High-rise solution to affordable inner-city living has failed
19 June 2017
The Grenfell Tower fire in London may have been preventable with better
oversight and renovation technology. But there is a strong reason why
it wasn't prevented: high-rise buildings aren't suitable for public
housing, and wherever they are used in this way, they are a source of
The investigation is ongoing, but so far the facts of the Grenfell
Tower case appear straightforward. Residents have long complained of
inadequate fire safety in the 24-storey building—power surges,
insufficient and outdated firefighting equipment, an insufficient
frequency of inspections. In response, they received at least one
lawyerly demand that they take down blog posts.
Last year, the building was refurbished, receiving new windows, heating
and ventilation systems – and cheap plastic-and-aluminum-based interior
cladding, the same type that was responsible for a similar quick
upward-spreading fire in a Melbourne apartment block in 2014. The local
government, which owns the building, splashed out on the cladding to
spruce up the grim-looking tower, built in 1974, because it was tall
and visible from anywhere in the affluent area - Kensington, where the
average rent on a one-bedroom apartment runs to $3400 (£1900) a month,
compared with an average rent of $2650 a month for London as a whole.
wasn't a great idea for many social reasons
As in much of Europe, the use of tower blocks as public housing in
Britain began in the 1950s with a decision to provide public subsidies
based on building height. The 1965 Housing Subsidy Act spawned 4,500
tower blocks by 1979. It wasn't a great idea for many social reasons.
By the end of the 1970s, a growing body of research showed that the
social alienation of living in a high-rise increased psychological
stress, that toxic materials used in industrial construction and
insufficient thermal insulation led to health problems, and that
widespread crime and disaffection was linked to the faulty urban
These kinds of social problems are fixable to some extent, given a lot
of determination on the residents' part. New York's Queensbridge
Houses, the largest housing project in the US, recently celebrated a
year without a single shooting.
But one thing about high-rises cannot be fixed: they have higher maintenance costs per square foot than human-scale buildings.
savings ... are erased by the ownership costs over the years
High land values in such cities as London, New York, Hong Kong and
Tokyo make it more cost-effective to build tall. But these are the kind
of savings you make when you buy a cheap car: they are erased by the
ownership costs over the years. Tall buildings have more public areas,
expensive elevators, complex wiring, and heating, water supply and
ventilation systems. These are hard to service without disrupting the
lives of hundreds of people.
The buildings that sprung up during the early industrial construction
boom have their own set of problems: the building technology was
untried and developing on the go, so structural problems have since
emerged with many of the buildings. Buildings populated by the poorest
tenants ended up with the highest maintenance and repair costs.
In a market-driven environment, operating costs passed on to condo
owners are higher in tall buildings. But when the buildings are owned
by a municipality, there's a high degree of moral hazard for local
officials that nationally adopted policies cannot remove. In 2000,
Britain adopted a program called Decent Homes, meant to improve social
housing to modern standards. According to a July 2016 report by the
Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting, 85 per cent of
housing owned by the local authorities is now up to the mark set by the
program; Grenfell Tower has just been "regenerated" at a cost of £8.7
million. The cost was clearly insufficient, and the aesthetic changes
may have made the building more vulnerable.
In many cases, local residents resist regeneration programs because
they fear they may be a step towards gentrification and their eventual
displacement. That's far from unique to Britain. In Berlin, for
example, residents of Communist-era high-rises often fight the city
authorities, demanding that their homes be left alone. That adds an
incentive for the local governments to make their renovation efforts
minimally intrusive. Meanwhile, problems accumulate.
London is in love with tall buildings again after a hiatus that lasted
from the late 1970s through the 1990s. According to New London
Architecture's Tall Buildings Survey, 455 high-rise projects with an
average height of 30 stories are in the pipeline in the British
capital, after a record 26 of them were completed in 2016. These,
however, are luxury-to-middle-class housing built by commercial
developers. Local councils often require them to include affordable
units in their projects, but that's still not public housing—it's meant
for people who can handle the maintenance costs.
That's the way it should be. Homes for the less affluent that are built
today in such countries as the Netherlands and Denmark, which have
extensive public housing programs, are not tall. Almere, not far from
Amsterdam, is one of Europe's fastest-growing cities; meant to create
an affordable alternative to life in the Dutch capital, it is
Countries that still house many of their poor in tower blocks need to
work on moving them out into human-scale housing that can be maintained
more efficiently and, when necessary, by the people who live there.
Poor oversight and underinvestment tend to become obvious only after the fact
The fundamental disconnect between the high maintenance cost of these
buildings and their purpose is inevitably going to lead to more
tragedies like that of Grenfell Tower. Poor oversight and
underinvestment tend to become obvious only after the fact; they are
both endemic to the failed high-rise solution.