Lessons for London from the World’s Tall Towers

Last week, I spoke at an NLA breakfast presentation as part of the exhibition ‘London’s Growing Up!’ The exhibition examines the growth in the amount of tall buildings in London and the ways in which key organisations are having their say, not just on what happens to the capital’s skyline, but how this affects the city as whole; its streets, its public places and its people.

With relatively few tall buildings compared to its global economic competitors, such as New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, London’s recent spate in high rise developments stands in contrast to its historically low rise outlook. But compared to European counterparts such as Geneva, Paris and Moscow, the UK’s capital city already has more tall buildings and is continuing to grow.

According to a survey by the New London Architecture (NLA) think tank, 236 towers more than 20 stories tall are already proposed, approved, or under construction in London. The study was prompted by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson who said 42,000 houses must be built each year in order to accommodate the expected rise in population. Of the buildings reported in the study, 189 of the buildings will be residential, 18 offices, 13 mixed-use, eight hotels and one educational institution.

Some of the UK’s most well-known public figures including iconic sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, philosopher Alain de Botton and author Alan Bennett have publicly objected to the plans, describing their inevitable impact on the skyline as a fundamental and damaging transformation of London.

But as house prices in the capital continue to rise, and with the UK housing market in desperate need of reform, an increasing number of Londoners are struggling to find a suitable place to live. In terms of house building, the capital is already behind where it needs to be. If this trend continues, it will serve only to weaken London’s global economic competitiveness.

One of the proposals is for a 233 metre tall skyscraper in Canary Wharf, East London. Set over 75 floors, the mixed-use development, dubbed the ‘town in a tower’, will consist of shops, a gym, a library, a cinema and a roof terrace. It will also contain 822 homes, almost 40 percent of which must be reserved for the area’s low-income buyers. So could this type of development help solve London’s housing crisis?

The need for mixed-use towers

The LEED Platinum rated Brickell World Plaza in Miami combines a strong city connection at ground-level with sustainability and functionality throughout. The 158 metre tall, 40 storey high structure makes best use of green design principles, not just in terms of materials and systems but in creating an urban multi-use development that utilises scale, density and a variety of functions to reinforce a sense of community and define a strong sense of place.

As the plaza lies within a very dense district of Miami with retail units and public parks, maximising the value of the ground levels was fundamental in getting the best value.

According to a Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s (CTBUH) report, London is the most expensive place in the world to build a tower. The Gherkin cost £138m in construction costs, while the land cost a further £90m. Therefore creating value in specific parts of tall buildings is something we’re always looking at.

Another way of achieving value throughout tall buildings is through mixed-use developments. This adds to the complexity of the task, but also makes it much more sustainable from an investment point of view.

The importance of mixed-use developments was central to all discussions at the session. Hosted by NLA Chairman Peter Murray, the presentation also featured talks from Peter Barbalov, Design Partner at Farrells and Peter Vaughan, Director at Broadway Malyan, who both agreed that one challenge London faces when building tall structures is the lack of borough consensus or strategy.

“All of these projects been agreed and consented on, but they’ve also happened independent of each other. It’s the absence of comprehensive vision and strategy that’s the problem.” said Peter Vaughan.

“We need to ask the question: what are the long-term consequences of this project? If there are lessons to be learnt from around the world, it’s to make a plan. If you’re just one degree out at the start, you’ll miss your goal by a mile. This is something we’re lacking at the moment.” He added.



There’s value at the top

With buildings continuing to get taller in the capital, another question needs to be asked about how this extra space is used. Last year the CTBUH produced a report which explored the notion of unused space between skyscrapers’ highest floors and their architectural tops, defining this as “vanity space”.

It feels like we are going in reverse, in terms of how we traditionally structure some of these developments. When looking at stability, there’s a natural need for tall towers to taper toward the top. But as you go higher the value rises. This is something which is as true in London as it is in China; in residential buildings, as you go up, the value rises by 1.5 percent per floor.

RTKL’s 400 metre tall tower in Nantong, China is 100 storeys high. From the middle to the top are 50 storeys, meaning that the value at the top is 75 percent higher than in the middle. This is very telling and is important to us as designers when we’re trying to establish where the value is because these are extremely expensive buildings, so we have to make them work financially.

Generally speaking, designers tend to add around 30 percent at the top which is often superfluous space or, what we call, ‘fluff’. But due to increased value at the top, this is something we’re seeking to avoid.

In the case of Nantong we were very clear about this, ensuring we made best use of the top floors by installing an art gallery, museum and roof garden all for use of the city. Structurally, this meant we had to allow the building to open up at the top, but also be stable.

It’s clear that London can learn a great deal learn from its economic counterparts, especially in the Far East and the USA. If the capital is to continue its rapid ascent, then mixed-use, sustainable towers that embrace public connectivity and optimise their value at all levels, will not only ensure that land is used effectively, but help make the city more vibrant through higher densities and quality public spaces.

All images:© Agnese Sanvito

Jorge Beroiz

Jorge Beroiz

Jorge Beroiz brings a diverse portfolio of mixed-use, retail and transit-oriented design to his projects across the UK, Europe and the Middle East. His work is recognized within the industry for design innovation and unique project solutions. Jorge is dedicated to sustainability principles and works with clients and project teams to incorporate eco-friendly concepts whenever possible. His clients prize his willingness to try new ideas while keeping projects within scope.