As the number of mega apartment complexes being built and under consideration throughout capital cities in Australia grows, a leading architect has warned that skyscrapers are not the answer to housing supply challenges and that indeed, such towers bring with them a number of social and environmental drawbacks.

In her presentation before the recent Housing Futures conference in Sydney, University of Newcastle Professor Kerry Clare warned that the move toward high-rise apartment towers was not the best way forward in terms of urban development in Australia and that our requirements to accommodate a growing population could be met in a better way through medium density development.

Furthermore, Clare - who lectures at the university’s school of Architecture and the Built Environment and who designed the award winning Docklands Library in Melbourne – says high rise living in fact brings with it a number of downsides.

“There is no real need for super high-rise buildings in Australia,” Clare told Sourceable in an interview.

“In fact, the dis-benefits outweigh the benefits by a long shot.”

Clare’s comments come as significant numbers of high-rise apartment towers are either in construction or under consideration within major Australian capital cities.

In Melbourne, for example, the Victorian government earlier this year approved two 79-storey towers which will provide 1,600 new apartments as well as 8,000 square meters of office space at the 350 Queen Street site near the historic Queen Victoria Market as well as a 64-storey apartment tower on the corner of King Street and Little Lonsdale Street.

In Brisbane, meanwhile, the Skytower apartment complex on Mary Street is set to rise to 90 levels whilst a luxury tower under construction as part of a triple tower project at 300 George Street where the Queensland Supreme Court once stood will rise to 82 storeys.

Clare said high-rises involve a number of drawbacks, especially from the viewpoint of surrounding buildings and the public realm.

Having enormous amounts of structure, large apartment towers often interface poorly with the streetscape and detract from the degree of liveliness and interaction which takes place at street level, she said.

By creating wind downwash and blocking sunlight, such buildings also detract from experiences which occur at street level and in neighboring buildings, she added.

Meanwhile, whereas cities consisting predominately of medium-rise buildings such as Paris have proven to be responsive and adaptable to changing requirements over time, Clare says this was not the case with enormous monoculture buildings – which furthermore, according to her research, fail to facilitate ‘chance’ encounters at a social level and encourage the creation of silos.

As for promoted benefits about sustainability, Clare joins World Green Building Council chairperson Tony Arnel in challenging the notion about high-rise apartments being more sustainable than suburban homes.

High-rise apartments, Clare argues, use more energy (due to spaces such as basements, internalised bathrooms, elevators, pools and spas and central plant), involve more embodied energy due to their greater structural requirements and require use of concrete and steel as opposed to the lower carbon emission timber forms of construction.

Whilst acknowledging the need for greater density to accommodate a growing population, Clare argues that medium rather than high-rise living is a better way to go about this and adds that at any rate, apartments in high-rise towers are often more expensive and fail to provide an affordable housing option for many.

Indeed, she says, whereas Dubai with massive clusters of towers achieves a density of just 2,600 people per square kilometre, Paris accommodates a whopping 55,000 per square kilometre whilst remaining a liveable and pleasant city through medium-rise development.

“If you look at Paris at 55,000 people per square kilometre and then you look at Dubai with 2,600 – you come to understand that any argument for high-rise is not about density and amenity or the good of the city at all,” Clare said.

  • Professor Clare is spot on. Our planners and the developers who influence them are degrading the quality of life for many and excluding many others from a viable housing option. The current crop of planning ministers seem to see the future of housing from a different view point than the general population. In NSW that viewpoint is northern beaches and eastern suburbs centric. And sadly an ex-government architect is stoking the fire for hungry development interests. In yesterday's SMH Inga Ting shared some interesting insights expressed by a growing and respected group including Professor Randolph and Tim Williams. They point out that more stock of the wrong type is not the answer. These are not luny lefties or anti-capitalists. These are people whose life work is about making viable cohesive cities. They have a body of knowledge and passion like Professor Clare to speak out in the face of some pretty stiff breezes. What's clear from Ting's article is that more of the same will not work. There is a market failure on both sides of the social and private sector housing divide.
    Government will need to weigh in with some disruptive alternatives that focus on where the biggest challenge is. Its in the gap of the divide between the existing homogenous suppliers that have not 'got it' that the ability of households to 'get in' is shot under the current models. My observation of planning bureaucrats is that they would not be capable of proposing or leading an alternate. They have little idea about the metrics needed to make a difference and they cower to what big developers serve up. Housing 'achievability' should replace 'affordability' in this debate. The NSW government will pay a high price if they do not get on top of this.

    • I am in full agreement with both David and Kerry's comments. The 'super-talls' have primarily become possible due to the relative recent elimination, by many Councils, of a range of previously applicable site-planning requirements for residential apartment development, such as Maximum Building Height, Gross Floor Area ratios, boundary set-backs, % open space, and site parking requirements, particularly within major CBD and other Centres. This largely arose from the desire to increase residential development in such Centres and comparing the planning constraints applicable to a site for both commercial and hotel developments, and a view that apartments [or such components of mixed-use buildings] should be allowed to utilise the same 'site-use controls'.

      In effect, site owners / potential developers of land in such areas could financially justify the development of the now 'legally available air-space' above many commercially developed sites if they could maximise such un-used space for primarily residential apartment development – and mostly aimed at either the 'luxury end' of the market, or at the 'student accommodation' market, where the 'commercial-space' market couldn't support an equivalent area of floor space. I have to concede a degree of merit in these arguments, given the nature of existing CBD scale development on which such decisions were made but don't consider it is warranted or desirable for residential apartments in most other centres, and a much lower height limit of 8-10 storeys should be the maximum.