High-rise Housing and Sustainable Development: Are we doing it right?

By Dr Ajibade A. Aibinu and Tayyab Ahmad

The modern metropolitan cities of the world are a classic example of living systems. Like any other living system, these cities have life pouring through their veins in the form of road networks and other infrastructure systems. These systems inhale and exhale as people commute to work in the morning and back to their homes in the evening.

Like any other living being, these cities also respond to internal and external disturbances like rising populations and rapid urbanisation. Several interventions to minimise the impact of disturbances, such as increasing urban populations, have evolved over time.

For urban centres, the contemporary solution has been to build high-rise to accommodate the growing human population above the ground. However, a key question arising in this context is whether this way of stacking scores of houses above one another in a high-rise development is a sustainable solution for the current and potential future challenges confronting our cities?

Fundamentally, high-rise residential buildings are large scale buildings with the attributes of centralisation, high density, verticality and reduced footprint. These buildings are highly reliant on technology, and because of their scale these are occasionally centrepieces of admiration, aspiration, aesthetics and awe. At the same time, these buildings are associated with many habitat-related challenges since it is not in human nature to live at heights above the ground.

When assessing sustainable development in the case of high-rise residential buildings, it is important to explore how built environment interventions relate with humans, nature, and other built environment objects within the city. On one hand, residential towers owing to their verticality, centralisation and stack-up design character contribute towards sustainable development, while on the other hand because of the same attributes they could be hindrances for sustainability.

For example, the attributes of high-rise residences can positively increase the effectiveness of both the buildings and natural systems while at the same time creating a detrimental effect on the psychological needs of humans.

From a social and psychological perspective, high-rise residential towers are not the same as commercial towers. Humans have different requirements and expectations of the places in which we work compared to places in which we live. While working at heights in an office building can be thrilling and invigorating, living at heights in a residential building may not be met with the same level of enthusiasm.

Is stacking scores of houses above one another in a high-rise development a sustainable solution for the current and potential challenges confronting our cities?

Moreover, the general human taste for residential buildings has not changed for a long time. Whereas the various aspects of commercial buildings have experienced significant changes throughout history, the concept of a house still revolves around a selective palette of colours, materials, spaces and functions.

If we consider multiple perspectives of sustainability, is radically innovating the concept of ‘housing’ by stacking residential units on top of each other a durable solution to rising population? Humans are habitual in wanting to be closer to the ground. With a high-rise residential tower requiring people to reside hundreds of feet above ground, feelings of anxiety, restlessness and depression are not unexpected. A sense of community can diminish in high-rise residential towers if they are not well configured and furnished with features that can help facilitate community living.

From an economic perspective, situating high-rise residential towers near city centres decreases commute time for their inhabitants. These towers can also capitalise on economies of scale. Environmentally, these towers face the issue of being energy intensive if they are not properly conceived, designed and built.

However, owing to the verticality of such buildings, new opportunities for energy generation are also created by them.

For large scale high-rise residential buildings, addressing or assessing sustainability can be of extreme significance. Considering sustainable development at the scale of a building is important and this is normally achieved by environmental considerations in building design, life cycle cost optimisation and designing and constructing for health and wellbeing.

High-rise residential buildings also have a strong relationship with their immediate neighbourhood. The commercial activities within the neighborhood and on the lower floors of residential towers have a synergistic effect on the residential high-rise and the broader neighborhood, as both interact with one another to facilitate amenities provision, employability and business continuity.

Ideally, a high-rise residential building needs to be in complete harmony with the various entities it incorporates and the increasingly larger neighbourhood and city systems it is a part of to fulfil the agenda of sustainable development.

Human beings possess the innate craving to create, innovate, and progress. This leads to vicious cycles of development and redevelopment. Often the developments that we so vigorously pursue in attempting to solve urban problems can create new problems and challenges. This is common when development is under the influence of a narrow vision of problem-solving, instead of a long term goal and vision.

A design without constraints is no design. Similarly a development without a complete regard for important surrounding entities and systems can sooner or later become inadequate in the face of unforeseen and rising challenges.

Dr Ajibade A. Aibinu, a researcher and educator, is a Senior Lecturer in quantity surveying and construction economics. Tayyab Ahmad is completing his PhD in architecture and has expertise in architectural engineering.

Images: James Rafferty