Who are tall buildings for? NLA Think Tank, 15 November

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Tall buildings can make a significant contribution to London’s need for more affordable housing. But issues of maintenance and service charges remain problematic, planning tools need to be redefined, and designers could take the typology forward by concentrating on creating good communal spaces for ‘vertical communities’ and shared facilities, without detracting from the streets below.

Those were some of the issues to emerge from a Think Tank on tall buildings held at Mace Business School last week, which looked at who this building typology is for.

The session was kicked off by LSE researcher Fanny Blanc, who presented some of the results of surveys on residents’ experiences of high-density housing in London. The research of over 500 residents, said Blanc, showed that reported problems were across three main items in the 14 high density schemes – three of which were tall schemes – noise, overheating and storage. There was a correlation between those with single aspect flats and overheating, as with Stratford’s Halo, for example, but there was also a trade-off between noise and overheating when it came to windows. Undesirable impact of Wind affecting the balconies as well as at street level was raised by residents. Lifts were another point of issue. Interestingly however, lifts in tall buildings were often a place to socialise, said Blanc, as well as a way of creating a lack of socialisation and a problem of management that is often a point of conflict when breakdowns occur. Only 2% listed community as the main factor for people’s homes, said Blanc, but there was a clear divide here between social and private tenants. 45% of social tenants felt they had some sense of community in their neighbourhood. The role of the concierge was acknowledged as an important one, although funding them was a concern.

Jonathan Drage, senior associate of Metropolitan Workshop, said there was still a ‘stigma’ in society about tall buildings and the perceived lack of social integration in creating communities on a small piece of land’. Their client for volumetric-built Mapleton Crescent, Pocket Living, encouraged a variety of shared high-quality amenity spaces. amenity spaces. 

Certainly in Croydon, said Director of Planning and Strategic Transport, LB Croydon Heather Cheesbrough, tall buildings are ‘absolutely critical’ in terms of contributing to affordable housing, especially to a borough that now has to produce some 15,000 homes in the town centre. Tall buildings are a huge contribution to high density, added Cheesbrough, but they have to deliver on affordable, with a policy that requires 15% minimum ‘non-negotiable’ from the politician’s perspective, and recent schemes hitting the 25-30% figure. The key was to ensure that developers do not ‘design out’ the affordable by making the point clear right from the beginning. Tall buildings can help on scale: ‘you need to get the sheer quantity of numbers in’, said Cheesbrough, but schemes need to be assessed on a site-by-site basis, and in places like Croydon, heritage and views are other important considerations. 

It was becoming a trend, though, for developers to strip out quality in separate affordable blocks, suggested Viviana Muscettola, associate director, at Zaha Hadid Architects. So it was really important for planning officers to keep high quality for both, said Cheesbrough. ‘There’s always a battle in terms of what you give consent for and then you have to fight your way through all the conditions and the detailing to make sure that quality is maintained’, she said. ‘At the end of the day it does come down to cost and developers will try to cut corners’. 

The affordable units in many developments are often located in lower blocks, because the maintenance of lower blocks is easier, suggested Muscettola, whose practice is designing a tower in Vauxhall, but there are, said SOM design director Yasemin Kologlu, quite a few new schemes being planned across London that integrate affordable and private homes in the same blocks. For example in Colindale, where the affordable housing is a key part of all the new buildings. As new schemes come forward and housing typologies evolve,I wonder if we will see more and more of a change in the way social housing is developed’, she said. Sripriya Sudhakar suggested they also see a shift towards a more integrated model in LB Tower Hamlets, where affordable and private homes are planned within same blocks.


Councils are keen to ensure schemes are tenure-blind, said Sripriya Sudhakar, Place Shaping Team Leader, LB Tower Hamlets. But are we, asked KPF principal John Bushell, building flats that we will be proud of in years to come? Parker Morris-standard flats feel subjectively better than GLA-standard ones regarding space, but perhaps it’s time to measure flats differently. It’s not just about the floor area but also qualitative objectives of how good a place is to live in.  There could be a focus from planners to try and police the quality of the dwellings. ‘At the moment everything’s minimum, and that does feed through’, said Bushell. 

The noise criteria seem to be blanket, one-size-fits all ones, said Vince Ugarow, Director, Hilson Moran & Committee Member, CTBUH UK. And in Blanc’s research the acoustic issue extended too to internal noise through ventilation systems and neighbours. But it was perhaps an accusation you could level at low-rise schemes too, said Drage, and the modular approach could be helpful in that aspect. ‘I think it’s a real skill to design good quality corridors and social spaces that will last and that’s really down to the architect and specifying the right materials’, he said.  

Keeping the service charge down in tall buildings is another issue, said SimpsonHaugh founder Ian Simpson, whose wife sits on the board of the scheme he lives in in Manchester for just that reason. This is an area that will only get worse, Simpson suggested, with a feeling of being out of control. You’d expect that with a tall building, there would be major changes needed in time but that the envelope and fabric would be sustainable certainly well beyond the 12 years warranty period. ‘But it’s the management of these buildings that will be an issue. It’s a real battle keeping the service charge at a reasonable level. And that will be a real deterrent and will be a problem that all tall buildings will suffer from’. 

An allowance could perhaps be put by for big items and perhaps a concierge; people might come together as a ‘community’ if only to save money in such circumstances. There is a real need for more money to be spent on ongoing maintenance and concierge services, agreed Sudhakar, but there is also a reluctance for the latter because of the impact on service charges, that could run to £100,000 a year. 

Lobby spaces are also getting squeezed by cycle provision, said Stuart Baillie, head of planning at GL Hearn, often resulting in less welcoming entrances to building. But the rise of the built to rent means that developers are taking more of a long-term view that means, prospectively, more care for the tenants.

But perhaps planning is a key obstructer. John Bushell said there were tensions generated by the planning system such as when an area is designated as a ‘cluster’ or suitable for tall buildings, but then every site is advanced separately in both timing and approach. While a local authority masterplan can take time and may not be best answer, having more guidelines might help - anything from finding a voluntary collective framework (as is happening at St Thomas Street East or like Manchester’s Special Regeneration Framework), through learning from the guidelines in other cities, including some in China, regarding tall buildings ‘We would suggest there needs to be some idea that towers grow out of blocks’, said Bushell, ‘looking at how tall buildings can grow out of an urban framework to create a humane environment.’ There needs, too, to be a ‘generosity’ of amenity spaces at ground level and higher up the building, Bushell went on.

So how do you create this kind of environment in a place like South Quay in Tower Hamlets, with multiple owners and without a masterplan? Sudhakar said one of the challenges was it was a very small piece of land with multiple developers coming to the authority for pre-app discussions at the same time. ‘We can only do so much in a pre-app scenario about assessing cumulative impacts and getting them to talk to each other’, she said. There have been, she said, almost one planning inquiry per month for the last five months, one of which the local authority lost. ‘I personally feel the tools we have are limited’, she said, pointing out that the London Plan policy treats tall buildings the same whether they are eight storeys or 63, residential or commercial. ‘These tall buildings of 300-400 buildings are ecosystems in themselves…we are essentially creating small neighbourhoods’, with tools ‘not sufficiently refined’ to capture the challenges of somewhere like South Quay.

It is hard to solve all problems for such complex areas on a site-by-site basis, said Bushell, including on issues like collective use of energy centres. A group of clients collaborating to deliver collectively could be a better way to deliver affordable housing. Daylight and sunlight should also consider the wider context, in a more holistic way, added Kologlu. 

The biggest problem in Manchester is usually the tower on its own, said Simpson, especially with regards to wind, but a single planning application is not allowed. ‘You have to do a strategic regeneration framework for an area’, he said, ‘and then the city will take planning applications thereafter once that study has gone through the city council executive and approved. It’s almost like an outline planning application.’ Values are different in Manchester, of course, but parties know they have to work together, often collectively hiring a landscape architect to knit developments together. 

But if one doesn’t play ball, suggested Cheesbrough, they would just run off to the Inspector, and a secretary of state might make another ‘bonkers’ decision after that. ‘There’s this total push to have housing delivery and it might mean that the niceties of a place get thrown out of the window. It depends on the flavour of the politics at that point.’ 

Another potential area for sharing, though, is in the facilities, perhaps across developers and buildings but certainly, said Ugarow, in terms of things like washing machines with the potential there to bring people together, counter loneliness and ease anti-social behaviour. ‘Why can’t there be a shared facility, whether it’s per floor or cluster of floors?’ he asked. Or there could be sharing in place for DIY tools, for example, again starting to bring community together in towers. Creating a community in a vertical model continues to be a challenge that we all work on, said Kologlu. We continue to learn from successful models and perhaps this could also be helped through planning tools such as Section 106s. Cheesbrough said that there are good examples, happily, from the private sector, and interestingly with a Permitted Development scheme of a 60s block in Croydon: Leon House. ‘The quality they have done is a step change in Croydon’, including a lobby with workspace, commissioned artwork, a roof terrace and private dining rooms, plus space for the community. The flipside is there are also PD schemes where none of this communal space is adequately thought through. There are super tall buildings, very often in the UK, where vertical communities are possible, but, said Simpson, with many of the sub-50 storey projects in the UK it is difficult to carve out such communal space – ‘and if you do, you are detracting from the street’. ‘I live at the top of a tall building but the community for me is my city’. 

So, ultimately, who are these schemes for? ‘There’s an opportunity for tall buildings to serve everybody’, said Simpson. Some will be expensive to build on pricey land, so will be expensive to buy. ‘But there’s other places where you can intensify the density at low cost; good design, and they become affordable. Outside of London any tall building that is built has to be affordable, because nobody can afford to pay the kind of values that are extant in London.’  

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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