119 more tall buildings planned for London

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Image: © Visualhouse and photographer Dan Lowe

An additional 119 new tall buildings have been planned for London since this time last year, taking the total number in the pipeline to 436. But the bar must be raised on their quality if the slums of the future are to be avoided, and the next mayor must commission a 3D model to improve communication with the public on the subject.

Those were some of the key messages as the new figures were revealed at NLA this morning, part of research updated annually by NLA and GL Hearn and which covers schemes of 20 floors and over.

‘The growth of the pipeline continues unabated’, said NLA chairman Peter Murray, kicking off a conference on the report’s findings. Much of the growth is in east London, with Tower Hamlets leading the way, said Murray, followed by Greenwich, with its focus on the Greenwich Peninsula masterplan.

‘We believe that well-designed tall buildings in the right place with well-coordinated clusters are perfectly acceptable. We don’t need them everywhere, and there’s plenty of scope for medium-rise, high-density homes as well. But in terms of quality we need to raise the bar as far as tall buildings are concerned.’  Murray said it was also increasingly important that the planning and development community improves the way it communicates with the wider public on these issues.

James Cook, Head of London Residential Planning at GL Hearn provided the detail on the methodology of the research first published in April 2014 when it found 236 tall buildings in the pipeline – proposed, approved, under construction and completed. This year it has been bolstered by EGi/London Residential Research, with ‘great intelligence’ on pre-applications stage schemes. Some of the highlights include that 2% (8) of the schemes were over 60 storeys tall, but 60% (261) of between 20-29 storeys; just three schemes were refused – testimony to pre-planning activity; 71% (311) were in inner London; and 54% (235) in the east. Tower Hamlets had the most, with 93, followed by Greenwich with 67; while 73% (320) of the schemes are residential, 18% (77) ‘genuinely mixed use’. Cook said the research showed the continued importance of Opportunity Areas and strategic planning for tall buildings, the efficiency of the planning system and their ‘highly varied’ geographical spread. Tall buildings are an important part of London’s growth but are only part of the answer, however, said Cook. ‘If you look at all of the tall buildings under construction today they would only account for about half of London’s annual housing need if they were all built this year, which just isn’t going to happen.’

Responding to the research, Colin Wilson, Strategic Planning Manager at GLA said the authority reviewed 600 buildings over 30m tall last year, with the ‘vast majority’ in the right areas – town centres, Opportunity Areas, areas with high PTAL, and they could provide around 35,000 homes. The GLA made a 3D model to test the Vauxhall Nine Elms plan on heritage and to help consultation, but the key move was in ‘booting up the land value’ in the area, he said, and getting crucial infrastructure in, including affordable housing. A public realm strategy was also devised to complement the tall buildings strategy. ‘Would doing four or five storeys here make any sense?’ asked Wilson. No. That would be very bad planning, I think.’ Tall buildings are like ‘shrinking’ the city, he added, since the clusters help with orientation of different areas of the capital.

The conference also heard from speakers including Vince Ugarow, UK Committee, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat who said lift technology had ‘liberated buildings getting taller’, with 50,000 elevator rides daily in a typical tall office building. But perhaps now it was time to create a Tall Buildings Urban Framework. Karen Cook, Founding Partner, PLP showed how 22 Bishopsgate is not as ‘show-off’ as its original version, concentrating on becoming a place that ‘stimulates curiosity’ to match changing corporate occupiers, all of whom are ‘free range people’ and ‘want more choice’.

And Gwyn Richards, Head of Design, City of London Corporation said there had been a ‘quiet revolution’ in the Square Mile to get a refined understanding of where to locate such tall buildings. ‘This is a work in progress’, he said of the eastern cluster. ‘We are developing a copse of trees, not an avenue…There’s absolutely no testosterone urge in the City to go tall’. The cluster acts as a ‘pressure valve’, he added, where the City can grow and deflect attention from ‘cherished’ heritage areas. ‘Tall buildings should not be temples for the affluent.’

But Barbara Weiss, Co-Founder of the Skyline Campaign said the number of tall buildings in the pipeline was ‘incredibly scary’ and a lot of what is being done was on a short-termist approach lacking in vision. ‘This is all about money and not so much about having a beautiful city’, she said.

Other speakers in the conference’s second session included Gensler principal Lukasz Platkowski, who looked at occupier needs (70% of US workers ‘hate to show up at work’) and showed the practice’s ‘new paradigm of tower’ – the mixed use Highgate Hotel in Hackney, featuring stacks of office space, a co-working ‘shed’, open street market and a hotel with event space. ‘It becomes a vertical village the tenants can identify with’, he said. Chris Twinn, founder of TwinnSustainabilityInnovation, looked at engineering innovation, with the background being that capital costs of tall buildings here are typically twice those worldwide. Twinn said that the wind assessment of tall buildings is now inadequate, with no consideration of ‘chill factor’, and the cumulative effects of towers are ‘simply not managed’.  Innovation is being positively discouraged by regulations, particularly against naturally ventilated towers. ‘A lot of the issues are to do with tick box design. They need a reexamination of what we’re trying to achieve.’

And finally during discussion, Historic England CEO Duncan Wilson said we do ourselves no favours by offering up nicknames for tall buildings, like the Walkie Talkie, The Gherkin and the Shard. ‘It invites us to consider them as objects in their own right. It’s so much more than that; we’ve got to consider them as to how they relate to what’s all around them and form a cohesive city.’

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

Click here to download the full report - London Tall Buildings Survey

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