Sunday, September 11, 2011

Maintaining high-rise apartments.

James Howard Kunstler has a bad feeling about tall buildings.

He's not against density: he's said that he thinks a bunch of low-rises packed together would be okay. But he's uncomfortable with tall buildings.

That would be fine, if he just came out and said that. Instead, he's shifted from one justification to another for opposing tall buildings. Ten years ago, he and Nikos Salingaros confidently predicted the end of tall buildings based on a range of half-baked arguments: they make people crazy! They're out of touch with nature! They overload the infrastructure! They're experimental!

When people pressed Kunstler for more coherent arguments, he claimed that they weren't sustainable in terms of the energy required to heat and cool them and power the elevators. This Spring he admitted he was wrong about that and said that it was the cost of renovation and producing the replacement materials that was the problem. Then in June he gave an economic argument against condos, in a podcast critiquing Ed Glaeser's keynote address to the Congress of the New Urbanism (the part about condos runs from about 26:00 to 32:00). He repeated these last two critiques to the Planetizen editors for their excellent piece on skyscrapers last week.

I'm also a little uncomfortable with tall buildings, but at this point I just have vague feelings about them. I don't think that either of Kunstler's arguments hold water, though, so I want to go through them.

First, the renovation argument. Kunstler says that it's impossible to renovate tall buildings. Personally I don't know about the concrete and steel, but I know that it's certainly possible to renovate the other parts. I live in a mid-rise built in 1950, and in the past ten years we've replaced the windows, the roof, one of the boilers, and much of the brick facade. A building nearby is replacing its balcony fixtures. These are things that can be done with just about any residential building, no matter how tall.

Some of the newer super-high rises may indeed have high-tech parts - Kunstler mentions "manufactured sheet-rock, silicon gaskets and sealers that hold glass curtain walls in place." Those parts may indeed become difficult to replace if energy gets really scarce. Sheet rock is just a wall surface, though. It's not integral to the building's structure. It can be replaced with any flat surface: wood, lath-and-plaster, or even corrugated steel. Silicon gaskets can be replaced with rubber or other materials, which may not be as efficient but will still keep the buildings habitable. Glass curtain walls are a different story, and it's quite possible that they are unsustainable. I never liked them anyway. But you can easily have a highrise without glass curtain walls; we've got hundreds of them in Manhattan.

An architect named Serge Appel tells Planetizen that high-rises are just as easy to heat and cool: "You take the same amount of energy to heat a space and cool a space [whether] it's 900 feet up in the air or ten feet up in the air." That's very true, and in fact it's more efficient to heat and cool spaces that are adjacent to each other. More significantly, it's not the same amount of energy to cool a space in Phoenix or Houston. If you're concerned about heating and cooling, you should be thinking about the cost of heating millions of houses in the desert or the swamp, and maybe about the costs of heating cold cities. And Kunstler is, but a lot of other anti-skyscraper people aren't.

Similarly, if you're concerned about running elevators you should be thinking about the cost of driving. And Kunstler is, but a lot of other anti-skyscraper people aren't. What concerns me is that they will cherry-pick his arguments and say "cities bad, country living good," which is not at all what he's saying.

I'll talk about the economics of condos in another post.


Anonymous said...

Kunstler has a real problem distinguishing between things which are unsustainable and things which he dislikes. Often, they are the same things. Sometimes they are not.

Brandon said...

I agree completely. The fact is (and this is explored fairly well in Green Metropolis) glass is a poor insulator. Whatever height a building is, I vastly prefer my buildings to be made of actual building.

Likewise, not all skyscrapers are built with exotic materials and methodology. I'm not worried about most highrises. Personally I think Kunstler's vision is good to use as an extreme model, but what we are going to see is mostly economic trouble (with the attendant possibility of social/political problems of course). Absolute energy usage will matter, and cities like New York will benefit. Local food isnt as important as people make it out to be, other than for safety if social problems break down the food market system. Its very easy and doesnt use much energy to transport food by rail from the Midwest to the East Coast.

However, I do see an overemphasis on skyscrapers by people like Glaeser. Most US cities don't need skyscrapers, as they arent even remotely close to full low-rise density. In most cases in the US, skyscrapers havent even amounted to higher density than can be done with low-rises. (see: housing projects, co-op city/stuy town, Downtown Houston/Dallas/almost any cities downtown except NYC, Chicago and San Francisco)

BBnet3000 said...

While I cited Vancouver as a model in my previous comment, theres a very good post on old urbanist pointing out how its not even hitting low-rise density seen in Europe.

alai said...

Though skyscrapers may not be necessary, perhaps they offer indirect benefits in that they help generate demand for transit systems, and thus create an environment where dense, low-rise, car independent areas can flourish.

Unknown said...

Two weeks late on this, but I think a lot of his feeling against high-rises is similar to Jane Jacobs' in Life and Death of Great American Cities, even if he hasn't explicitly said so. In her book, Jacobs places the ideal height on buildings at around 14 stories; any higher, and the sense of human scale is lost, and people are unable to develop a community. (I think, it's been years since I read it)

Kunstler's arguments about proper development have always struck me as being right out of Jacobs' playbook, with a 21st century Peak Oil/sustainability layer on top, so I would be surprised if he disagreed with me on this.

neroden@gmail said...

Elevators are actually the most energy-efficient form of motorized transportation (because they're counterweighted).

At some height, the extra effort needed to give the building structural integrity outweighs this, but from a strict operations-energy-efficiency point of view, tall buildings are more efficient.