Can Bigger Be Better? How Green Skyscrapers Might Save Our Cities

As the world’s population continues to grow, and more and more people move to urban areas, one of the major challenges facing cities all over the world is how to rein in urban sprawl, while creating functional, integrated, sustainable communities.

It’s not an easy task. But according to Peter Weingarten, a LEED-certified architect from the San Francisco office of global design firm Gensler, our cities may have an unexpected savior in their midst: skyscrapers.

Weingarten, a successful young architect with a keen interest in high-density sustainability, recently hosted a panel discussion at this year’s Greenbuild Expo entitled, “Tomorrow’s Vertical Cities: Sustainable Design in Tall Buildings”, in which he and other experts discussed ways of using what he calls “super-tall” buildings to encourage green communities. Weingarten sees skyscrapers as vital to the sustainability of tomorrow’s cities.

“We need vertical buildings to activate the public realm with people, to create dynamic street life in cities, to populate transportation systems and to ensure the vitality of retail and other life style programs,” he said in a recent interview. “How many people are realistically served around a transit station? Without the proper density these systems fail.”

Traditionally, skyscrapers have represented the antithesis of green: energy-hungry, material-intensive displays of technological bravado and ego, completely removed from their environment.

But a closer look at the history of skyscrapers reveals that the technical innovations developed by their designers, such as fireproofing and elevators, have often served as models for sustainability for other, smaller buildings around them.

In recent times, innovations in design and construction technology have enabled super-tall buildings to become just as energy-efficient as their shorter, smaller counterparts—and on a much more efficient footprint, even to the point of becoming what’s known as Net Zero: generating as much power in a building as is consumed.

“In the pioneering days of super tall building design, it was about getting there,” Weingarten says. “Now we’re at a comfortable point about execution technically, and we’re turning to qualitative needs of building occupants”. As an example, Weingarten points out how advanced new window technologies have allowed glass buildings to make maximum use of natural lighting while minimizing interior heat gain.

No longer are skyscrapers built as isolated entities with a single use, Weingarten says. Super-tall building are now built as “mixed use communities…linked to transit and parks.”

“Density isn’t about driving to big-box stores; it’s about walking to the corner to grab groceries,” he goes on. “What can you get within walking distance, without ever using a car? That’s the question that drives the economy of dense urban streets.”

Pricey mass transit systems and small, local retail just aren’t feasible without the critical density achievable with skyscrapers, he argues.

By engendering close-knit, dynamic neighborhoods that cater to the pedestrian rather than the auto, tall buildings can even help the areas around them become more environmentally friendly.

Weingarten attributes his obsession with critical density to having grown up in New York—a city that has long used the skyscraper to make efficient use of its 23-square mile island. New York is also home to one of the most high-profile green retrofits of an existing building: the $100 million “greenhabbing” of the Empire State Building (see the video above ).

But New York is certainly not the only city investing in green skyscrapers. Gensler’s Shanghai Tower (pictured above), currently under construction, is being built with a double-wall system and low-emissivity windows to meet aggressive energy efficiency targets.

Closer to home, The Austonian, a new luxury residential high-rise in Austin, Texas has received high green ratings from the local utilities for its energy-saving water cooling system and its low-heat-gain, high-light-transmittance insulated windows. The Austonian’s tower is topped with a green roof and its low-flow fixtures reduce potable water use by 30%.

There are also high rise innovations happening in rural areas. In Denmark, in an amazing demonstration of adaptive reuse, C. F. Møller Architects and Christian Carlsen have turned an abandoned silo into 21 sleek and stylish apartments (see picture at left).

Weingarten believes that the sheer size and visibility of tall buildings mean they are ideally suited to promoting green building practices far and wide.

“If through awareness or excitement we can get people focused on urbanization and sustainable technologies, then we’ve achieved something greater than the building itself,” he says. “Super tall buildings often become symbols of the city in which they’re located. As highly visible beacons they present an incredible opportunity to promote more sustainable ways of living.”

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About the Author: Alex McQuilkin is a writer and student interested in sustainable design and urban living. He is studying urban planning at Columbia University in New York.