Sustainable Tall Building Design Calls for a New Business Model

Trees and buildings wallpapersTall buildings are seen by many as an adaptation strategy in response to a growing population and urbanisation.  Today, more than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050, the population is predicted to reach 9 billion, of which an estimated 70 per cent will be living in cities. In this scenario, it seems that the only solution is to build upward while at the same time slowing population growth over time.

Broadening the technology focused approach

Skyscrapers resonate with many as romantic endeavours. Putting their undeniable romanticism to one side, tall buildings also represent an opportunity to mitigate the adverse effects of population growth on resource use and the impact of urbanisation on biodiversity. High-density developments make it cheaper and easier to provide efficient mass transport, energy and waterinfrastructure and waste management among other elements.

These obvious technical and environmental advantages come at a cost: limitations to privacy and a lack of access to open spaces and daylight, to name just a few challenges. In densely populated cities, air quality may also take on added significance.

While constraining urban sprawl through high density living is desirable from a broad sustainability point of view, it is however only part of the story. Social equity and quality of living are equally important in maintaining social cohesion and fostering vibrant and productive communities. It is at this junction that innovation, both technical and commercial, is needed more than ever to bring about the desired social and sustainability outcomes.

Current technology can provide solutions to many challenges of modern living, including sustainable living. For it to work, however, the technology focused approach has to be broadened to include commercial solutions consistent with principles of social inclusion and equity.

Why current green building rating schemes are inadequate

Most green building rating schemes seem to promote buildings as self sufficient islands in an urban landscape. Buildings are rewarded for generating their own power, including power from renewable sources, providing water and waste treatment, composting facilities, worm farms and other similar functions. While appealing to some, this vision often runs into serious problems in the context of high density living.

The common problem is lack of economies of scale to support commercial outcomes. Most of the green building ratings systems include credit points for ecology, transport and waste management but often there is very little individual building owners or developers can do to effectively influence outcomes in these important considerations.  Some would argue this situation results in sometimes cynical exploitation of rating systems and a tick-box approach to building design and token gestures, with often limited sustainability outcomes.  This is not a sustainable model for high density living.

Rather than self-sufficiency, shared infrastructure should be promoted. Tall buildings with their high population density create economies of scale that allow for a much greater resource and capital efficiency. The shared model also demands greater collaboration between developers, financial markets and local communities in delivering equitable, inclusive and sustainable outcomes.

Combining traditional technology and shared infrastructure

Traditional approaches to building sustainability are obviously still valid. Good passive design is a cornerstone of any best practice outcome. Tall buildings are no exception, though implementing some of the principles requires advanced technological and construction strategies. Effective solar gain control, insulation, air tightness, natural ventilation, water efficiency or renewable energy systems are more critical on tall buildings. The old concept of activating building fabric as a thermal storage measure may also find its application in tall buildings by providing a mechanism for improving thermal comfort, reducing energy use and assisting in demand management. Vertical temperature gradient when it comes to tall buildings in hot climates may offer another opportunity to reduce cooling energy consumption.

What really changes things for tall buildings is the simple fact of increased resource use densities, which require innovative and integrated supply side technologies and commercial solutions. This shift in the scale and nature of demand opens opportunities for decoupling supply side sustainability infrastructure from buildings. Sustainability outcomes become a shared concern of the building owner, the infrastructure provider and local community which mandates prescribed sustainability outcomes. An increase in scope and concentration of demand enables innovative technical integration in providing sustainability infrastructure. Aggregation of infrastructure enabled by high density of resource use also facilitates greater efficiency in sourcing and deploying capital.

A more commercially viable approach

Tall buildings with their high population density generate the critical mass required to make large scale sustainability infrastructure commercially viable. Economies of scale are particularly significant when developing capital intensive infrastructure, including energy, water, transport and waste management. Such economies of scale may further foster integration of off- or on-site renewable energy generation through the development of innovative business models for sharing generation assets at a precinct level.

A growing urban population, with its obvious challenges, forces industry members to rethink business models for sustainable tall buildings precincts to dramatically improve efficiency of resource utilisation and to limit the urban sprawl. A high density population creates economies of scale that are required to support large scale, shared sustainability infrastructure.  These new business models require partnerships between developers, financial markets and local communities to bring about equitable, inclusive and sustainable outcomes.

Source: DesignBuildSource

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