Air Space

Air Space

New york

My fascination with New York City continues and is fuelled by the publicity it gets in fictionalised television, movies and documentary serials that pervade our screens every year. This issue I wish to address an issue that NYC suffers from, and that is space. There is no more space left in NYC to build… on the ground. So what have designers, architects and property developers done in a city that bulges at the seams with people? They go ABOVE and beyond, quiet literally. Air space is an expensive commodity. In a recent BBC programme focusing on New York – The Busiest City in the World, we were treated to a glimpse into the soaring prices of NYC property and the lengths that are now being reached, to provide more housing, with a price tag of course. One such investor has bought the air space above a train terminal and is building up, up and away, creating luxury apartments, mixed use spaces and inevitably, another notch on the NYC skyline.
This idea turns my attentions to London and in fact any global city where space is an issue. In London we have a little more breathing room and a desire to maintain green space, so how do we keep up with the demand on housing and indeed commercial space that continues to grow? Is air space the way to go and what does this mean for the architecture industry? How do you design on that level and what restrictions does it create?


Vince Ugarow,Hilson Moran
As the design engineers and sustainability consultants behind many of London’s tall buildings, and members of the UK Chapter of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), air space is an important consideration for Hilson Moran. Particularly the potential effects they have on the surrounding environment.

It is not a secret that London needs more housing, office and supporting infrastructure. London is currently facing the same population growth as New York with 100,000 new Londoners expected in 2017. So, like New York, this city is rising up and using more air space, but with a different approach to planning in place.

In New York, air space is based on legislative tangibles including air right transfers, defined street walls and plot ratios. These tangibles provide a degree of certainty for the developer and other stakeholders. London’s planning process on the other hand, is not always logical and open to interpretation, although we have legislation, which serves to protect the city’s heritage and built environment. New York’s mathematical approach allows developers to purchase air rights, which allows the transfer of unused development rights to a neighbouring site to, essentially, build higher than the city zoning code allows, with no formal review process required. This has undoubtedly caused upset amongst New Yorkers, particularly as these tall towers have cast long shadows over Central Park.

Here in London, with the growing cluster of tall buildings in the City there is another unwanted environmental effect being experienced. There is evidence that the venturi effect of wind funnelling between tall buildings, coupled with the down draughts from the facades has caused uncomfortable conditions at street level during certain times in the year. It is therefore essential that tall buildings provide a positive contribution to growing cities and the effects of wind and shadow in the public realm at ground level are carefully considered. As design engineers and sustainability consultants, this is where we step in. We are now developing virtual 3D simulation software that can visualise the effects of wind and shadowing in an interactive way. This will help all stakeholders understand and interrogate in far more detail, the impact of proposed tall buildings on the local environment.

New York and London can take note from one another: London could become a little clearer in its planning guidelines and New York could implement some of our more protective legislation. However, both metropolises should embrace new digital technology to better understand the impact of tall buildings on the surrounding environment.

Cities need to be careful when building ‘up’ – it isn’t always the answer. Tall buildings certainly have a place in London and New York, but they must be in the right location, respect the surrounding environment and fulfil a genuine need.


Jo Palma,Perkins+Will
When we debate tall buildings, we should focus more on how to build them well rather than questioning whether to build them at all. How we navigate the current housing crisis will define our identity and future, especially in London. We have a rare opportunity to be at the forefront of design excellence and develop a new way of life, but first we need to embrace vertical living.

As architects, we need to look and learn from other metropolitan cities such as New York and Chicago where vertical structures benefit the people who live there as well as the wider community. These cities have set a benchmark for designing tall buildings, where there is sensitivity towards height on the ground plane, how wide the building is, or how slender it needs to be. When designing tall buildings, we need to keep them elegant through proportion to allow for light and avoid casting a shadow over neighbouring communities, an issue that has come up fairly frequently in recent planning negotiations, and for good reason.

The rise of tall buildings in London signals a cultural shift. We need to move beyond the immediate term and remember that people come and go, but what we design will remain for a long period of time and has to respond to changing market demands and the needs of future generations.

We are responsible for the future change of our urban environment, and we should be designing buildings that can accommodate a multitude of uses. This is not only very important for the longevity of a building, but it also makes the building more vibrant and ensures integration within the city. Tall buildings are perfect for this owing to their increased density, but they have a lot of stigma attached to them for being ‘money-making schemes’. However, if anchored by the right infrastructure, they can form strong communities or add to existing ones in a truly meaningful way.

From an urban standpoint, tall buildings also have the potential to ‘shrink’ a city. In the upper levels of a building, you’re so much more in tune with the surrounding environment and have personal contact with your locality, which you don’t experience in a low-rise building.
Over the next 20 years there’s expected to be an extra 1.6 million people in Greater London alone, so we need to look seriously at how to design for a burgeoning population. With minimal land to build on in our cities, the only way is up.

Melkan Gürsel, Tabanlioglu Architects

Air rights refers to the “space” above land as ownership of a land is not only the ground level. However, the city- or land-specific – regulations and standards are applied for the vertical size of buildings, regardless of the land possession.

Most people think of architecture as elite or iconic in manner, that it is only rich people or powerful corporate identities that have a connection with architecture; so getting higher and higher has become a way of demonstrating wealth, in all countries both East and West.

Architecture today is in the popular realm, it exists in everyone’s minds as an image of the real. Every person deserves to live and work in well-designed spaces and cities, achieved through innovative material production and construction methods.

Not only the iconic – even statuesque- structures but the projects widely used, and liked, by all people have become magnets in our routines; these spaces are getting more attractive so the new investments aim to be embraced by the public, as well.

Despite the fact that we miss humane proportions, in terms of benefiting urban life, one of the key solutions to successful high density living is the high-rises that are well designed, constructed and managed to encourage positive social relations. Benefiting the synergy of the city life, vertical living in densely populated places is the reality of urban planning in the 21st century.

Tall buildings close to the city centre provide better living and social standards compared to developments of low density of urban sprawl. Sustainable high-rise, both residential and commercial, is more rational then creating remote habitats. Transport problems alone can have enormous social and health effects. People who have to travel long distances (to work, to go to school, to go downtown for leisure activities etc) spend less time with their families and friends. Whereas in the high-rises, more efficient and secure buildings and environments are offered, while a better lifestyle for residents is also provided by common areas such as foyers, social areas such as swimming pools, spas, saunas and car parks, as well as by their central service and management capacities.

High rise units may become healthier and distinguished forms of housing, especially if they embrace environmentally friendly design features, i.e. with personal gardens of living plants at high levels or green roofs, next to green urban projects as public spaces, where people can keep the vital contact with nature as well as with the community. Such green spaces will be the lungs of the city and will create opportunities to gather together people from diverse social groups.

Good passive design which reduces the need for air-conditioning in tall buildings is also making a big difference in energy use. Also, the innovative construction technologies help reduce embedded energy in building materials. Besides, on-site energy generation via solar and wind technologies are advancing; renewable technologies will be integrated into roofs and facades in the near future.

Planning the cities of the future, urban planners see high-rises, particularly along transport hubs, as the answer to reducing urban sprawl and creating more sustainable cities. Studies show that if buildings are well-designed and constructed, people are happier and have good relations with neighbours; on the contrary, poor social relations and poorly designed and constructed buildings have disturbing effects.

Despite solving the problem of shortage of land and housing, high-rises can cause certain problems in environmental, physical-spatial, functional, social, and demographic aspects. Yet, while the designs of tall buildings have improved and regulatory updates impose strong health and safety measures, high-rise buildings should be monitored to ensure they don’t make conditions unbearably windy in surrounding streets, or create a harmful shading effect on the outdoor. In all cases, what is inevitable is the changing vistas and the cityscapes.

Despite the negatives, the experience of the high-rise can have positive influences on both the physical and mental health of residents if it is a good building, unless vertigo is a problem! High-rise or low-rise, quality matters; that includes daylight and air quality, easy maintenance and access, qualified public spaces and the inclusion of urban parks.

Our panel of contributors are experts in their field and have experience in a vast area of architectural design including; landscape, public sector and private residencies. If you would like to contribute as a panelist email:

Jade Tilley
Jade Tilley

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