Architects’ network slams skyscrapers as worsening climate crisis

An open letter from an influential group of UK architects has condemned the impact of tall office buildings on climate change and biodiversity – and called for less celebration of skyscrapers

A UK network of climate-conscious architectural practices has published an open letter to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) in which it argues that tall buildings ‘hinder, rather than assist, our efforts to address key challenges of climate breakdown, resource depletion and biodiversity loss’.

Architects Declare – a group committed to addressing the climate emergency – has written to the CTBUH to set out its concerns about the ‘celebration’ of tall buildings in the context of the unfolding planetary crisis.

Since the 1980s, the CTBUH has maintained a ‘definitive’ ranking of the tallest buildings in the world. Architects Declare is calling on it to transform this register by shifting its focus from ‘a fixation on height’ to addressing key environmental challenges.

Architects Declare was founded by architects Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn, and launched in May 2019 by the then 17 UK recipients of the prestigious Stirling Prize for architecture. It has since attracted hundreds of other architectural practices from across the UK.

Human imagination gripped

The letter from Architects Declare, made public for the first time, notes that skyscrapers have gripped human imagination since the 19th century, with demonstrations of inventions such as Elisha Otis’ first safe elevator in 1853 at the New York World Fair, together with advances in metallurgy, helping to usher in ‘a heroic age of increasingly tall buildings’.

‘Times, however, have changed, and skyscrapers are no longer what they were,’ continues the letter. “We are now in a planetary emergency and we have very few years left in which to chart a new and safe course for humanity.’ The tall-buildings register is promoting system behaviour that contradicts efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss

The letter points to a 2017 study commissioned by the CTBUH, which suggests that ‘downtown high-rise’ developments are better across a range of environmental and quality of life indicators than ‘suburban low-rise’.

The general contention is that tall buildings can deliver the necessary urban density and compactness to optimise sustainable forms of transport, such as walking, cycling and mass transit. But, according to Architects Declare, this misses out some crucial elements.

It cites a University College London research project showing that office buildings that are 20 storeys or higher typically use two-and-a-half times more electricity than buildings with six storeys or fewer. The same study also found a link between increases in height and greenhouse gas emissions in residential buildings.

A modern absurdity

‘The unavoidable fact is that, in terms of resource efficiency, the embodied carbon in their construction and energy consumption in use, skyscrapers are an absurdity,’ states the letter. ‘The amount of steel required to resist high windspeeds, the energy required to pump water hundreds of metres above ground, and the amount of floorspace taken up by lifts and services make them one of the most inefficient building types in a modern metropolis.

‘The unavoidable fact is that, in terms of resource efficiency, skyscrapers are an absurdity…’

‘It could also be argued that skyscrapers further detach us from any meaningful relationship with the natural world. Above about ten storeys, balconies don’t work because it is simply too windy, so high-rise apartments are hermetically sealed – as isolated from nature as possible.’

The letter concludes that to growing numbers of people, skyscrapers are now seen less as emblems of progress and more as ‘extravagant status symbols’ for the super-rich to invest in property. It adds: “For those who might still claim that skyscrapers are symbols of progress, the evidence is clear: they now represent progress towards societal collapse.”

Andrew Sansom is editorial director of SALUS Global Knowledge ExchangeSalus is a content partner of WORKTECH Academy.
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