Memorandum by Gordon Masterton, Chairman
of Structural and Building Board, Institution of Civil Engineers
and Director, Babtie Group Ltd (TAB 35)
Tall buildings evolved from the economic imperative
of maximising the return on prime building land in the financial
and business sectors of cities. In a few cases it is probably
true that the economic case was compromised by the additional
kudos perceived in building taller than ever before. The tallest
buildings in the world are not necessarily the most efficient.
However, the great majority of tall buildings
are the end product of an economic cost benefit process designed
to yield a satisfactory financial return to developers and investors.
Their height is that which is most appropriate to assessed consumer
demand, which is in turn dependent on many factors including the
prevailing business climate and the ease of access to transport
systems. The demand for tall buildings will continue to be driven
by the economics of return on investment.
Should there be a continuing demand to build
high, Government has the ability to choose what additional, if
any, constraints it wishes to apply through the planning process.
In reaching a view on this, Government should
consider the issues of societal well-being, environmental impact
and sustainability. Tall buildings can inspire and delight. At
their best they are exuberant expressions of a vibrant civilisation.
They can be a wonderful part of our civic landscape. Conversely,
if designed without imagination or attention to detail (in all
its senses), some have been abject failures as spaces to live
or work. The failures of the 1960's housing blocks were due to
many reasons, but perhaps mainly the failure to understand the
user's interaction with the building. There are fewer examples
of unsuccessful high-rise office buildings.
There are other factors which merit consideration.
Tall buildings in financial and business centres help preserve
green spaces elsewhere. Tall buildings also allow public transport
systems and public utility systems to be more focussed and efficient.
High-rise Manhattan is more efficient, and arguably more sustainable,
than the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.
An alternative to tall buildings in city centres
is promoted by some to be the idealistic concept of living and
working in close proximity in relatively small suburban communities.
Enforcing this would achieve certain aims of reducing the need
to travel, but at the cost of compromising one of our basic freedoms
to seek career advancement by changing employer. Whilst we aspire
to a society which allows freedom to choose where we live and
where we work, enforced dispersal of jobs into the suburbs would
most likely lead in the medium and long term, as people changed
jobs but not their homes, to longer and more varied journeys between
suburbs, without the benefit of efficient large volume public
transport radial arteries.
A NOTE ON
11 SEPTEMBER AND
Since the economic climate reflects the level
of confidence in developers, investors, insurers and prospective
tenants, there is no denying that the events of 11 September in
New York have shaken our confidence in tall buildings as safe
places to live and work. There are those who link the vulnerability
of terrorist attack to the incidence of tall buildings and are
seeking to cite the appalling terrorist attack on the World Trade
Center as a reason to change Government policy on Tall Building
planning constraints. Government would be wrong to do so. The
incident was a vicious and horrible attack designed to inflict
maximum damage and loss of life. The target happened to be a tall
building, due perhaps to its association with capitalism. One
could conceive of equally horrific consequences if the target
had been, say, a suspension bridge full of rush hour traffic,
or a baseball or football stadium when full to capacity, or a
national iconic building such as the Houses of Parliament or Buckingham
Palace. The root of the attack was the deeply entrenched resentment
and hatred, which breeds terrorism. Building smaller buildings
is no answer to that. The terrorist target, or means of attack,
would simply change. Terrorists always attack the soft underbelly
of civilisation. Our built environment is designed for peacetime
and, as a consequence, our infrastructure has a degree of vulnerability.
We have long evolved from the city state and have chosen as a
society not to live in fortress cities. There is no logical case
for 11 September to change this. Indeed, to do so would be a victory
Investigations into the collapse of WTC will
provide new information for architects, planners and civil engineers
and help them design future tall buildings with greater intrinsic
robustness, greater intrinsic safety, and more effective and rapid
means of escape. (Indeed, design principles and understanding
had already evolved from the mid 1960's when the WTC towers were
designed.) The Institution of Civil Engineers is participating
in a Study Group on Safety in Tall Buildings, which includes professionals
from all relevant disciplines. This group is liaising closely
with the investigation team set up by the American Society of
Civil Engineers. It is expected that the final output from this
group will be guidance for improving the design, the layout and
the engineering detail of tall buildings.
Government may wish to take note in due course
of the Study Group's recommendations, and this would be an appropriate
and sufficient response to the events of 11 September.
Tall buildings, if designed and built intelligently,
should play a significant role in an advanced and developing city.
Their economic viability depends on the confidence of developers,
of insurers and of tenants. This has recently been shaken by the
events of 11 September and the market will be making its own adjustments
in response. Architects and civil engineers are assisting in the
rebuilding of confidence by applying lessons learned from the
attack on the World Trade Center. Governments can assist by addressing
and resolving the deep conflicts which nurture terrorism.
If the demand for tall buildings continues,
Government policy should consider the potential benefits or disbenefits
to cities by assessing not just the economic impact, but also
environmental and sustainability issues. In this respect there
are important benefits associated with clustering tall buildings
in financial and business centres. Public transport systems and
public utility networks can be more focused and cost-effective.
Urban sprawl is prevented. Green spaces elsewhere are preserved.
At their best, tall buildings are also exuberant expressions of
a vibrant civilisation.
Tall buildings, if designed intelligently and
built well, with intrinsic robustness, intrinsic safety and rapid
means of escape, should continue to be important features in our
city landscapes and planning policy should reflect this.