LONGREAD: are skyscrapers right for every city?

Big apartment blocks are shooting up across Australian central business districts (CBDs), forever altering the shape of once modest skylines. Lean, spectacular and even futuristic, they may seem better fit for soaring Asian capitals like Shanghai or Hong Kong. 

Such has been the trajectory of our skyscrapers in recent decades, there are now 325 towers of at least 100 metres around the country, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), many of them for residential use.

" There's a mismatch between high-rise towers and our specific needs." - Prof Michael Buxton

Not simply high-rising, they often tick boxes for architectural style, cutting-edge technology and the increasingly popular ideal of sustainability.

They can be profitable, too. Increased demand from property buyers has seen an acceleration of apartment construction across Australia since 2011, as per the Australia Bureau of Statistics, which is presumably why more tall buildings are slated to go up in the coming years.

It remains unclear, however, if residential towers present the best model for new housing in cities like Sydney and Melbourne because what they boast in grandeur and can deliver in luxury, they typically forgo in affordability.

The question is does this matter?

View from the top

The skyscraper was born in Chicago in 1885, jabbing into the city’s lower atmosphere unlike anything before it.

It also had an unprecedented catalyst – a massive fire which destroyed 17,000 structures and left 100,000 people homeless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a period of heightened renewal followed in the Windy City. 

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Today, China is at the centre of the world’s big building boom and is expected to construct between 20,000 and 50,000 skyscrapers for 350 million new city dwellers over the next 20 years, according to business consultancy McKinsey. Despite a comparatively small population, Australian cities are similarly going up.

But there's a mismatch between high-rise towers and our specific needs, says Professor of Environment and Planning at RMIT University, Michael Buxton.

He says when young Australians come out of established suburbs they don't want to be living in tiny one- and two-bedroom apartments in CBD high rises.

“Unfortunately, the high-rise building model has been established as the norm in Australia,” Buxton says. “But it’s the exception, not the norm around the world.”

“We're not doing it well in Australia because most of the high-rises have failed to produce affordable housing through them. They tend to be at a higher price and not catering to homebuyers.”

One reason for higher prices on tower apartments is the cost of land in CBDs. Chairperson for the World Green Building Council Tai Lee Siang says the problem across Asia is demand for land in the CBD is driving up land prices – and therefore property prices.

“Most successful Asian cities are reaching populations in excess of 10 million and [therefore] CBDs present the best combination of live, work and play without battling traffic over long distances,” Tai says.

“But because plot sizes in old city grids are small, the only way to build is up. Affordability is the least likely outcome.”

Each city tackles new development differently, he says. For example, Hong Kong is dense with tall buildings of very small units because of its tight land supply, which in turn drives up prices which are among the highest in the world.

By contrast, Singapore has built public housing towers within historical districts which remain affordable, Tai says.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, large mixed developments in older residential areas are rare because it takes a long time to negotiate land acquisition. One well-known success story is the Roppongi Hills complex built in 2003, which offers apartments, shops and offices in the heart of the CBD.

In Sydney and Melbourne, the skyscraper strategy is perhaps less obvious. There’s simply a trend toward taller buildings often guided by local zoning laws.

Buxton says by not having proper height controls in Melbourne, for example, the price of land is bid up and this adds enormously to the land component of building costs. As a result, developers sometimes increase the height of buildings to gain a proper return.

The paradox of size

In a discussion paper about skyscrapers by the CTBUH in 2013, it’s argued a city can accommodate only so many towering icons and the challenge remains to extract value out of existing buildings.

The authors wrote “while there are a number of drivers for tall building development, and global cities continue to create landmark towers to signpost their increasing prosperity, there are developers in locations around the world looking to establish valuable tall assets in the most efficient, innovative and cost-effective ways possible”.

One way to achieve efficiency is through ‘smart’ buildings, which are said to outperform traditional buildings on several economic indicators, including savings from new technologies, compared with the initial capital investment.

Research by the Green Building Council of Australia found energy-efficient Green Star-rated buildings produce 62 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and use 66 per cent less electricity than the average Australian building.

A further way to achieve efficiency is by building low and mid-rise blocks, as they tend to consume less energy than high-rises with large centralised equipment systems, as per research from Energy Australia.

For example, the Central Park building in Sydney’s Chippendale is lower than the typical apartment complex and run with green technologies, including an on-site water recycling plant and a cantilever which redirects sunlight to a nearby park.

The Commons in Brunswick, Melbourne is just five storeys and is similarly eco-friendly, boasting recycled timber floors, solar hot water, hydronic heating and communal veggie garden on its roof.

Such buildings increasingly appeal to prospective homebuyers, too, especially if they offer affordable options within.

Of course, many newer CBD blocks tend to be located where the cost of land will always be high and, in some instances, this makes creating any level of affordability a significant challenge.

Tai says trying to achieve everything in one location instead of several integrated city centres is a problem.

“Cities should develop multiple CBDs to bring employment closer to where people live,” he says. “In this way, we can achieve more even density and a humane environment that focuses on quality of life.”

Over the last decade, planners in Sydney have at least attempted to spread taller towers out to suburbs such as St Leonards, Parramatta and Macquarie Park, a considered effort to place new housing closer to growing employment centres.

This type of development has helped sharpen the focus of the Greater Sydney Commission, which in October, launched the Greater Sydney Region Plan to reshape the city.

The project aims to reduce traffic congestion and improve housing affordability by segmenting Sydney into three parts, Western Parkland City beyond the M7 motorway, Central River City around Parramatta and the north-west, and Eastern Harbour City which includes the mass of suburbs along the shore.

Through new housing initiatives, employment options and transport links for each, the hope is Sydney will be better connected and ultimately run more efficiently.

Models for the future

For the time being neither Melbourne or Sydney is burdened by a huge population so there’s still scope for alternative apartment designs.

Buxton says Australian cities should more widely adopt European style low-rise apartments or townhouses, a form which has taken hold in American cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles lately.

“It's a much better model because they offer significant street-life, mixed uses and cater to young professionals,” says Buxton. “There's no reason why that can't happen here.”

Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden have mastered these types of low-rise apartment blocks, which, like The Commons, are designed to be sympathetic to the surroundings, topography and nearby buildings.

Several low-rise blocks in Stockholm, for instance, exemplify the philosophy of modest density over just a few floors.

The US has followed suit with both low and medium-rise units. For example, the 1600 Market apartments in San Francisco were built in a low-rise boutique block in 2014 and sold at below market rates, while Lotus Garden in Los Angeles has just 60 units and is targeted at people on modest incomes.

In Washington DC, a new sustainably designed mixed-use block called Park Van Ness has 11 storeys of apartments which look quite luxurious, and yet the asking rent for a one-bedroom unit is close to the city’s median rental price of $2,000, according to US property site

John Torti, the president of Torti Gallas and Partners, the architecture firm behind Park Van Ness, says American cities are learning how to densify existing suburbs without using greenfield land, helping to create more comfortable and walkable places for residents.

“Most of this work is transit oriented, between four and eight storeys, mixed use, walkable and on underutilised land such as parking lots or defunct retail sites,” Torti says.

“If you believe that the walkable city is a good idea, you understand that for every quarter mile radius a balanced mix of uses can accommodate from 1200 people at the two-storey village scale to 35,000 people at the 12-storey city scale – a working definition of a walkable neighbourhood. There are too many great examples to deny this.”

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Meeting half-way (up)

Expanding what’s possible in residential apartment design is important to the future of our big cities. As a lack of affordable housing options only escalate, we need to consider a range of different architectural styles and at varying ends of the price scale.

To this end, the NSW Government last year drafted a Design Guide to promote medium density housing across the state.

It noted townhouses, terraces and semis are more affordable because they require less land area and are more sustainable given their common walls, which provide better noise and energy insulation.

As a result, Sydney has refocused on medium density buildings, with more townhouses added to its western suburbs especially, including Doonside, Quakers Hill and Blacktown.

Residents in Melbourne are also showing greater interest in medium density housing, which has seen new townhouses built in its outer ring suburbs as well, including in Narre Warren and Cranbourne.

Perhaps more varied housing will come as better discussions are held about what works in different areas. In the end, it all comes back to a question of appropriateness, Torti says.

“Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Melbourne and Washington DC are a small list of beautiful liveable cities that historically have not had tall buildings,” he says.

“One might say these are cities at human scale, ranging from two to 12 storeys, and are great walkable places. People feel better, are attracted to and are just happier in places in which they are comfortable.” 

While we marvel at the ingenuity of a single skyscraper, it’s the overall fabric of our cities which make them great places to live.

Jean-Paul Pelosi is a property and technology journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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