Why Pencil Towers are Problematic

A lot of very tall and very skinny towers have been built for very rich people. It's not a good mix.

432 Park Avenue from the top of Rockefeller Center
432 Park Avenue from the top of Rockefeller Center.

Gary Hershorn/ Getty Images

The residential skyscraper at 432 Park Avenue in New York City has been the poster child on Treehugger for much that is wrong about architecture, real estate development, and wretched excess. I have used its image in posts like It's Time to Dump the Tired Argument That Density and Height Are Green and Sustainable and It's Time for an Upfront Carbon Emissions Tax on Building. I described it as "inequality made solid in marble and glass."

The problem is that it is really expensive to build something so tall and skinny; with an aspect ratio of 15:1 it really wants to sway in the breeze. People in Chicago's Sears Tower used to complain about whitecaps in their toilets, and it has nothing on 432 Park in terms of slenderness. So a lot of fancy technology goes into reducing the sway so that the residents don't get seasick, such as tuned mass dampers to counteract the sway; Terri Boake of the University of Waterloo videoed the damper at 432 Park shortly after it was built:

That's 1200 tons of steel and concrete hauled 1390 feet up into the sky; I can't imagine what this costs, but it is probably more than most little apartment buildings. Everything costs more to build; you need special pumps for water and fire protection, expensive elevators, everything has to be designed to expand and contract and flex and bend. A student of mine at Ryerson School of Interior design demonstrated that "the higher the building, the more embodied and operating energy required per square unit of measure."

The units have been sold to the richest people in the world, who don't use them very much or pay much in taxes for them, so money isn't the problem. However, when you put very rich people together with very complicated buildings, it is a combustible mixture. A recent article by Stephanos Chen in the New York Times, The Downside to Life in a Supertall Tower: Leaks, Creaks, Breaks, describes the engineering problems that arise in such buildings, including serious floods that cause major damage, elevator troubles, and "creaking, banging and clicking noises." There are also the ever-increasing monthly maintenance charges.

The problems are compounded by the type of buyers, who are picky-picky and can afford good lawyers.

Architect James Timberlake tells Treehugger how hard it can be to deal with buildings like this:

"‘Supertalls', an elite and special form of high-rise building, often purposed for high-end residential living, creating a platform high above the ‘maddening crowd’ for the ‘hoi-polloi’, makes for a perplexing challenge for the architect. At once a potential iconic form opportunity, yet while often the least sustainable, environmentally ethical manifestation of residential living. The reputational challenge is both hard to resist but also hard to live down once completed."
full floor apartment
425 Park Avenue Marketing Brochure

I have never been able to get this floor plan from the 432 Park marketing material out of my head; a single apartment occupying an entire floor, often for people who will never live there for more than six months at a time to avoid taxes.

Timberlake tells Treehugger:

"Arguably dense given the ratio of building on a small lot, the resources needed per person to build such a tower is excessive and wasteful. The problems associated with such towers to structure and serve them also are disproportionately out of whack to the numbers of persons inhabiting the tower."

Commenters to my post about how there should be a big honking carbon tax on this "obscene display of wealth" said this was the "most illiberal communist concept ever heard." But I am talking carbon emissions, not money, because everyone on earth has to live with the consequences of the megatonnes of carbon emitted building and operating this thing.

Perhaps I am also tainted by my experience dealing with a couple of rich entitled jerks who bought condos from me when I was a real estate developer almost two decades ago now. Just a little six-story building with 24 units, but the whining and the carrying on for the slightest problem! One particularly self-important owner forgot his access card one night, so he pulled the fire alarm, knowing it would get me out of bed and down there in a hurry. At 432 Park, there is an entire building full of people with very high expectations, in a high-strung, finely tuned building that needs constant attention. No wonder there is trouble. And no wonder there is so much schadenfreude; the comments on Chen's New York Times article are extraordinary.

432 Park Avenue
Lloyd Alter

As Timberlake notes:

"Finally, in the end, when the general public hears of the problems of super wealthy within these towers who can afford to purchase such real estate complaining about the operational problems within them, not to mention the antisocial ‘leave me alone’ elitist behaviors created by the isolationist form, two reactions result. The first is ‘who cares’; the second is ‘buyer beware.’"
Another supertall from Central Park
Supertall with moon from Central Park at Columbus Circle. Lloyd Alter

There is really not much good that can be said about these buildings other than admiring the engineering. The carbon burden is incredibly high; as rich as they are, the owners contribute little to the city; the buildings are terrible at ground level because it is all loading and parking and lobby; many complain that in New York, their shadows are ruining Central Park. They are a thumb in the eye of everyone else in the city.

These problems are not unique to 432 Park Avenue; they are probably happening in every supertall. I don't have to do my usual shrill "ban pencil towers"; I suspect that the market will deliver that message in short order.