Going up - APPG debates role of tall buildings

Tuesday 1 May 2018

250 City Road © Berkeley Homes

London’s next generation of tall buildings must pay greater attention to the user experience, maximise associated social housing and create schemes that give the maximum back to the city, planned within more strategic masterplans.

Those were some of the key takeaways from the APPG meeting as it met at Westminster last night to discuss the role tall buildings play in supporting London’s growth.

NLA chairman Peter Murray followed committee chair Bambos Charalambos MP’s introduction by suggesting that this year’s NLA tall buildings survey had stirred relatively little surprise amongst the press or public despite showing that there are 510 in the pipeline for the capital. That, Murray went on, suggested that in the ‘race’ to build the 66,000 homes required by London each year, tall buildings are now perceived by many as being ‘one of the key components in delivering those numbers’. A 3D model of the kind NLA is now working on with VUCity would help to provide greater scrutiny of designs, however, said Murray as will Sadiq Khan’s mayoral design advocates.

GL Hearn’s head of planning Stuart Baillie gave a run-down of the key elements of this year’s figures of buildings over 20 storeys, including strong areas of growth such as Croydon and Newham. Baillie told the group that with new technologies coming on board, future tall buildings schemes might come to site quicker, and that the typology is part of the answer to providing for housing need.

But HTA Design head of planning Riete Oosthuizen suggested that in future years it might be a good idea to include data on the affordable housing generated by tall buildings, and the demographic nature of those who live in them. ‘Tall buildings play a part in the solution’, she said. ‘But it’s not just about numbers. It’s about quality and fitness for purpose’. Do they form part of a public realm masterplan, and do the internal spaces work for people, she asked? Work HTA has done on intensifying the suburbs also shows that perhaps the contribution made by tall buildings pales – the study indicates they can provide just 100,000 homes, but that is not a great deal when need (66k) is annualised. HTA’s work on suburban intensification, by contrast, shows that 350,000 extra homes are possible, with a rooftop study showing 180,000. Tall buildings can learn a lot from build to rent sector, said Oosthuizen, where the customer is prioritized and thus the kinds of maintenance problems that plague tall buildings can be minimised.

Alison Brooks Architects director Alison Brooks said that the key consideration was about what kind of city we are creating. ‘Is it humane? Is it equitable? Is it adaptable?’, she asked. ‘A lot of people would question whether tall buildings provide any of those things.’ The most successful tall buildings, Brooks suggested, were those which are part of a strategic masterplan, and it had to be acknowledged that the primary consideration of the tall building was economic. Tall buildings provide something like 10 times the density of London’s average, so need to ‘give back ten times to the city’, Brooks added, and the GLA must devise policies that reward design excellence – ‘high quality’ means nothing and has ‘no teeth’.

Finally, Emma Dent Coad said that London needed more tall buildings like Worlds’ End and Trellick Tower, and fewer of the ‘ugly blots on the landscape’ ‘lowering’ over Kensington and Chelsea from other boroughs, such as – she cited – Imperial West. ‘With all of these schemes we’re subjected to what I call decision-based evidence making by planning consultants’ said Coad. There was also a question of who we are building for, and the problem of ‘homes for nobody’ – the kind of luxury flats which display very few lights on at night. Construction quality is also ‘shocking’, suggested Coad, who spends more time on casework from new buildings than those which the borough is demolishing. People wanted neighbourhoods, which is why those being rehoused from Grenfell are struggling to find new homes. But another fallout from Grenfell is that new fire regulations that emerge will have a bearing on tall buildings viability, Coad suggested.

Discussion of the issues varied from the view that the UK was going the way of American cities and thus needed a regional plan and councillors and MPs willing to impose restrictions on developments; affordability; local authority delivery vehicles, and the politically-driven nature of the development system.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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