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.