Blog: 6 January 2020Harnessing the true potential of tall buildings

Peter Newton

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Peter Newton

Architectural Director

Reading office

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Since Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building ushered in the era of towers built of glass and steel, our attitude towards tall buildings has evolved. These structures have a certain permanence, as demolition is an expensive task, so each one has become a fixture within our ever-taller skylines. With this great permanence should come great responsibility: to the people who live and work in and around them, and to the surrounding natural and built environments.

Yet we routinely see the failure of tall buildings to meet these exacting standards. The construction methods they require have a large carbon footprint. The completed structures, enveloped in cases of glass, often result in a significant environmental impact, as consistent temperatures, often in large atriums, need to be maintained along with vast networks of technical and electrical systems. These buildings risk becoming looming monuments to our lack of foresight and planning. But we do have a chance to embrace a solution, and that need not be tearing them down.

Building better and smarter

The first part of this solution is a simple willingness to build better tall buildings. The RHW.2 tower in Vienna pioneered a new approach to sustainable height by becoming the first high-rise office block to be certified to PassivHaus standards. This was achieved with a well-insulated, double-layered façade which provides an airtight and thermally efficient space, along with floorplates designed so that daylight penetrates as deeply into the interior as possible. Furthermore, it uses ecologically certified construction materials to limit the carbon footprint of its construction.

Since its completion in 2012, few have followed its example, but this tide may finally be turning as investors are starting to bank on sustainability and the potential profits it offers. Compared to the average UK office block, RHW.2 uses only 26% of the electrical energy and 17% of the heating energy, while its enhanced predeicted lifespan means that the savings can be financially, as well as environmentally, significant.

Planning with height in mind

But tall buildings also have the capacity to provide great benefits to the wider community, providing they are designed with due consideration of their surroundings. Context is everything and this is the second part of the solution.

The housing density necessary for our increasingly populous world can be delivered by tall towers, but the benefits are not all functional. A recent study from Aarhus University in Denmark found that children growing up in an urban environment with high-quality green space, close access to trees, plants, and grass were less prone to mental health issues in later life – even when compared to those growing up in rural environments. This means that careful design and planning, linking greenery and tall buildings together, could result in a harmonious and healthy place to live and thrive.

Barton Willmore and Vivid Economics’ new Greenkeeper tool measures, set to be launched in March 2020, will hugely enhance all our understanding of the value green space provides. Via an easy to use platform it will enable us – developers, local authorities and communities alike - to assess performance and the potential to improve its value, thereby ensuring that we collectively design green inffrastructure which delivers maximum benefit to local communities.

Furthermore, at a time when we fear for our high streets, providing high-density housing that is walking distance from town centres encourages offline shopping, alongside the environmental advantage of people walking to shops rather than driving. A proper mix of uses in our urban centres is the key to the success of the high street and this is just one of the surprising environmental benefits from clustered tall buildings. Increased public transport use, for example, alongside walking and cycling, all play into the fact that when cities expand by 100%, their carbon footprints only increase by 80%.

Are we brave enough?

However, this part of the solution can lead to challenges for planners. Segregating green space and urban space is outdated and causes unhappiness for those in the concrete jungle. Yet suggesting that high-rise buildings should be constructed facing onto green areas causes other issues. Reading, for example, has attractive and underused green space by the riverside, with good links into the city, which would be perfect for urban development that embraces green living, but its position near to an area of outstanding natural beauty has so far limited development. Overcoming our gut response to developing these areas and appreciating the capacity for well-designed buildings within green urban space, is an important step in achieving sustainable cities.

If planners and developers are brave enough to look to our green spaces to provide the answers to the flaws of urbanisation, and businesses  willing to invest in sustainable high-rise buildings, we can achieve liveable, modern spaces with tall buildings. Tall buildings that are both high-quality and environmentally sustainable, while still defining the skylines of the future.

As published in Estates Gazette.

Posted with the following keywords:
Tall Buildings, Design, Planning, Environmental, Urban Greenspace