THEME: Tall Buildings

Tall is Beautiful

BY Peter Ferrari | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

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If we look back over the 20th Century to identify some of its most sustainable structures – buildings which have stood since the early decades of the Century and are approaching their centenary – we can readily identify a number of iconic tall buildings.

The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building (completed in 1930 and 1931 respectively) are early examples of truly tall buildings. From the 1930’s onwards these “skyscrapers” have proliferated across the globe.

Indeed, if we were to list the number of tall buildings that have been constructed since, say, the Metlife Tower in 1909, and record how many are still standing, we would find the percentage is greatly higher than that of the average 20th Century building. The table below highlights this fact.

As a developer, active in the industry for over for over 25 years, I now regularly hear of buildings developed at the beginning of my career, being demolished and re-developed.

Typically, it is not, as some might expect, because the buildings are functionally obsolete. In most cases they could easily be refurbished or converted for another 25 years, or more, of useful life.

It is because they are economically obsolete. Or, to put it another way, the owner can achieve more density on the site through re-development.

It is a simple and inviolable principle of property development that a rational, structurally sound building will rarely be demolished, unless a greater density can be achieved on site in the re-development. Many of the tall buildings that have been constructed over the 20th Century are here to stay, as they have maximised the density available on their particular site.

The tall building, with its relatively small footprint and high levels of natural light is the most flexible of buildings. Suitable for use as offices, hotels, apartments they can, are and will be, converted to these different uses, as the economic cycles wax and wane across the property sectors. (The Metlife Tower is currently being converted into a hotel). So, yes, the tall building can be an answer to our increasing population. In the right place, properly designed and built, they allow for the efficient long term use of land and infrastructure.

However, tall is not always good. High density development has to be accompanied by high levels of demand for accommodation, the provision of high quality infrastructure and services. A skyscraper in a desert (actual or metaphoric) is no good to anyone. But, good tall buildings in dynamic, growing city centres are a logical, economically viable and sustainable form of development. Land is a finite resource. Serviced land is even rarer and more valuable.

Equally, tall buildings provide excellent living, working or leisure environments. Ask anyone who works or lives in a well designed tall building. Or visit the restaurant at the top of Heron Tower for a truly uplifting experience!

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Peter Ferrari has over 20 years’ experience in property development and investment and leads Heron International’s development activities. After obtaining a Masters degree in Land Management from Reading University, he spent nine years at listed property company London & Edinburgh Trust PLC, developing a range of projects across property sectors, in the UK and throughout Continental Europe. Peter joined Heron International in 1995 as Director of Acquisitions and Development and was appointed Managing Director of Property Development in 2009.