Modern cities are forcing skyscrapers to evolve

Chicago, home of the skyscraper. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Slick, glassy skyscrapers cast their shadows over the streets and spaces of cities all over the world. These behemoths are notoriously inefficient: glass exteriors trap the sun’s rays during summer and haemorrhage heat throughout the winter, requiring year-round air conditioning and climate control. Dark interiors necessitate vast arrays of bright lighting, while hundreds of computers whirr 24 hours, consuming even more electricity.

At a time when energy efficiency is a matter of global significance, it’s worth considering how these dark, glass giants came to dominate the urban landscape – and how we can build to fix these flaws in the future. In fact, the modern skyscraper emerged from an architectural evolution, which started with the construction of Chicago’s tall office buildings during the 1880s.

UN building in New York. Image: United Nations Photo/Flickr/creative commons.

The iconic “International Style” skyscraper – a prismatic glass surface wrapped around a central service core – was envisioned during the 1920s and 1930s, by German architects who fled to America from Germany – notably Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. It was first built in America during the 1950s – the UN Building (1952), Lever House (1954) and the Seagram Tower (1958) of New York are seminal dark glass-walled office buildings, which spawned countless imitators worldwide, until the 1980s.

21st-century style icon

Although the limitations of the International Style became obvious in the late 20th century, when governments implemented stricter energy standards, glass still predominates as we approach 2020. Today’s office skyscrapers, particularly those seen in business districts in the Middle and Far East, use double skin facades – an outer skin of glass wrapping around the real building within – to maintain glassiness and permit daylight, while improving insulation and resistance to solar gain.

Energy-saving features, such as efficient lighting and energy-regenerating elevators are now normal. Trigeneration (heating-cooling-power plants) hum efficiently in the basements, while solar shading and openable windows are sometimes used to reduce air conditioning loads. Green planting is appearing in lobbies and sky gardens, fed by captured rainwater.

The way that cities and workplaces are developing demands even greater change. In an age of rising urbanisation, the American idyll of a compact high-rise business district, surrounded by a vast residential suburban sprawl served by freeways and shopping malls is simply not compatible with the land resources, population, energy and transport requirements of 21st-century cities.

To cope with the pressures of dynamic mass-transit systems and rising land values, urban citizens must grow accustomed to living – as well as working – in high-rise developments, clustered around key transport nodes.

La Defénse, Paris’ high-rise quarter. Image: IceNineJon/Flickr/creative commons.

Different cities are responding to these challenges in different ways. London has a policy of clustering tall buildings in groups around key rail stations, maintaining clear view lines in between. These clusters become magnets for additional office and residential towers.

Paris excludes skyscrapers from its centre altogether, limiting them to districts such as La Defense, at the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, China has built eerie “ghost cities”: entire districts of high-rise buildings, constructed prior to the population moving in.


Mixed-use futures

The way that people use skyscrapers is also changing. For one thing, the internet has reduced the demand for conventional offices. The current trend is for large trading floors, or landscaped office interiors with multi-screen workstations, hot-desking – and meetings held in daylit break-out spaces. There is less need for huge walls of glass. For daylight, there is a return to large glazed windows set in an insulating wall.

Among small businesses, there’s a demand for “incubator” offices, often in converted warehouses. Employees can work from home using video conferencing and virtual networks. Indeed, many redundant office buildings of the 20th century are already converted to residential uses, such as Metro Central and the Southbank Tower in London.

Another major trend is the mixed-use skyscraper, where parking, dining, transport, hotel, offices, social sky-parks, residences, colleges, health and leisure centres are stacked vertically into one single footprint, with food, beverage and retail outlets at ground level. This is becoming the norm in the newest tall buildings, especially in Japan and China.

Mixed-use towers make the best use of land and are more resilient to economic shocks because the rental income comes from lots of different sources – and the flows of people are balanced, instead of peaking twice daily. The idea started in Chicago in 1969, developed in China, and now appears in most global mega-cities. Examples include the London Shard, the Shanghai tower, PS100 (Singapore), Hysan Place (Hong Kong) and the proposed development at 470 11th Ave (New York).

Shanghai Tower. Image: andymiccone/Flickr/creative commons.

New techniques of construction such as ultra-stiff service cores, continuous concrete casting, outriggers, lattice frames and seismic damping systems have made it possible to build very tall. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa exceeds 800 metres, and Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower will reach to 1,000 metres when it’s finished.

The fifth generation emerges

Yet as we look forwards, the most significant trend will not be extravagant height – but energy efficiency. The skyscrapers of the future are those that architects call “fifth generation”, which aim for a carbon-neutral footprint, such as Melbourne’s Ch3, One Bligh Street, Sydney and One Angel Square, Manchester.

These exceptional new towers include a variety of eco-friendly innovations, such as renewable energy generation, solar shading and double-skin facades with natural ventilation. They will also feature greater thermal mass, landscaped atriums, underground heat storage, water catchment, recycling, linear induction elevators, as well as vertical urban farms, green planting, and facades and roofs that generate electricity.

The future cannot be found in a small number of freakishly tall designs. Rather, it is in the vast number of efficient, versatile skyscrapers, which will be essential to cope with growing urban populations and keep cities running.The Conversation

David Nicholson-Cole is assistant professor in architecture at the University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.