and popular opinion is not going to make it less risky. BTW I’m all for towers where they make sense.

    The greenest “tower” would be people working at home or in satellite offices near their homes with broadband providing videoconferencing between parties. Imagine the burbs developing commercial centers and becoming more city-like.

  6. Arron August 10, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    ‘Towering Inferno’ anyone? Is it wise to put a building of that height in an area noted for earthquakes, and part of which is built on fill? Huh…I don’t think so.

  7. Sam Hill August 9, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    “..1200 ft is the height of the Empire State Building – there is nothing even close to that height currently in San Francisco. One of the reasons for this is the problems of earthquakes…”

    What about Taipei 101? or the Petronas Towers?

    Your argument about the inability to build super-tall buildings in an earthquake zone are specious at best. Many more people support the construction of such a building in San Francisco than do not.

  8. Jill August 9, 2007 at 3:00 am

    Hi everyone-

    I feel like I really must address some of the comments here. I wanted to do more than a generic news report on this potential new tower, and express an opinion on the designs, and that’s what I did — however much of a snap judgment it was, based on renderings and news reports. I had a feeling my quick report might irritate some of the architects who submitted designs for this competition, but that was not my intention — I respect all the designs submitted and really appreciate all the architects who thought about energy issues and worked wind turbines into the design.

    SAM & RYAN – I am not criticizing dense cities or building vertically. I live in NYC and believe dense urban living (with shared resources and public transportation) is one of the best things we can do for the planet. If you read the post more closely, you will see that what I am skeptical about in this particular design is simply building a building this high in San Francisco. 1200 ft is the height of the Empire State Building – there is nothing even close to that height currently in San Francisco. One of the reasons for this is the problems of earthquakes. San Francisco is very earthquake prone and it is hard to build a building this high that is seismically safe. Especially in that area of San Francisco, which borders on landfill. So, it’s just the height I am questioning here… not the idea of building towers in general.

    BRENT – Okay you got me here. Yes, I was generally questioning the “greenness” of a tower this high in San Francisco — wind turbines or no — and then I just happened to like some of SOM’s renderings. Yes, my review was sort of a snap judgment based on my initial reaction to the renderings, what I read in the news reports and on the architect’s website (I DID GO TO ALL THE ARCHITECTS’ WEBSITES), and what I know about building in San Francisco. It wasn’t a thorough thoughtful analysis and it wasn’t meant to be. I was just trying to report the news with a little bit of a personal perspective. Since all three towers seemed similar in “greenness” at first glance (all roughly the same height, all using wind turbines), I figured that aesthetics was the main basis of comparison. Apparently I was wrong.

    That said, I’m very glad you pointed me to more of the green details of the Pelli Clarke Pelli design. These sound very promising and weren’t really very obvious from any of the press releases or news reports that came out. You should try to get your team to play up this aspect of the designs more! Since – as they say – “you have 3 seconds to make an impression”, and most people don’t have tons of time to read through boards, you should make these elements of your design more visually apparent.

    For my part, I will read up in more depth on all three designs. I was just trying to get the breaking news and get the post up as quickly as possible without simply copy/pasting a press release. It’s hard to read through that much material and form a careful, educated opinion in 1/2 an hour when time is of the essence. Now that I have time to digest, more thoughts will follow….

    Thanks for reading!
    Best wishes-

  9. Ryan Baker August 9, 2007 at 1:41 am

    I don’t know why big cities get such a bad environmental reputation. City dwellers produce much less pollution than suburbanites, and less than rural as well (excepting the back wood type, or some other rare and extreme lifestyles).

    Looking at a tree doesn’t help it grow. You may feel more environmental in the country, but unless you hiked there (and driving to the hiking trail doesn’t count), you’re probably not.

    Perhaps David Owen says it more eloquently.

  10. Brent Bucknum August 9, 2007 at 1:27 am

    It seems like you questioned the “greenness” of the designs, then supported SOM’s for purely aesthetic reasons?”In our opinion the best of the bunch is the SOM design, which twists from base to top in an elegant torque, surrounded by a flower-like lattice structure.” Is your decision justifiable from a green standpoint? Does it win because it is the greenest or you just think it’s sexy?

    I also question the comment about oxymoronic green skyscrapers. From a habitat preservation, open space conservation and sustainable land use model, they can be extremely “green”. If we had these technologies, when first developing SF, maybe we wouldn’t have had to destroy 75% of the bay’s wetlands? And, it’s only getting worse, SF bay area is now the 5th densest populations in the country, with projections of 10 million new people moving here over the next 25 years. For better or worse , I think we need to turn to towers to preserve the little open space and ecological function we still have…

    I think you should read the booklet that goes along with the glossy eye candy or at least the design boards that were displayed and choose more judiciously. (I can send it along if your interested)

    Before getting into it, I have to admit I’m on the Pelli team, to eliminate a sense of false subjectivity!
    To give a little more detail, of the elements we were involved in, the 5.4 acre living roof for the Pelli project is designed to treat all greywater and blackwater from the tower as well as serve as a public park, with over 45 native plant communities and wetland restoration on the roof. Fountains powered by the bus movement airates the greywater treatment wetlands. There are also microbial biofilters and living walls designed to process all the exhaust from the terminal. From my perspective as the ecological design firm on the project, this architect and developer encouraged us to push the boundaries of our living architecture work and sustainable urban design to innovative heights. Unfortunately it all doesn’t get shown in the renderings…

    I have valued your and sarah’s opinions in the past and would appreciate if you dug deeper in your green assessment and not just get caught up in the glossy render-hype and the one competitors web site you said you went to.



  11. Matt August 8, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Can anyone say “More than meets the eye”

    Does the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners render look a little transformer-esk to anyone else???

  12. K August 8, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    The latest news is that the Arnie is quietly trying to scrap those train plans. Unless something changes, these pictures are likely to be the last we see of this concept. Californians will be stuck using our conventional transport. It seems like a pity.

  13. george August 8, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    there is now way that any building of that height, regardless of environmental soundness, will be accepted by San Franciscans. Its absolutely horrendous and I would never step foot in anything of such size. after living in new york city near ground zero during 2001, you couldnt pay me to even come close to that thing.

  14. Michael August 8, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    I am not a big fan od SOM they are remindful of the “Microsoft Bully” of the architecture world. Just ask Daniel Libeskind who won the design competition for the new World Trade Center in NYC. SOM bullied their way into redesigning the Trade Center with a much less inferior design and used their political muscle to take over the project.

  15. Sam August 8, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Why so critical of building vertically? Would you rather have this much office space sprawled across numerous locations in the suburbs? Then you would have all the pollution overhead of setting up a thousand small offices rather than one large one. They wouldn’t be building something this big unless they knew they could fill it with tenants, and those potential tenants are going to set up shop somewhere.

  16. Funky SF Building Conce... August 8, 2007 at 9:47 am

    […] Funky SF Building Concept Published August 8th, 2007 Architecture Link via Inhabitat […]

  17. Hun Boon August 8, 2007 at 5:12 am

    hmm… This is more nicely resolved, but does the SoM design remind anyone of the “bird’s nest” stadium in Beijing? And that attracted a LOT of flak.

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