Are Skyscrapers Wasteful, Damaging, and Outmoded?

Now that we worry about embodied carbon (and viruses) it's time for a rethink.

The Shard in London
The Shard in London.

 Lloyd Alter

Writing in The Guardian, architectural critic Rowan Moore questions the value of skyscrapers, asking "If no one ever built a skyscraper ever again, anywhere, who would truly miss them?" Moore points out (as we have on Treehugger many times) that it takes about 20% more operating energy to run the heating, cooling, and elevators in a tall building than in a shorter one. But he also quotes ARUP engineer Tim Snelson about how nobody was considering embodied energy, the energy that actually goes into the making of the building, and all of the materials in it, even when they built so-called "green" buildings with wind turbines on top.

They have got away with it in part because embodied energy hasn’t until recently been paid as much attention as energy in use. It has been deemed acceptable – by the building regulations, by architects, by the professional media – to rip untold tonnes of matter from the earth and to pump similar tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, in order to produce magical architectural devices that might, if all their wizardry were to function as promised, pay back some of their carbon debt some time in the next century. By when it might be too late.
Operating energy low buildings vs high
Operating energy low buildings vs high. Peng Du et al 

Moore notes that tall buildings are still popular because of the views; the higher you go, the higher the price. That's why, in New York City, developers actually put giant oversized mechanical rooms in the middle of buildings: to crank up the height. But we have also noted that going tall increases both the operating and the embodied emissions.

Paris is incredibly dense and its mostly 8 stories
Paris is incredibly dense and its mostly 8 stories.  Lloyd Alter

We also have long noted that you can get really high densities while building low buildings; just look at Paris or Montreal's Plateau district – there is no need to build so tall. I have made the case for what I called the Goldilocks Density, writing in The Guardian:

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.
wood vs concrete
Wood vs Concrete/.  FP Innovations

And that was before I had ever heard of embodied energy or before tall wood was a thing. Because the best way to significantly reduce embodied energy (or upfront carbon emissions, as I prefer to call them, although I am becoming resigned to the fact that I have lost this argument) is to build out of engineered wood.

Dalston Lane
Dalston Lane.  Waugh Thistleton Architects

The fact is, to paraphrase Louis Kahn, wood doesn't want to be tall. Not everyone agrees with me on this (see Matt Hickman in Treehugger here) but even Andrew Waugh, perhaps the world's leading architect of wood buildings (and designer of Dalston Lane in London) says, "we don't necessarily need to be thinking of wooden skyscrapers in London, however seductive the concept is, but rather of increasing density across the board. He is thinking more in terms of 10-15 storey buildings, which many believe to be the comfortable height for human beings."

Does anyone really want to do this?
Does anyone really want to do this?.  IVAN DAMANIK/AFP via Getty Images

And now, of course, we have the coronavirus, which is causing a lot of people to reconsider tall buildings with their sealed windows and crowded elevators. Yet another reason to reconsider very tall buildings; it is hard to take the stairs. Arjun Kaicker of Zaha Hadid Architects (and formerly with Foster) notes that all the measures that will be taken to make buildings less dangerous will make super-tall buildings less attractive or efficient.

One World Trade Center
One World Trade Center. Lloyd Alter

At the beginning of this year, before the pandemic, I looked at the issue of operating and embodied energy in tall buildings and wondered If We Care About Sustainability, Should We Still Be Building Super-Tall Skyscrapers? I concluded: "Studies show that taller buildings are simply less efficient, and don't even give you any more useable area. Why bother?" Rowan Moore comes to a similar conclusion in The Guardian:

Tim Snelson puts it well: “While the collective progression of civilisations over centuries is still largely measured by the ability to build bigger, faster and taller, we have come to the point where we must put the limits on ourselves and apply our forces to the challenge of building sustainably, above all else, or risk destroying the very future that will hold our legacy.” Quite so. And why, really and truly, would you want to live in one of these things?

Or, for that matter, work in one of them? Enough.