Tall building are problematic, not least because they are distorting land values, but each one should should be judged on its merits, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

David Rudlin

On my first day at university our urban design lecturer sent us out into the city with a simple instruction to ‘look up!’ Not because of any impending comet strike but because it was something we rarely did, and it revealed much of what we would need to learn as urban designers.

One thing I started doing was counting storeys. The tallest buildings in Manchester at the time were the 30 storey Piccadilly Tower and the 25 storey CIS Tower. Outside the centre the tower blocks that loomed over the city’s council estates also seemed pretty tall even though they were only 13-16 storeys.

Manchester’s tallest building is now 64 storeys, making those council ‘tower blocks’ look tiny by comparison. It’s all relative, and more to the point, it’s all a matter of perspective because these building are always foreshortened when you look up.

I have since been involved in masterplans where the predominant building height is not much less than those council tower blocks. I worried at the time that everything was getting a bit tall, however on visiting the completed scheme I have always been surprised by the extent to which the elevation and section drawings had given a misleading impression of the perceived height of the completed building.

I have often visited schemes of ours and thought that the buildings could have been higher

When urban designers are creating public spaces, the distortion of drawing on a two-dimensional plane means that we tend to over-estimate horizontal dimensions and underestimate vertical ones. I have often visited schemes of ours and thought that the buildings could have been higher, the spaces tighter.

These things came to mind this week having chaired a couple of design panels where most of the schemes involved tall buildings. It used to be said that towers only happened at the peak of the property market and generally presaged a crash, and yet the property market in the cities in question is not particularly buoyant at the moment, but still towers are very much in vogue.

These tall buildings make planners queasy, even in areas designated as tall building zones. There are, of course, very real concerns about long views and the effect on the skyline, micro-climate, overshadowing, sustainability and carbon, heritage and impact on listed buildings along with the ever-present but ill-defined notion of ‘over development’. Under these criteria many of the proposals we saw were not acceptable, but it is important to show your workings, its not enough just to say that the proposals are too tall.

Then there is the idea of ‘architectural quality’. Taking a leaf from the original CABE guidance from 2007 many tall buildings policies include a requirement for architectural quality or even ‘excellence’. Let us put aside for a moment the quibble that we should be striving for this in all buildings – the implication is that the scale and visibility of tall buildings mean that the architecture should be even better! Earlier this year a consultant promoting a tall building wrote to me saying that they had been advised by their cost consultants that exceptional design quality could lead to build costs increasing exponentially.

…the real problem with building height inflation is that it is distorting the property market

For developers there is a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out). If everyone else is doing it, then they must somehow be under-developing their site if they don’t also go for a tower. Then if their consultants suggest 15 storeys, why not go for 20 or 30? This is what lies behind the boom in tall building proposals. I underline proposals because most of the tall buildings we have seen at design review over the years have not actually been built (outside London and hot spots like Manchester).

I may be more relaxed about height than many planners, but the real problem with building height inflation is that it is distorting the property market. Land values increase to the extent that developers need to go high to generate sufficient value to make the scheme stack-up. As I have pointed-out before in this column, the most compelling argument against towers is that they make perfectly good mid-rise development unviable.

The developer quoted above who worried about the cost of exceptional architecture concluded by saying that they were conscious of not wanting to waste the council’s resources on an exceptional quality scheme that is simply not viable to build. They may have a point.