To most people, the word ‘eco home’ conjures up images of low-rise dwellings nestled into lush gardens replete with high-tech solar panels, wind turbines and water tanks. Most homes of this sort tend to be the one-off, architectural masterpieces that we see on Grand Designs – certainly not the type of home within the reach of most Australians.

However, high-rise living is affordable, and when the design is right, results in harmonious and sustainable micro-communities. Around the world, high-rise towers, from bamboo towers in Beijing to sustainable skyscrapers in Stockholm, are being put forward as a sustainable solution to our ever-expanding cities.

Not everyone is happy, though, and it is often the NIMBYs who yell the loudest about the damage that tall towers will do to their suburbs. But are high-rise developments really that bad?

People often associate high-rise developments with one of two extremes: either monolithic social housing projects surrounded by bland, barren parkland or glittering towers home only to urban hipsters and childless middle aged professionals. Those stereotypes, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Many people in Australia are embracing the buzz of city life in a high-rise development – first-time buyers who can’t afford a large house in the suburb of their choice, downsizers who want the best of the city at their doorstep, and young families who relish the city playground of parks and museums. The fact that 70 per cent of the City of Melbourne’s residents now live in apartments says it all.

According to the Grattan Institute report, The housing we’d choose (2011), there exists a mismatch between the housing Australians say they want and the housing we currently have. Contrary to popular opinion, Australians want a mixture of housing choices – not just detached houses.

Of course, there needs to be greater research on high-rise developments and their environmental and social impacts. Some evidence suggests the sustainable elements of high-rise buildings, such as their close proximity to transport and efficient use of land, may be offset by their energy requirements and the embodied energy in their materials.

A NSW Energy Australia study found that high-rise apartments use 30 per cent more power than the traditional detached house.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the additional energy powers common areas such as foyers and car parks. Secondly, most apartments are not separately metered, which absolves tenants of responsibility to make sustainable choices such as reducing the lengths of their showers, turning off the lights or installing an energy-efficient fridge. Many city governments are working on programs to educate tenants and help strata managers to reduce energy and water consumption, but more needs to be done.

In contrast, the US’ Environmental Protection Agency has found that residents in multi-unit dwellings in higher density neighbourhoods use less electricity per unit and drive less than residents of low-density areas, resulting in a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

There are also profound social implications to high-density living. Living well in greater density, a report by the University of New South Wales’ City Futures Research Centre found that high-rise living could be positive, both in terms of physical and mental health, when people experienced positive relationships with neighbours and buildings were well-designed and constructed. Ill-considered or inappropriate planning and design, however, can lead to devastating social and economic problems.

Innovative design is central to making high-rise living an attractive option. A recent example is the wave of super thin or ‘pencil’ towers which have made an impact in New York and Hong Kong. Melbourne is also about to see examples of these towers appear in the CBD with the Equiset-Grollo project at 464 Collins Street having attained planning approval. These can be very sculptured and stylish pieces of architecture adding to the diversity of Melbourne designs.

The fact remains that the population continues to grow. Australia will be home to around 35 million people by 2050, and 85 per cent of Australians will choose to live in cities. All of these people need to live somewhere, which leaves us with just two options: we can either go up or we can go out. There is no third option.

The Sustainable Australia report (2013) predicted a future in which urban fringe development leads to an escalation in travel time to work and additional social isolation of outer-suburb living. Each time we miss an opportunity to add an additional floor to a building in the centre of our cities, an additional floor of space must be added somewhere on the fringes of our cities – away from employment opportunities, transport connections, shops and services.

The anxiety felt by those who argue fiercely against high-rise developments should be weighed against the pain that people feel when they cannot find homes for their families that are close to their work and who have to spend two hours a day in the traffic to travel to and from work. Spreading further outward is having catastrophic affects on the social well-being of our families and communities.

This is no reason to be hostile toward tall buildings – it just means we need to do more research on what constitutes good design and construction. If we can no longer provide people with the types of homes they want – a substantial home on a quarter acre block that is also close to shops, jobs and transport – then the only way is up.

 By: Tony Arnel, Global Director of Sustainability, NDY