We zoom in on Schindler MetaCore, a brand-new elevator system based on Schindler PORT 4D technology designed to allow both new and existing buildings to be continuously – and rapidly – reconfigured to suit the needs of tomorrow.
We sat down with Florian Trösch, Head of GLP Transit Management, to get the lowdown on the latest innovation coming out of the Schindler PORT Innovation Lab. We discuss the appetite for this technology and its transformative potential – among many other topics.
FT: Schindler MetaCore is the culmination of an agile innovation process involving many stakeholders and discussion partners. It all started with the recognition that our world, now perhaps more than ever before, is marked by high levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and that this situation is likely here to stay.
We saw this as having direct implications on the way cities and buildings ought to be designed – with "future-proofing" as a fundamental principle. In practical terms, this meant that all new buildings should be ready for mixed-use, and that these mixed-use developments would need to be designed in a way that makes retrofitting them easy.
We felt that the only way to achieve this level of flexibility was to isolate the functions of a building from the infrastructure that supports it. We like to think of it as the "books and bookshelf" approach, where the bookshelf represents the building’s infrastructure, and the books symbolize its various functions – and just like books, these functions can be swapped out endlessly without altering the core infrastructure.
Traditionally, mixed-used buildings used different elevator groups for specific passenger groups – whether office workers, hotel guests, or residents. However, looking at the advanced functionalities offered by Schindler PORT 4D in terms of transit management, we realized it was technically feasible for the same elevator cabin to service different passenger groups without them ever coming into contact with each other – and, equally important, without ever compromising on travel experience. Schindler MetaCore was born.
This innovation represented a shift away from the "one function, one elevator group" approach, which has prevailed over the past 100 years – introducing a more flexible and versatile solution.
FT: Vacancy rate estimates aren’t available on a global scale, but estimates are available for certain markets. A recent report from McKinsey shows that vacancy rates have shot up in many large cities around the world, with these rates predicted to increase all the way up to 2030.
In the US, office vacancy rates were above 19% as of Q32022, according to JLL. In Canada, they came in at above 17% at the end of 2022, according to CBRE.
New York City is said to have the equivalent of 26 Empire State Buildings worth of empty office space after the pandemic, according to a report by The Independent. In London, vacancy rates shot up to above 26% as of end of 2022, compared to below 18% pre-COVID (FDI Intelligence, 2023).
Some figures are also available for specific business districts – and they tell the same story. For example, vacancy rates for office space in Manhattan were estimated at above 17% at the beginning of 2023 – the highest reading since 2000, when the data was first tracked.
FT: Mixed-use buildings are the foundation of our future cities, as they put an end to the mono-functional district concept that – among others – high-rise buildings have brought to town. They make cities and districts more vibrant, offering a greater quality of life and human-scale experience, providing the variety and inspiration that cities were originally known for.
A main advantage of these mixed-used developments is that, by providing easy access to daily necessities, they remove the need for carbon-intensive long-distance commuting, while creating more vibrant neighbourhoods and supporting healthier lifestyles – as walking and cycling to get around becomes the norm.
By using Schindler MetaCore we’ll be reducing the carbon footprint of mixed-use buildings even further, by removing the need for demolition altogether. What Schindler MetaCore does is essentially allow buildings to increase their longevity by giving them the option to reinvent themselves – seamlessly and endlessly. Building owners will be able to adapt their structures for new purposes at will.
FT: There seems to be an increasing appetite for mixed-use buildings, which also coincides with a mounting interest in alternative urban planning models like the 15-min city, which are largely built around mixed-use buildings.
Figures are hard to come by, though. But if we’re to believe real estate experts, the market is witnessing a boom in mixed-use mega projects, with an increasing number of mixed-used buildings incorporating a residential component coming out of the ground. In the US, ten percent of new apartments were in mixed-use buildings in 2021, versus only two percent in 2011, according to globest.com.
And we only expect this demand to rise, as mixed-use properties are inherently more flexible, therefore allowing property developers minimize the risk of “stranded assets” – allowing them to introduce new uses over time to generate new revenue streams. A Schindler MetaCore mixed-used building is one able to tackle these conversions with ease – keeping the risk of "stranded assets" at bay.
In the US, ten percent of new apartments were in mixed-use buildings in 2021, versus only two percent in 2011. Source: globest.com
A stranded asset is an investment that loses value before its expected useful life due to factors like climate change, stricter environmental policies, and changing societal expectations.
With climate change becoming a prime consideration for investors, and with sustainability regulation tightening, assets incompatible with a low-carbon economy face the risk of becoming stranded. Falling clean technology costs and increasing demand for environmentally friendly buildings also contribute to asset stranding.
FT: Mixed-use buildings have been around for many years, in all sorts of configurations. Often, hotels and residential buildings are combined, and many buildings in the far east have podium levels with shopping malls or entertainment spaces.
A good example is the International Commerce Center (ICC) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. You can find a railway station, a shopping mall and an ice rink at its base, while the upper floors house office space and a hotel.
While mixed-use buildings are not a new phenomenon, the concept behind them has undergone a transformation in recent years – with mixes that are more granular and flexible than before.
In the case of Omniturm, the architects deliberately put the apartments in the middle section of the building instead of on the top or bottom floors (as is usually the case) to emphasize the mixed-use character of the building. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of buildings offering offices and apartments on the same floor.
Mixed-use buildings open up lots of possibilities in terms of urban planning. But in our view, flexibility remains key, as it’s impossible to predict how society will evolve. Trends come and go – and, to some extent, that’s true for urban planning as well – but the flexibility our technology brings will never go away.
What we do know is that replacing buildings with new ones will never be a viable option. With Schindler MetaCore, we give future urban planners a permanent infrastructure they can continuously develop to suit the needs of their time.
FT: Repurposing is generally more sustainable. Compared to new construction, it requires less building material and less work – which ultimately means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Research on the environmental benefits of repurposing is quite unequivocal: Retrofitting an office building produces ~220 kg/sqm CO2 emissions, while constructing a new office produces 475-560 kg/sqm CO2, so approximately 2.2-2.6x more, recent studies conducted in US show. And we believe this to be a conservative estimate.
Of course, no repurposing project is the same. You’ll need to look at the type of concrete used and at the overall project approach, but, in most cases, repurposing will prove more sustainable.
While repurposing has largely been associated with modernization, we’ve found that Schindler MetaCore unlocks even greater sustainability benefits when used in specific retrofitting scenarios.
Lots of buildings need repurposing not because they need modernizing, but simply because they’ve been developed on a set of flawed assumptions during the planning stage. The conversion of these new buildings is relatively easy and we can make a huge positive environmental impact with Schindler Metacore by avoiding their demolition. Furthermore, when a building is designed along our Schindler MetaCore principles – with a clear view toward endless repurposing – the amount of repurposing-related C02 emissions can be further reduced to close to zero.
FT: The drastic drop in demand for office space has led property developers to turn to repurposing. COVID has certainly accelerated that trend by pushing office vacancy rates through the roof, but mixed-use developments were already on the rise before the pandemic broke out. According to The Real Deal, a trade publication tracking real estate transactions, current retrofitting projects in NYC alone represent a combined project value of nearly USD 2 billion, which is a massive amount.
We’ve seen in recent months many projects involving office space sitting empty being repurposed into residential space, which is much more in demand. This repurposing trend is often supported by local governments, which often incentivize retrofits by way of tax breaks, for example. We’ve also seen hotels (or parts of hotels) turned into apartments.
And this trend doesn’t show any sign of abating. In the west, the fact that at 80% of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been built means retrofitting will only gain in prominence.
FT: It’s obviously easier to repurpose buildings that have been designed from the outset with repurposing in mind – and we very much hope that we can persuade the architectural community to embrace this approach.
But we’ll have to be pragmatic: If 80% of all the buildings that will exist by 2050 are already here, ensuring their transformation is a priority. To that end, we’ve begun a series of studies, together with architects, to determine the feasibility of conversions across a range of different scenarios. We’ve found out that by using Schindler MetaCore even configurations that at first glance seemed problematic can be radically adapted.
For example, we looked at a NYC office building with large floor plates allowing very little natural daylight into the central area. We found that with a novel staggered two-level apartment structure by the windows, enough daylight could be preserved to create vibrant commercial spaces in the center of the structure.
FT: We have a few concepts in the works, each aimed at to further increasing the benefits of Schindler MetaCore, and which we’ll gradually integrate over the coming years.
But more generally, we’re still in the process of understanding the massive positive implication this innovation has on our future city designs. We believe that much in the same way that we helped build the cities of today with our current elevator technology, we’ll help shape the cities of tomorrow with Schindler MetaCore – and that’s an extremely exciting prospect.