In Its Right Place

Building Space and Value in High-Density Areas
Written by Claire Suttles

Increases in urban populations—and the corresponding crunch for space in both residential and commercial real estate—have led to a search for solutions.
As cities and neighbourhoods find themselves met with the need to be smarter with space, some developers have decided to build up, utilizing the high-rise model once set aside for office space. Other developers are heading in the opposite direction, transforming dark basement spaces into luxury interiors.

Building up
The race is on. All around the world, developers are pushing residential towers higher and higher, regularly surpassing the previous world record. In New York City, 432 Park Avenue rises an astounding 1,396 feet. The Princess Tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, measures 1,358 feet and 107 storeys. Also located in Dubai, the 1,286 foot tall 23 Marina has 88 storeys—and 57 swimming pools.

According to, these residential mega towers can be found around the globe, but are heavily concentrated in the Middle East: of the 15 tallest residential buildings, nine are found in the United Arab Emirates, with eight in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. The United States claims two, both of which are in New York City. Australia is also home to two of the highest residential towers, while Moscow, Russia, and Busan, South Korea each claim one apiece.

Pushing residential buildings to new heights creates a unique challenge for builders. There is a reason that the world’s tallest towers have traditionally been reserved for industrial use, the Harman Group points out on its website. Once a building hits 40 storeys, occupants are able to feel a difference. These towers will vibrate and even sway slightly. Sky-high offices contain bustling halls, busy elevators, and lots of noise throughout the typical workday, all of which mask and distract from uncomfortable sensations and unsettling structural sounds. But at night, industrial grade ventilation, heating and cooling systems, wind noise, and movement become more apparent—none of which make for a relaxing home environment.

This means that building for residential comfort at such heights requires different considerations than building high-rise workplaces. Engineers and developers have had to design aerodynamic building shapes to tackle the problem. This has led to changes in shape, sound and structure for high-density apartment and condominium towers. According to the Harmon Group, much of the eye-catching architecture we see in the sky today—such as spiralled or tapered shapes and cutout corners—are actually serving a purpose that goes far beyond aesthetics.

Building down
While building up remains the go-to solution for the space problem, builders are beginning to look underground for additional room. Basements, traditionally overlooked as little more than structural foundations, have increasingly become the site of prime living and recreational quarters.

In Canada, many basements in private homes are fully or partially finished and used as additional living space or as a separate apartment or in-law suite. In Australia, meanwhile, homeowners are using basements as garages, wine cellars, and private gyms. The country’s urban areas are experiencing population surges as well as corresponding building height restrictions put in place by city councils, creating a tricky challenge for developers, The Australian reports. These councils are more likely to approve space expansion if they take place within existing walls.

Building down isn’t just the result of political pressure. The Australian also points out the financial benefits that expanding into basements have for homeowners. Basement renovations essentially create an additional floor of living space, adding capital value to a previously underutilized room.

But, this added value does not always come easily. Dr. Joseph Lstiburek of the Building Science Corporation describes the complexities of the multi-step process to insulate the structure from the elements. Essentially, this process is a campaign to prevent soil gases, groundwater leaks, and mould from entering the structure. Temperatures must also be regulated for safety and comfort. Furthermore, the structural integrity of the building must be maintained. Given the high cost of building down, owning a luxury basement has become a status symbol in Australia’s cities.

In London, expanded basements have also become a major trend among the city’s wealthy residents. Historic Victorian townhouse neighbourhoods must adhere to strict building codes to maintain their historical integrity, so homeowners have to build down instead of up or out.

These underground additions have become increasingly glitzy, extending as far down as five storeys and featuring pools, saunas, movie theatres, bowling alleys and private parking garages. These luxury “iceberg” basement renovations can bring in double the value of pre-extension basements, according to CNN. But, as with Australia’s luxury basements, these mega-basements come at a cost, and not just in terms of capital.

Neighbours have voiced opposition to the constant building noises, the digging and the construction vehicles. As the Evening Standard reports, the complaints have led to members of Parliament introducing bills to limit the deep development. The bills have found little support and it is unlikely that the criticisms and inconvenience will be enough to slow the expansion trend, particularly given the solution that building down provides in high-density areas of London. In fact, according to the Evening Standard, one construction company alone—the London Basement Company—brags that it has completed more than 1,000 basements in the UK capital.

Data centres
The high-density issue doesn’t impact residential spaces only. Data centres are also in need of more room, and new technology is allowing the IT industry to embrace high-density solutions.

The world’s insatiable appetite for information creates a never-ending need for data storage. Data centres have their own unique building requirements that include network engineering, technological infrastructure, and energy and temperature considerations. These complex factors have led the industry to build data centres in out-of-the-way places.

Rural locations deliver the open space needed for data centre infrastructure. But, building and maintaining facilities in remote places can be expensive and inconvenient. Building high-density data centres could be a solution, according to the Forsythe Solutions Group. The company website explains that while traditional data centres require vast amounts of space, newer IT architectures—thanks in large part to the cloud—allow smaller facilities to support the same computing power as larger ones. This space saving can lead to cost saving, as the size of everything from cable lengths to the number of cabinets is commensurately smaller.

In addition to capital cost savings, high-density data centres are maximizing their operations by attempting to solve the age-old problem of how to get more with less. Data Center Journal surveys the ways that data centre developers are approaching the high-density issue. One method is to consolidate physical servers, which are little more than boxes resting in cabinet frames, into bundles of cards known as “blade” servers. Microservers are lower-power than both traditional and blade servers. These tiny servers save energy and space, since they allow for greater efficiency, sharing storage and connections. One drawback is that microservers can’t handle the full load of some processers. Regardless, remote or exotic locales are no longer the data centre developer’s only option to build. New technology and cost savings can make high-density building an attractive choice.

High-density development trends—whether building up, down, or to house information—can create unexpected advantages for society, in addition to saving space and money. Georgetown University’s Bill Hudnut points out that, “the only antidote for [urban] sprawl is more density.” The assistant professor is quoted on the school’s website, which also cites an Urban Land Institute report estimating a 12 to 17 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled by 2050 if developers embrace “more compact urban development strategies.” This reduction would lead directly to a carbon dioxide emissions drop of 7 to 10 percent.

The Georgetown report also cites University of Denver professor Edward H. Ziegler, who envisions green design and development policy that promotes an automobile-free interconnectivity and coordination between citizens, counties, urban areas and suburban communities. High-density development encourages such cooperation by building compactly, reducing the need to commute from far-out neighbourhoods. This utopia will only be possible as long as builders continue to develop sustainably, whether building up or down.



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