Skyscraper construction, and the financial system that underpins it, is not stopping any time soon, despite its detrimental impact on the environment
For nearly as long as they have existed, people have forecast the ‘death of the skyscraper’. Completed in 1931 during the Great Depression, the Empire State Building lay dormant for ten years – its early moniker was the ‘Empty State Building’. In 1950, Winston Weisman declared in the AR that a mixture of small plot sizes, regulations and construction costs meant that future skyscrapers could only be created by totalitarian states: ‘The skyscraper age is, in fact, ended,’ he wrote in AR March 1950.
Structural disasters have routinely sparked concerns about the dangers of high buildings. Only recently, however, have critics of the skyscraper considered the environmental impact of building at height; the City of London, for example, is currently under fire from experts over the conflict between its stated ‘net zero by 2040’ goal and ongoing plans to encourage commercial tall building developments. Yet supertall (over 300m) and megatall (over 600m) buildings remain a booming global business. According to data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), seven of the top 10 tallest buildings in the world have been completed since 2015, or are under construction. Last year, the 435m building at 111 West 57th Street in New York City by SHoP Architects was crowned the ‘skinniest’ skyscraper in the world, just as plans for a cube-shaped, 400m Riyadh skyscraper were being developed by the Saudi Arabian government. Of more conventional aspect ratio is the recently announced Skidmore, Owings & Merrill 8 Shenton Way, Singapore’s first supertall building, which is apparently inspired by bamboo forests and has therefore been insultingly greenwashed with a light covering of trees and timber balconies.
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The ecological point is important. Building at great height requires a massive amount more material than a typical high-rise. The upper storeys of super- and megatall buildings – which often include hundreds of metres of unoccupiable ‘vanity’ height – are buffeted by ferocious wind loads, with any sway at all introducing enormous destabilising forces into the structure below. They are home to hefty services that raise water, coolant, people and air to great heights, and these heights must be offset by deep underground foundations. ‘If you’ve ever seen any Revit models [of London high-rises, there is pretty much as much concrete in those foundations as there is above ground,’ says Natasha Watson, an engineer at Buro Happold who leads the firm’s efforts to measure and reduce embodied carbon in its projects. Even in areas with firmer ground than London, Watson explains, the awe-inspiring physics of skyscrapers has a huge material cost.
Winston Weisman declared the end of the skyscraper in the AR in 1950, as their construction slowed during the postwar years – not as a result of climate concerns
In an industry that is chronically lacking in transparency around its ecological, social and labour impact, it is difficult to find good data on the carbon footprint of skyscrapers. But the assessments that are available bear out the physics. Watson and her colleagues’ modelling shows that the efficiency of structural material usage, by floor area, drops above just three storeys. According to a 2015 study commissioned by the CTBUH, the whole life emissions of both energy use and materials for a 120m concrete and steel structure are nearly five times higher than those of its 60m equivalent. Who knows what the cost becomes at 600m?
It is not yet possible to avoid this cost by using less ecologically destructive materials. Although some 100m-tall timber buildings are beginning to appear, they are nowhere near the 600m ‘megatall’ mark. According to Watson, finding a sufficient volume and quality of reused steel and concrete structural components for such a large, high-performance building would also likely be challenging.
Even at city level, the huge carbon cost of skyscrapers fails to outweigh any potential benefits that they might achieve from restraining urban sprawl. A study in npj Urban Sustainability in 2021 showed that the most carbon-efficient way for cities to grow is by developing densely built low-rise environments. The carbon cost of taller buildings is greater than carbon savings from restricted land use. This means that high-density low-rise cities such as Paris are more carbon-efficient than high-density high-rise cities such as New York.
Proposals such as Point Park, Pittsburgh were seen as ambitious
Credit:The Architectural Review/F1 Colour
The only justifiable way to approach skyscraper projects is to take care of existing buildings. Academic and architecture writer Philip Oldfield has written extensively about high-rise renovations, describing the reimagination of Sydney’s 216m-tall Quay Quarter Tower as ‘no simple reskinning of an existing structure, no mere “retrofit”’. It is, he argues, ‘architecture transforming a building that had reached the end of its useful life into something entirely new’. The project team from 3XN and Australian firm BVN cut away just one third of the building, adding a twisted set of lower storeys to create terraces, open up harbour views and create new communal space for the tower’s users. Other architects and contractors have successfully retrofitted tall (though not yet supertall) buildings to Passivhaus standards, and renovated historic and cherished skyscrapers such as Manhattan’s 550 Madison Avenue – previously known as the AT&T Building – to plans by Snøhetta. For those buildings that are unusable, we can perhaps learn from the 2010–11 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a damaged high-rise was deconstructed piece by piece.
Although skyscrapers are ecologically devastating, it is worth thinking about why they continue to be built. In recent years, academics Jason Barr and Gabriel Ahlfeldt have noted that skyscraper construction is ‘predicted by economic fundamentals’. Being contingent on conditions in the wider real-estate sector, they are, to a large degree, signifiers of deeper trends in cities and economies.
One specific example is land prices. ‘We observe taller buildings in places that have higher land values,’ Barr explains. ‘We can think of developers as a type of urban farmer; the more it costs to acquire a lot, the more they must intensely develop the land in order to receive enough income to compensate for the high cost of the location.’ High land prices, of course, are not good for ordinary people and communities: they segregate societies along socioeconomic lines, with high costs of homes and rent pushing people into low standards of living, and risking their health, development and life chances. A city birthing new skyscrapers is likely to be unaffordable for many of its residents.
‘A city birthing new skyscrapers is likely to be unaffordable for many of its residents’
Skyscrapers also feed off the architectural sector’s warped relationship with technology. Architectural historian Barnabas Calder has documented how building heights have progressively bumped up every time new, fossil-fuel-hungry technologies, equipment and materials emerged: structural steel that could carry increasing tension forces; hydraulic lifting equipment that did not need deep underground pistons; and mechanical fire suppression, air, heat and water supplies that could work to dizzying heights. Today, enthusiasts promise further ‘progress’, from new damping systems, advanced concrete admixtures and complicated diagrid structures. Across the world, the time, money and energy of the built environment sector is funnelled into expensive luxury developments, projects in needlessly challenging physical environments, and rebuilds of perfectly functional spaces. Skyscrapers are the ultimate symbol of a real-estate system that is diverting the construction sector away from the urgent, under-resourced task of retrofits, affordable home creation, maintenance and material recycling.
Ultimately, all the problems with supertall buildings – the lack of genuine concern by their makers for ecological impact, and the high land values and distracting technologies that enable them – are entwined with the financialisation of architecture and our homes. In his 1950 ‘Skyscrapers: The Return to Earth’ article in the AR, Weisman argued that ‘only a totalitarian state’ could afford to build such buildings in the postwar era, not foreseeing the explosion of private financial real estate that would emerge under the neoliberal paradigm shift in the 1980s. This powerful new profit-seeking system, controlled by investors and asset managers, now has huge sway over what gets built where, for whom, and how. It turns out that the decisions it makes are often misaligned with what we actually need. Skyscrapers are ‘totemic markers of a period in which real estate is the ultimate asset class, more valuable than all the world’s stocks, shares and securitised debt combined’, wrote critic Oliver Wainwright in these pages some seventy years after Weisman’s piece (AR September 2019). ‘In a damning indictment of society’s priorities, these rampant vehicles for ceaseless wealth accumulation are burgeoning while homelessness [in New York] is at its
highest level since the Great Depression.’
The ecological case against building skyscrapers is incontrovertible – and, indeed, this may make them unviable under emerging embodied carbon regulations in some locations. But skyscrapers are an inevitable consequence of a built environment system that is geared towards profit creation and wealth accumulation, enabled by generous corporate tax systems, skewed planning legislation and a deregulated financial sector. They are created by owners, developers and managers who are only willing to grasp the ecological impact of their work when it magically lines up with profit expectations. If we start building fewer skyscrapers, let us hope that it is not just the result of piecemeal green regulations, but a deeper effort to take the ecological crisis and the welfare of those who live and work in our cities more seriously.
Source: The Architectural Review
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