How green is your skyscraper? Why the most sustainable buildings might be low-rise

Well, this one's pretty green. The Empire State Building, in its St Patrick's Day gladrags. Image: Getty.

The fact a controversial cornucopia of towers is coming London’s way is well known – and some who support this development claim that towers are “greener” than low-rise living.

But are they? My new research project at UCL’s Energy Institute (conducted in association with Create Streets) will try to discover if high-rise buildings are more energy-intensive than equivalent low-rise buildings. At present the evidence is uncertain, but there are suggestive hints. We intend to test them.

Many variables can affect tall buildings’ energy use – and only some of them relate to height. There is the use of energy in lifts. There is the use, or not, of air conditioning. There can be important differences due to building construction, especially between glass curtain walls and solid walls, since rates of heat loss are greater through the glass. Finally, there will be effects related to the local environments of buildings – such as orientation, overshadowing and exposure to sun and wind.

There is some evidence on the relationship between height and energy use. A 2003 study of 20 comparable Hong Kong office towers found that, as high increased, there was a steady increase in energy too. Each additional storey added on average 3 kilowatt hours per M2.

But the use per M2 for lighting and – perhaps surprisingly – lifts did not increase with height. The biggest increase was in the energy used for heating, ventilating and air conditioning. The Hong Kong climate is hot and steamy: we would expect heavy loads for air conditioning. But these were greater, per unit of floor area, the taller the building.

The energy element of the English Housing Survey provides evidence of the relationship between energy use and height in tall residential buildings. A preliminary analysis of data on both low- and high-rise purpose-built flats shows that the latter use on average more than twice the amount of electricity annually (although the sample is small).

That said, there have been studies that have shown little or no difference in energy use with height. Aedas Architects analysed theoretical designs for tall office buildings, using simulation models, and found only small increases in energy intensity with height.

Researchers at the LSE carried out a study of energy use for heating in residential buildings of many different types. They found that energy use decreased with height. However, they too were working with simulations. Furthermore, their sample only included buildings up to 11 storeys.


Why might we expect energy use to increase with height? The obvious characteristic of tall buildings is that they stick up above their neighbours: they are exposed to higher winds. Data from the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers shows that wind speeds do indeed rise with height

And higher winds can contribute to increased energy consumption in several ways. They remove heat from the surfaces of buildings. They increase drafts, meaning that the air inside requires more heating or cooling. And they can increase the rates of conduction of heat through the building’s envelope, especially through glazing. Tall buildings tend also to be more exposed to the heat of the sun, and are less likely than low-rise to be overshadowed by trees or other buildings. This can lead to increased energy requirements for cooling in summer.

It seems at least possible that such effects are insufficiently represented in the simulation models used to estimate energy consumption during the design of tall buildings. This could lead to underestimates of predicted energy consumption in practice.

It’s sometimes suggested that a concentration of tall buildings around public transport hubs can help shift travellers from cars to buses or trains, and so reduce energy consumption in transport. This may be true. However, it is an argument for higher densities rather than skyscrapers, as such.

Some researchers have looked at the potential for “green” retrofitting of existing tall buildings. Valuable as this work is, it seems possible that most, if not all, of the conservation measures and renewable technologies employed in “green” or low-energy skyscrapers could equally be applied – perhaps with greater effectiveness – in low-rise buildings. One could also imagine that the potential for adaptation and refurbishment would be greater in low buildings than in tall ones. Might the most sustainable skyscraper not be a skyscraper at all?

Philip Steadman is professor of urban and built form studies at University College London. This article is adapted from an essay he wrote for Create Streets.

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Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.