Skyscrapers and the World of Tomorrow

Are skyscrapers the way to achieve great density, or a form of retro-urbanism that should be retired? With a debate simmering in the planning world over the energy efficiency and urban necessity of tall towers, Planetizen's staff decided to determine the answer once and for all.

Skyscrapers rising in the desert next to the Burj Dubai. Photo: Travel Aficionado.

The current debate on the sustainability of skyscrapers and their proper place in today's urban environments has great implications for the future of city-building. On the one hand, some urban thinkers foresee a 21st century defined by ultra-dense Skyscraper Cities, while other urbanists like James Howard Kunstler would describe such vision as "yesterday's tomorrow." Either way, the awe and imagination inspired by mega-structures are hard to deny. Daniel Burnham's Flatiron Building from 1902 and Cook+Fox Architects' Bank of America Tower in 2009 represent over a century of advancement in engineering prowess, architectural might, and more recently, concern for the Earth's limited resources.

The jury is still out, however, on skyscrapers. Are very tall buildings a sustainable model for development suitable for a future of withering resources? And to the extent that dense, mixed-use developments and vibrant streetscapes are becoming the preferred model, are skyscrapers good urbanism?

We proceeded to explore these questions with a belief that simple comparisons between the energy consumption of low- and high-rise buildings would lead to a definitive answer. In the process, we looked at a number of variables, including the heating and cooling system, elevator use, and LEED certification criteria, that would more or less influence a building's total energy expenditure. What we discovered is that the question of energy consumption - for promoters as well as detractors - is not the primary topic of debate. The issues are instead more nuanced, including the "embodied energy" of the materials used in construction, the life of the building as well as the need for future rehabilitation and the proximity to urban amenities.

We interviewed some of the nation's leading architects, engineers, environmentalists, and urban commentators. While each individual brought a unique perspective to the conversation on the place of skyscrapers in contemporary cities, they mostly agreed on one thing. That is, in the words of James Howard Kunstler, "It's completely self-evident that you do not require mega-structures to have a successful city."

Energy Use

"The energy issues may be the least of the problems, although not unimportant."

As the prophet of peak oil and declining energy access, it was a surprise to hear these words from Kunstler. In the past, he has painted images of energy outages stranding people on the 25th floor of a skyscraper, and making life unbearable when heating and cooling can't be supplied and the windows won't open. "Skyscrapers will be obsolete, travel greatly reduced, and the rural edge more distinct. The energy inputs to our economies will decrease a lot, and probably in ways that prove destabilizing," he writes in a recent Orion magazine article aptly titled "Back to the Future."

Today, while he still very much believes that skyscrapers are not ideal, Kuntsler is slightly more circumspect on the energy argument, focusing instead on the problem of maintaining and renovating these glass towers. Kunstler argues that materials like manufactured sheet-rock, silicon gaskets and sealers that hold glass curtain walls in place are products of our cheap oil economy.

Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park from Cook+Fox Architects on Vimeo.

Professionals working closer to the business of building these behemoths have different perspectives. Serge Appel, the lead architect at Cook+Fox Architects, says there is no significant difference in energy demand for the heating/cooling system of high- and low-rise structures. Appel designed the 54-story Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, the first high-rise of its kind to receive the LEED-Platinum designation.

"If you're comparing the high-rise to the low-rise, heating and cooling is effectively the same thing. You take the same amount of energy to heat a space and cool a space [whether] it's 900 feet up in the air or ten feet up in the air," says Appel. "That doesn't make a difference."

How you get to those floors may have an impact, however. Added floors mean added elevators and more energy consumption. How much more energy?

"Taller buildings require faster and bigger elevators, which means higher energy consumption. It can be up to 10-15% in super tall buildings," says Luke Leung, director of Sustainable Engineering Studio at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM).

But the energy use of elevator systems has reduced significantly in the past 25 years, and accounts today for only five percent of a building's energy use, according to Brian Black, code and safety consultant for the National Elevator Association, Inc. "Elevators have made our current, urban environment possible and have done so with a efficiency, and cost (effectiveness)," says Black.

Today, sophisticated software can reduce an elevator's energy use by calculating the most efficient way a person can reach his or her destination. When a rider selects a floor, a destination dispatch system sends down specific cars to best serve the multiple riders. This type of system lessens the number of rides and allows more elevator cars to be filled more often than cars with a single occupancy, just like the systems that airlines now use to make sure their planes fly full.

Yet even though the technology is available, that doesn't mean a building owner will invest in the greener option, says Black. Still, it is clear that today's green buildings have less significant energy issues than the skyscrapers of the past.

Photo: m.gifford.

Refurbishing and Materials

So what of Kunstler's concern that skyscrapers will degrade as resources become more scarce? Appel explained to us how consideration went into how parts of the Bank of America Tower could be accessed when it need refurbishing or upgrades. The location of the under-floor air distribution system was installed to allow easy access to clean and maintain it, and the major chillers were placed below the loading dock where the units could be pulled out in one piece.

"Certain aspects of the building were designed with change over time in mind," Appel said. "It all depends [on] what kind of refurbishing is envisioned, how well it was maintained over its lifespan, and if there had been any upgrades over that time."

Predicting the life expectancy of a building is more vague. Brenden McEneaney, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional, says that the lifespan of a building does not play a factor in the LEED accreditation process.

Currently, LEED only offers credit for companies that perform a life cycle analysis, an analysis for making material choices that looks at the life cycle of a material from extraction to installation. "There's a really big grey area on materials," McEneaney says. "A lot of materials we don't have a handle on yet."

LEED is currently working on revising its accreditation rules to make the life cycle analysis a requirement, more than likely in the design and construction stages, says McEneaney.

Aside from prohibiting materials that would have negative health effects, the overall environmental impact of using certain materials such as rare metals is still being determined by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the organization that determines the LEED criteria.

Appel explained that there is significantly more awareness on the materials that go into the construction of buildings these days. "Whenever possible, materials are more recyclable or coming from recycled sources." he said. "And we try to sort materials much closer to the location where the building is going to be built so that we don't have to truck things from half way around the world."

Urbanism and Skyscrapers

Perhaps more than energy use, the jury is out on whether skyscrapers are good urbanism. Planners and New Urbanists are of course focused on the street-level experience, and can be suspicious of skyscrapers because often the postwar versions fail to meet the street in an effective way. Many contemporary or modern skyscrapers are part and parcel of the same bad strategies that emptied out downtowns and created bad pedestrian environments.

On the other hand, taller buildings provide an opportunity for higher density, and density is music to the ears of planners because it creates environments where people walk more, take transit and make better use of infrastructure. Appel's Bank of America Tower, for example, is located near a variety of restaurants, is well-serviced by public transportation (at least two subway stations are located within a half-mile radius), and the building's ground level was designed to be an "indoor extension" of Bryant Park.

"Transportation is the critical thing," says Appel. "It's all about how people get to buildings," he said. "And a bigger building on a small site you can take advantage of a lot of things that you can't on a small building on a big site."

Brent Toderian, planning director of Vancouver, B.C., agrees. "When thinking about building energy, remember location, location, location." he says. "You shouldn't separate building design from location and transportation energy. A very green tower that's car-oriented isn't really green."

So with excellent transportation and location a given, can we make a blanket statement on skyscrapers as good urbanism, vs., say, the density of Madrid, with 5-story mixed-use buildings filling every block?

Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard and the author of Triumph of the City, makes a classic supply and demand argument in favor of skyscrapers: in certain highly desirable places (Manhattan, Hong Kong, etc.) skyscrapers create a greater supply of living space on land for which there is significant demand. In fact, Glaeser wrote an article in The Atlantic titled, "How Skyscrapers Can Save the City."

That is not to say, however, that he sees skyscrapers as a necessity in every urban context. On the contrary, when asked about the proper place of skyscrapers in today's cities, Glaeser responded:

"I don't think there is any evidence that suggests that skyscrapers are profoundly deleterious [to cities]. I don't think they destroy urban spaces when properly done. We have lots of wonderful, vibrant cities with plenty of skyscrapers like New York or Hong Kong. I don't think the new height that Boston has added has done any harm to Boston. The city feels much less sleepy and far more exciting than it did 20 years ago. On the other hand, it's certainly possible to have vibrant, wonderful, urban spaces without skyscrapers. Greenwich Village being one; Paris being another.

"It's not so much that I am advocating for skyscrapers," continues Glaeser. "I am advocating against the barriers that make it impossible to build them in highly desirable areas. The cost of those barriers is that you're saying 'no' to people that want to live in a great urban space. Obviously, the answer is not to tear up all of Paris and replace it all with anonymous skyscrapers, but not every spot in Paris is really sacred."

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Kunstler, on the other hand, sees the economic viability of skyscrapers to be the Achilles Heel of the entire venture. As he explains it, the collective ownership of large apartment buildings through condos organized as homeowner associations, or HOAs, could be an increasing problem as the economy shrinks. "What I think we are going to see are the failures of the homeowners' associations as capital becomes scarce and people who own units in mega-structures get into trouble with their finances and you start to get foreclosures and defaults," he explains. "I don't think we're yet at the half way point of this unravelling of finance, and as it increases and gets more severe we're going to start to see it in the inability of homeowners' associations to care for these buildings under the current model."

"Like many things Jim says, I think there's a grain of truth there combined with an overstatement," responds Brent Toderian. As planning director of Vancouver, Toderian has overseen a significant development boom in the city's downtown core with a unique strategy for building towers and townhouses on the same parcel, essentially combining the two forms.

"I think that buildings and condo structures are going to have to consider sustainability and resiliency in the long term, and many haven't," he explains. "But to suggest that the form is fundamentally nonviable because of that I think is a significant overstatement."

Rowhouse podium housing in Vancouver, B.C.

Keeping Skyscrapers in Perspective

"When it comes to form in a city, its not "either/or", its "yes, and..."

Toderian, interviewed at the end of our research, in many ways blew our central argument out of the water. With energy use no longer a serious problem because of newer green techniques, and a growing awareness of streetscaping and the necessity to foster urban life, why not allow height as part of your city's toolbox?

"Towers often get a bad reputation based on how they land and often that's true. But I just as often see mid-rise buildings land poorly," said Toderian. "This isn't the tower vs. mid-rise issue, this is the how you do the ground plane well, a universal question no matter what form you're designing."

The trick, he explained, is to be very rigorous with urban design standards and planning out the where, why and how of siting skyscrapers. "We likely take more of a design approach to the height question than any other city in North America, and we regulate, locate, shape and even limit height more than other cities, based on our civic values and goals," he explained.

So what are the civic values and goals of our cities? Perhaps the problem lies in a lack of a clear, agreed-upon vision for the future. Skyscrapers will always be iconic symbols of economic hopefulness: perhaps in some cases, that hopefulness is overreaching, and driven by profit motives rather than common sense and urbanism. We can only conclude that the evidence suggests that energy use is no longer a significant differential when comparing skyscrapers to mid-rises, and the rest is a matter of determining whether the economy, location, demand and urbanism come together to make the right climate for a skyscraper.

Kris Fortin, Jeff Jamawat and Victor Negrete are editorial interns at Planetizen. Tim Halbur is Planetizen's managing editor.



Symbolism of High-Rises

Thanks for this excellent article.

I have to disagree with the claim that height does not affect energy use for heating and cooling:

"If you're comparing the high-rise to the low-rise, heating and cooling is effectively the same thing. You take the same amount of energy to heat a space and cool a space [whether] it's 900 feet up in the air or ten feet up in the air," says Appel. “That doesn’t make a difference."

As Michael Mehaffy has pointed out, high-rises have a higher ratio of surface area to volume and have more of the surface exposed to the weather than traditional urban buildings (as in central Paris). This must require more energy for heating and cooling. Yes, you can use high-tech materials to give the high-rise a LEED platinum rating, as Appel did, but you will obviously do even better in terms of heating and cooling if you use those same materials in a traditional-scale building that has less than half as much surface area exposed to the weather for each square foot of floor space.

I also have to disagree with Ed Glaeser's claim:

"I don’t think the new height that Boston has added has done any harm to Boston."

I thought Boston was much more attractive before it was filled with high-rises.

This difference between me and Glaeser is not just a matter of taste. It is a matter of having different goals: I want cities that are pleasant, human-scale places to live, and Glaeser wants cities that are economically dynamic.

Our difference about highrises are really a difference about the goal of our economy. Glaeser backs rapid economic growth above all else, which has been the goal of the American economy since the end of World War II. I think growth should be subordinated to human purposes, such as greater leisure and a better quality of life. (Needless to say, Glaeser's goal for the economy is far, far more environmentally destructive than mine.)

He and I differ because of the symbolism of the high-rise skyline, which I think is the one topic that this article treats too briefly. It just hints at the issue by saying:

"Skyscrapers will always be iconic symbols of economic hopefulness: perhaps in some cases, that hopefulness is overreaching, and driven by profit motives rather than common sense and urbanism."

Highrises are symbols of economic growth, not of economic hopefulness. Rapid growth is clearly needed in the developing nations, but it is bringing diminishing benefits and increasing problems in the developed nations.

As a more hopeful vision of the future, the developed nations would do well to follow the Dutch model, accepting a slower rate of growth so we can have more free time and a higher quality of life. All the bicycles in Amsterdam are a good symbol of this saner approach to growth, and so is the traditional-scale skyline of central Amsterdam, without highrises.

Charles Siegel

What about "prices"?

I too disagree with height restrictions. But none of this discussion, or the article or the people it quotes, say anything about "prices". There are simply no skyscrapers anywhere in the world, with "affordable" (relative to median incomes) floor space. Skyscrapers are a consequence of wealth creation at particular locations.
MOST cities are going to remain mostly low-rise, because few cities have the highly focused wealth creation that marks Manhattan.
To "move society into skyscrapers", if any utopians are suggesting it, would surely require the suspension of free markets altogether. Look at what happens to property values now, if you enact an urban growth boundary. Imagine enacting a de facto "boundary" around the small amount of land on which a few skyscapers are to be built, to house the city.
What the Chinese are doing will show the natural limits to skyscraper development, if it hasn't already.
I share Kunstler's scepticism about whether skyscrapers are really a solution to "sustainability" issues anyway. Supposing you could have gardens and washing lines and barbecues and fowls in a skyscraper - would it really be sustainable to provide steel and concrete and glass to encase and support these things, when you can support them for free "on the ground"?

Michael Lewyn's picture

From the Department of Things that aren't problems anymore

Right now, the U.S. has not had to worry about having "too much" economic growth for three years, and probably will not have this "problem" for a long time. Has this reality done any good? Has it made life any easier or more pleasant? Turned U.S. cities into Amsterdam?

Fast growth isn't a cure-all. But neither is slow growth.

Things That Will Be Problems In the Future

I tend to think on a scale of decades, not of a few years. If you have read the scientific studies of what the world will be like if the world doesn't cut CO2 emissions 50% by 2050, then you know that growth remains a problem.

It should not be necessary to say that slower growth could make life much less pleasant if we do it wrong (as we have over the last few years) or could make life much more pleasant if we do it right.

The Canadian economist Peter Victor has created a computer model that lets him test scenarios for slower growth while changing different macroeconomic variables, such as average work hours and savings rate. In some runs, he finds that slower growth leads to high rates of debt, unemployment, and poverty; in other runs, it leads to much lower rates of debt, unemployment, and poverty than we have now.

The Netherlands, with much shorter work hours than the US and the bicycle as its favorite form of transportation, currently has an unemployment rate of 5.5%, compared with 9% in the US. It also has longer life expectancy, higher rates of self-reported happiness, less public debt, and the list could go on.

Their approach seems to be helping them to weather the current economic slump better than the US is. Of course, it is also much more sustainable in the long run.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

I sort of agree

I'm perfectly willing to assume that under the best possible scenario, with the wisest possible leadership, slower growth could be tolerable (though I'm not sure that slower growth is actually a cause of all the good things about the Netherlands, given that there are certainly plenty of other differences between the U.S. and the Netherlands that could cause those good things).

But on the other hand, I also think slow or nonexistent growth is a force multiplier in the other direction: with mediocre leadership, I think slow growth will make a lot of things much, much worse. Slow growth in a rapidly aging society means no money for anything but Social Security and Medicare (and ultimately less for those as well), which means (given taxophobia) recurrent debt crises and the long-run collapse of infrastructure and of every concievable social service.

To put it another way, a rapidly aging country with fast growth you can get away with mediocre leadership. With slow growth you can't. So how much do you trust the American political system to provide better-than-mediocre leadership?

What Are the Biggest Problems?

"with mediocre leadership, I think slow growth will make a lot of things much, much worse."

I see your point, but the question is: What are the biggest problems?

In today's news, we see that Texas is having its worst drought and wildfires in history. A week ago, we had the news that Hurricane Irene brought the east coast its third 100-year flood since 1996.

Though the media has not made the connection, scientists predict that global warming will bring more extreme weather events, including drought and flooding. We are just seeing the beginning of it now, and there is general consensus that things will get much worse if average temperatures increase by more than 2 degrees centigrade.

Rapid growth will make it much more difficult to deal with global warming, no matter how good the leadership, and global warming is a problem that will last for thousands of years if we don't control it now. Likewise, rapid growth will make it much more difficult to deal with resource scarcity.

By contrast, I think Social Security and Medicare are problems largely because the Republicans want to sabotage government programs.

If the political will were there, it would be easy to make Social Security solvent by making people pay Social Security taxes on all earnings, rather than excluding high incomes. When he was elected, Obama talked about making people pay on incomes over $250,000. But of course, the Republicans want lower taxes on the rich.

Likewise, it would be possible to make Medicare solvent by getting our health-care spending down to the level of other industrial nations (which spend about half as much as us). Obama tried to control costs in his health-care reform package. But the Republicans try to sabotage cost controls by talking about death panels, and instead want to dismantle Medicare entirely and provide seniors with vouchers that will buy completely inadequate insurance.

I think the only way to move forward is to create a vision of a better future that will inspire people to break the current political gridlock. We won't do it by talking about how to get by with mediocre leadership and without new ideas.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

"If the political will were there..."

Charles writes "If the political will were there [Social Security, Medicare etc. would be less difficult to deal with]."

I think that issue cuts to the core of the problems of both high and low growth.

High growth, all else being equal, means more emissions (bad). But it also means more revenue for government and industry, which in turn means more political will to spend and regulate in pro-environmental ways (good).

Low growth, all else being equal, means less emissions (good). But in recent history it has meant much LESS political will on environmental issues: governments at all levels are poorer and that voters are stingier, leading for less tolerance for environmental regulation and pro-environmental spending (bad).

So perhaps there's a tradeoff: high growth, other things being equal, means more consumption but pro-environmental politics while low growth means less consumption but much less public transit, no EPA etc. To put it another way would you rather have a nation of Californias or of Mississippis?

Political Will and Economic Pain

As I say above, slower growth can come in a way that causes pain or in a way that makes life easier, leaving people economically comfortable with shorter work hours:

"In some runs, he [Peter Victor] finds that slower growth leads to high rates of debt, unemployment, and poverty; in other runs, it leads to much lower rates of debt, unemployment, and poverty than we have now."

In the US, we have only tried out the sort of slow growth that causes pain. Slow growth has meant higher unemployment (as during recessions) and worse poverty (as in Mississippi). In these painful economic conditions, voters are bound to be stingy and to resist environmental controls.

In Europe, they have tried out the sort of slow growth that makes life easier. It has not turned voters stingy. They have more social spending and stricter environmental controls than we do.

My model is not Mississippi, where many people work long hours for a meager standard of living. It is the Netherlands, where people generally work short hours for a comfortable (but not wasteful) standard of living.

Charles Siegel

The desire for Rapid Growth

is really born from politicians' will to want to inflate their way out of existing debt. Otherwise, it is mostly about gaining power and influence much like China today with it's enormous GDP growth rates. While I don't necesarily advocate artificially slowing growth, I also don't advocate artificially expanding it. But, the world's central banks are committed to it and always will be. Higher GDP growth doesn't translate to happiness and well being, but economic policymakers don't care. Their goals appear to be to enrich a few, pick winners and losers, and devalue all that debt.

To me, the only path to sanity is to reform the entire global monetary system. The money supply should be tied to the value of available resources thus ebbing and flowing as population and the planet's resources can accomodate. Just my humble opinion.

The irony of the connections here

It is deeply ironic that the same people who LOVE Manhattan and its Transit usage %; usually HATE "global capitalism", without which we simply would not have a Manhattan of a kind we have got, at all.
Multiple blocks of skyscrapers seldom exist without global capital flowing into their tenants incomes.
Your point about the monetary system is good. Notice that the finance sector has steadily grown relative to the rest of the economy? This is mostly thanks to the economic distortions introduced by hubristic politicians meddling in the economy.

Michael Lewyn's picture

But growth isn't slower in Europe

The table below suggests that growth (measured by per capita GNP) has actually been FASTER in the Netherlands:

Longer-Term Growth Trend: Netherlands vs. US

We need to look at the longer term trend. In 1950, Netherlands had a longer average workweek than the US. Its work hours have declined fairly steadily since then. Now it has a workweek 70% to 75% as long as the US. A long-term comparison should show the effect of shorter work hours.

Because that table compares just a couple of decades (1990-2008), it is plausible that other factors outweigh shorter work hours, since work hours declined relatively little in that short a time. In addition, 2008 was the year the economy crashed, and as I said earlier, that crash hurt the US more than then Netherlands.

For a book I am writing, I am planning to do the research and create a table (and maybe graphs) with a systematic comparison of the US and the Netherlands. I will keep you posted.

Michael, I appreciate your interest and your comments, even when we disagree.

Charles Siegel

Netherlands - interesting

One vital factor about the Netherlands, is that they use compulsory acquisition/"eminent domain" for developable land, to keep the cost of urban land down. Low urban land costs are a massive economic advantage over cities and nations with inflated urban land costs. This is why the Netherlands has even less space than Britain, but outperforms it economically by a wide margin.
This is also why "Smart Growth" WORKS in the Netherlands and not anywhere else. Because the Dutch are smart enough to have worked out that "Smart Growth" inflates land prices, this damages the economy, and therefore it is essential to revise the concept of "property rights" and keep urban land prices low.
I am a strong believer in property rights, and strongly oppose "regulatory takings"; however, the capital gains that result from "Smart Growth" are a "regulatory GIVING", and their elimination is NOT a "taking". Genuine environmentalists need to stop being used as useful idiots by the property owning class.

Has the Millennium Arrived?

Wodehouse wrote:
"Smart Growth" WORKS in the Netherlands....

Charles Siegel

The millennium will indeed have arrived

The millennium will indeed have arrived when the pro-UGB advocates admit that its only practical effect, unless very tough "takings" are imposed, is to deliver capital gains to well placed property owners. The inflation in land values that it causes, is actually an obstacle to achieving the desired outcomes, like greater efficiency of urban form.
The Dutch land economists are the most advanced in the world at understanding all this. They worked out decades ago that it would wreck their economy via numerous efficiency-lowering mechanisms (and increase inequality and reduce social mobility) IF they "constrained urban growth" WITHOUT ensuring by other means, that urban land prices did NOT inflate in the process. Unfortunately the literature is in Dutch.
The Spatial Economics Research Centre at the London School of Economics has had numerous Dutch economists on secondment and has probably learned more on this subject than anyone else in the world so far. Britain has been turned into a basket case by its Town and Country Planning system. The LSE has been one of the driving forces behind the new reforms being pursued by the Conservative Government.
I am a firm believer in private property rights, but I do not believe that a capital gain that results from a UGB is a private property right. It is simply the inverse of the term "regulatory taking". It is a "regulatory giving". As such, the Dutch have done the right thing, from every point of view, in compulsorily acquiring land that falls within a constraint-motivated "plan".
The longer that UGB advocates go on in denial about this, the stronger the case against them looks, that the whole "cause" is really all about corruption and pork-barrelling. Some serious investigative journalism needs to be done regarding "donations" from well placed property magnates, to advocates and organisations who include the UGB within their advocacy. I can think of more than one internationally famous property magnates who are also famous for their lavish funding of "Green" movements. Have the "Green" movements not worked out that their role relative to these people, is one of "useful idiot"?

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