A city's office buildings very rapidly become part of the consciousness of the city's residents, but most people have only the foggiest notion of who builds them and who owns them.
Until recently, most commercial buildings, even those named for a company, were done by developers. They would go to a commercial bank to get a loan for the cost of the building while it was being erected. Then they would go to another bank or an insurance company to get a long-term mortgage on the building that would be paid off from the building's income.
This kind of development was dependent on an environment of relatively stable interest rates and a more or less predicatable structure of real estate values. But, in recent years, that stability has fallen apart. The long-term lenders have been making less than the rate of inflation on many of their loans. It has been a better time to own buildings than it has been to lend money.
The solution is for the moneylenders to become the builders. And the money they are using is mostly ours -- the huge resources of pension funds and life insurance that have become the major ways in which American's save.
The developer is still around, but he is more likely to become a partner of his erstwhile lender. Currently there are many possible projects for which developers have lined up options. The developers are wooing the big-money institutional investors who can turn pie-in-the-sky into something much more substantial.
Sometimes it all seems almost incestuous, as in the Logan Square development in Philadelphia, now under construction, in which INA, a Philadelphia -based insurer, is in a partnership with a Chicago-based development company, which is in turn a subsidary of another insurance company.
Generally, the insurance companies are not taking the lead in development in most cities, but they are always shopping around. They make the deals happen and they help to set the standards.
Changes in the nature of the client almost always have an effect on the quality of what gets built. It is usually true that most exciting buildings, and the very worst buildings, are usually built at the initiative of an individual who has a lot ego tied up in the project.
The arrival of the insurance company as a building/owner accentuates the well-established trend toward the client taking form of a committe of experts in narrowly defined areas. The building is seen as an opportunity to make a great number of expensive mistakes, and the building specialist is there to make sure that does not happen.
The temptation is to use what has worked before over and over again. In the last few years, the largest architectural firms have become still larger as they turn out more and more buldings for the same clients in cities all over the country. This phenomenon threatens to worsen the standardization of the environment as, from coast to coast, we live in the same houses, go to the same McDonalds, work in the same office buildings. t
But all is not negative, however. Because the pension-fund managers and such are interested in return over a long term, they will think of the long term when they are building. This implies use of high quality, durable materials. This promises to be an improvement over the often shoddy appearance and construction of the standard speculative office building , both in the city and in suburban areas.
And it means that they will be taking a good look at how much energy costs over the life of the building, something that will induce a lot of design innovation in the next few years as architects and engineers work on minimizing lighting, heating and cooling costs. Prudential has even underwritten research in air conditioning and has plans to build some buildings that will make use of what has been learned thus far.
Beauty is not the first concern of the money manager. But there is some evidence tht good-looking buildings rent better over the long haul than do nondescript ones. Perhaps it is not even too much to hope that someone will calculate the beauty -- once thought to be the result of sacrifice -- is just a prudent investment.