Tall buildings

We invited Judith Littlewood CBE to apply her considerable expertise and experience to the subject of “Tall Buildings” as a core feature of Maidenhead’s Regeneration. In her blog, she challenges some of the basic assumptions and asks people to learn the lessons once again of previous experiments with tall buildings. Does going tall really deliver the higher densities that help to protect the Greenbelt? What are the risks to the town of the shiny new buildings degenerating?  Are tall buildings a suitable solution at all as the UK progressively de-carbonises?

We hope you’ll join in the debate by adding your comments to the blog or on social media.

Biography

Judith Littlewood CBE was Chief Research Officer of what is now Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) until 2001. She was responsible for researching, developing, monitoring and evaluating departmental policies. This included responsibility for the Index of Deprivation and the English House Condition Survey.

She is the joint author (with Anthea Tinker) of Families in Flats (HMSO 1981) and was the Social Assessor on the famous Coin Street Planning Inquiry, which sat for 88 days in 1981-1982.

Ms Littlewood was Chair of an OECD Working Group on Integrating Distressed Urban Areas, which reported in 1998.

Tall buildings - a personal perspective

In England we are a nation of house dwellers. In 2018 only a fifth of the population lived in flats of which only 1% were above the fifth floor and a further 1% were of 10 or more storeys. Most high rise is in London and the larger conurbations. Currently Maidenhead has only one residential block which is high-rise which Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) classifies as anything above six storeys. This definition is accepted by RBWM in its Tall Buildings Strategy document and states that development should not be above the maximum building height of approximately 12 storeys. Despite this, approval has been given for four blocks of 14-16 storeys in The Landing scheme and out-for-consultation is the Nicholson’s development with four blocks of 16 storeys and one of 25 storeys.  Others are in the pipeline and there is pressure from developers for many more.

Maidenhead is thus in uncharted territory. This could lead to an exciting new era or to future serious problems. Therefore, it is important that all the issues are weighed up carefully and objectively.  Apart from pressure from developers, the main driver of the move to accept tall buildings in Maidenhead centre is the challenge of meeting nationally laid down targets for meeting population growth without encroaching on the Greenbelt. But it is also believed that greater intensification of development will aid regeneration and revitalise the town centre and provide landmark buildings.

Densification

Density without towers

  • Increasing Residential Density. It is accepted that national planning targets cannot be met by building only houses with gardens without encroaching on the Greenbelt.  However, it does not follow that high density can be achieved only by building high rise. The Tall Buildings Strategy document produced for the Royal Borough by Urban Initiatives Studio (UIS) provides examples of how blocks of less than eight storeys can deliver higher residential densities than taller developments of up to 13 storeys. According to Sir Simon Jenkins, the boulevards of Paris have treble London’s residential density without towers. He also states that “Westminster Council’s aborted Paddington Pole at some 60 storeys had fewer housing units than the high-density street housing suggested by its opponents.” One of the problems of housing density is that it can be measured in different ways. The three main categories listed in research by the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) are numbers of dwellings, built form and persons per hectare which all have an influence on actual achieved net densities.
  • Density and Regeneration. According to the Tall Buildings Strategy, tall buildings can play a role in regeneration by attracting investment through increasing the profile of the area and by increasing densities so that there are more people living and working in the centre. However as shown above higher densities do not have to come in the shape of tall buildings and there is no evidence which shows building height per se affects regeneration. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in their paper on Building Height say that “confidence in regeneration is signalled through quality urban design and public realm improvement rather than tall buildings.”
  • Density and Social Regeneration. There is some evidence that social regeneration in terms of the vibrancy of an area and social communication can be impeded by tall buildings. UIS quotes a study by Jan Gehl which showed that beyond a height of six storeys people cannot recognise facial expression and there is less scope for engagement at street level vital for community life. They also quote Greater London Authority (GLA) research which shows that occupants of higher rise development generally have a lesser sense of connection not only in the community but within their own block. The Elizabeth Line (Crossrail), which may attract commuters into the area, may also make it easier for people to socialise outside Maidenhead.

Initial appeal

"Soul traders": bustling Maidenhead © Martin Dutton

Much will depend on whether the higher density high developments will allow for traditional street patterns. Jane Jacobs in her influential book The Life and Death of American Cities published in 1961 argued that a bustling pedestrian environment is a prerequisite for making residents feel safe, secure and socially integrated.

The other factor which influences whether people are drawn to new areas is how appealing they are. Is there attractive planting and places to sit in the sun and shelter from wind and shade generated by the high blocks? And crucially are these public areas well maintained?  This raises the question of how costs of management and maintenance are apportioned between the Borough, the developers and the residents through their service charges.

Tall buildings as landmarks

Aylesbury landmark - aka "Pooley's Folly"

Enhancing the skyline, marking gateways and waymarks are put forward as some of the potential benefits of building high. However, being easily recognised focal points could become a two-edged sword if problems develop and they become stigmatised.

Whether the skyline is enhanced is very dependent on good design which is stressed by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Historic England who in their advice note say that tall buildings should set “exemplary standards of design.” The Maidenhead Area Action Plan (AAP) stated that tall buildings would be expected to demonstrate that they are “particularly distinctive and of exceptional high-quality design that is visually attractive from all angles and distances.” This raises the question of who gets to make the decisions about what is good design and what teeth the local authority has for rejecting what it considers to be detrimental design.

The recent publication of the government-backed report led by the late Sir Roger Scruton, entitled Living with Beauty, says we should ask for beauty, say no to ugliness and that community is central to protecting and promoting public beauty.

Design factors specific to tall buildings

The main challenges relate to ensuring that residential amenity both within the scheme and the neighbourhood is not compromised through overlooking, and reduced daylight and sunlight. In single aspect blocks there can be overheating due to sun exposure and lack of through ventilation. And where blocks are clustered together there can be overlooking and lack of privacy.

Since the Grenfell tower disaster, the spotlight will be on the stringency of the fire regulations and access for fire engines and ambulances.

Tall buildings also have significant effect on the microclimate. UIS says that wind impact, overshadowing, light pollution and glare all need attention. These all affect the quality of the public realm and will influence whether the spaces surrounding tall buildings are pleasant places to visit and linger.

Costs of tall buildings

Designing out the problems described above together with the construction challenges inherent in tall buildings leads to them being more expensive to build than lower rise more conventional building types.

  • Construction costs. A study by James Barton quoted by UIS says that offices are 25-40% more expensive than low-rise buildings and residential buildings 30-40% more. Developers also must wait for the whole scheme to be completed before they can cash in on their investment. These higher costs will either be passed on to the end-user and/or the developer will seek to scale down the features considered of high standard affecting the appearance and longevity of the building.

    Maintaining the public realm

  • Maintenance Costs. Many of the problems with high flats that have arisen in the past have been to do with poor maintenance of the dwellings, their fabric and outside areas. In the private sector these costs are met through service charges which will be less when the scheme is new than in later years. There can be a grey area between the curtilage of the building and the public areas about who pays for maintaining these spaces.
  • Environmental Costs. UIS states that tall buildings are less sustainable than medium rise ones. They are more resource- and carbon-intensive to construct per unit of floor area. And once built, they use more energy due to requirements for lifts, servicing water, mechanical ventilation, cooling and lighting. They quote a report by Simon Sturgis that says the greater its height “the more inefficient the building becomes in terms of the net area measured against carbon emissions from operation, construction and maintenance.  A 2017 research project by University College London concluded that “much energy could be saved by discouraging tall buildings and encouraging low-rise in their place.”

Experience with tall buildings

Potential Pitfalls. Many of the well documented problems with high rise housing developments have been in the public sector. Some of the estates which failed started out as having won architectural awards but through a variety of social and economic factors became stigmatised places where no one wanted to live. A crucial factor was if families with young children had been accommodated above ground level. Those that could moved out leaving an increasingly polarised community behind contributing to difficult-to-let housing and in some cases to the demolition of the estate.

Marketing tall buildings

Professional couples beget young families

Given that the new high-rise flats in Maidenhead will be of high value for private renting or owner occupation the problems given above should not arise initially as it is unlikely that families with children will opt to buy flats in the new schemes. They will not be cheap or spacious and will incur service charges. However, young couples who start a family after moving in may find it difficult to sell on if there is an over-supply of flats in the area/and or the value of the flats do not keep pace with house prices. The result could be young children living in housing which is totally unsuitable for them. Where in the flats do you store prams and bikes and where will the children play where they can be overseen by their parents? ‘Families in Flats’ published by HMSO in 1981 showed that children who lived below the second floor play out more, have more friends, do better at school and are less likely to be killed falling from windows and balconies.

One group of potential purchasers are buy-to-let landlords who may target housing benefit recipients resulting in more young families living in the scheme. Hard pressed local authorities in neighbouring boroughs trying to meet their statutory duties to house families accepted as homeless may welcome the chance of a new supply of housing that they can access. Research has shown that those with and without children living near each other at high densities can result in problems such as noise and vandalism and contribute to a spiral of future decline.

Conclusion

Maidenhead is at a crossroads. It must decide whether its future should be dictated by developers and architects or by the people who live and work here. There are ways of meeting our housing targets without irretrievably changing the character of the place and without storing up future social and economic problems.

Without doubt Maidonians seek a more attractive and vibrant town centre. However tall buildings and their surroundings unless carefully and expensively designed and maintained  could be an impediment to this desire.

Perhaps the most crucial reason for the Royal Borough to think carefully about its strategy towards tall buildings is that their development sits uncomfortably with its 2019 climate emergency declaration. Is this the time for Maidenhead to be going ahead with resource intensive buildings which use more energy?

Judith Littlewood

February 2020

1 thought on “Tall buildings

  • Not wishing to state the obvious but, when was th is written and how come they are building high risers in the centre of Maidenhead now ? Are the developers really in control and there are no objectors to them? I don’t believe that.
    A diagram of the normal parish politics and what is happening in Maidenhead would help me more to understand, and possibly help.
    Only just seen the email for the zoom meeting at 9.00!? oops
    Might have been good.?
    Best wishes
    Cynthia

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