Chicago — According to the co-CEOs of Goettsch Partners (GP) — one native to Shanghai and both products of Chicago’s vaunted high-rise architecture tradition — lessons from the China experience range from technical innovations and super-creative designs to more balanced use mixes and user-friendly features such as operable windows so tenants can enjoy fresh air.

James Zheng, AIA, LEED AP

There are cautionary tales, too, adds GP co-CEO and president James Zheng, AIA, LEED AP, such as costly design competitions and overly complex government procedures on large-scale projects. “The success of architects and developers in Asia,” Zheng adds, “relies on a mix of design and technical expertise with a very personal level of service.”

Examples of the lessons from China, says Zheng, include:

Flexible financing models — The U.S. building scene is risk-averse and driven by third-party investors seeking pre-leasing arrangements, while China’s market strength and more flexible financing overcome many of the negatives, even with this year’s limiting of offshore funding. According to a recent talk by GP chairman and co-CEO Jim Goettsch, FAIA, between 1990 to 2017 — as the United States lurched through two major recessions — China supported a continued expansion with numerous changes in allowed methods for capitalizing construction.

More mixed-use, less single-use — In part due to U.S. investor needs and financing strictures, domestic projects tend to focus on single-use buildings, even when the local markets or project economics seemed to call for varied uses. “Across the United States now, we’re seeing more mixed-use property financing as banks and local governments realize the benefits of more varied urban solutions,” says Zheng, who adds that GP has projects in planning or construction in cities from Chicago to Nashville to San Francisco.

Taller, better designs — China has shown that tall buildings help win tenants, condo buyers and anchor tenants as they create the density and magnetism needed by neighborhoods and growing cities to be successful. In many cases, Chinese builders propose taller structures even though strict government approvals may be harder to win.

In the U.S., armed with case studies and research on economic impact and environmental benefits of high-rise projects, development teams are proposing taller and more creative towers in many major cities. Examples include GP’s Park Tower at Transbay project, a new high-rise in downtown San Francisco that Facebook recently leased in its entirety. “Height is proving to be a critical element of location decisions for companies like these, nudging some cities to improve their incentives for new investment,” adds Goettsch. In other cities, changes to zoning have been proposed.

Paul De Santis

Efficiency and economy? Or iconic designs? — U.S. developers tend to balance creativity with business models focused on maximizing value. Project efficiency, economical construction methods, and cleverly repeatable designs often win the day. In China, the tendency to favor unique aesthetics or instant-landmark appeal over value-engineering has drawn award-winning architects like GP into large-scale building projects in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Nanning, among other cities.

“We’ve seen how the Chinese approach brings high impact and lasting appeal into the process,” says GP partner Paul De Santis. “There is ultimately real wisdom in how this creates lasting, underlying value to developers.”