The inefficiency of density in skyscrapers: It’s time for an upfront carbon emissions tax on building

These sliver towers are incredibly inefficient and even have fake mechanical spaces to make them even taller. We all pay the price in carbon.

Every time anyone trots out the argument that tall buildings are green, I trot out 432 Park Avenue, the tall, admittedly elegant sliver tower by Rafael Viñoly, and note that It’s time to dump the tired argument that density and height are green and sustainable. There are many different ways to build a city, but as Paris or Vienna demonstrate, you can achieve high residential density without building silly sliver towers, which are in fact ridiculously inefficient and underpopulated. 432 Park Avenue is the poster child for this. As I wrote earlier (I do go on about this building and its architect):

full floor apartment432 Park Avenue /Promo image

The floor plate is a perfect 93 foot square, often with a single family occupying a full floor. Let’s stop this fantasy that building density and height are by their nature green; this stuff is some of the least dense housing that has ever been built in the city, inefficient tiny floor plates with single family floor plans costing tens of millions of dollars.

432 park avenue from below432 Park Avenue/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And now we learn from Matthew Haag of the New York Times that it is even worse than we thought; that almost a quarter of it is not occupied at all by people, but by mechanical and structural equipment, all of which makes it higher and the real estate at the top more valuable; a 95th floor unit recently sold for almost twice as much per square foot as one lower down.

The building and nearby towers are able to push high into the sky because of a loophole in the city’s labyrinthine zoning laws. Floors reserved for structural and mechanical equipment, no matter how much, do not count against a building’s maximum size under the laws, so developers explicitly use them to make buildings far higher than would otherwise be permitted.

Everybody is doing this. The developer, Harry Macklowe, even admitted a few years ago that “there is an amount of ‘penis envy’ driving the city’s new crop of super-tall towers.”

Now he tells the Times that it was built tall for a reason, that all the spaces are used. “It offends me,” Mr. Macklowe said, “because we created a very nice building that fits into the skyline perfectly.”

The structural engineer for the building says the big voids were necessary to allow the wind to flow through the building, telling Haag that the building would sway more if they didn’t have them. “When they come home, they want to feel like they are at home and not like they are on a boat, airplane or motorcycle.”

Right. It’s all about the engineering.

There are many reasons I complain about these buildings, from the shading of Central Park to the way they ruin the street because their ground floors are taken up entirely with lobbies and loading docks, about how itis dropping the urban density while making life worse for everyone else. How New York has moved beyond gentrification into plutocratification. But perhaps the most important one right now is carbon.

432 park avenue from below432 Park Avenue/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Time for a carbon tax on building materials:

Structurally, these buildings are horrendously inefficient. Keeping them stiff enough so that there are not whitecaps in the toilets is hard. The amount of steel and concrete per square foot of floor space is much higher than in a normal building, and the amount per person is off the scale. I have written before that “given that 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide comes from the manufacture of cement, these buildings are environmental killers. If there was any fairness or logic in how much embodied energy and carbon a single person was allowed to have, they would be illegal.”

The making of these materials, the transport of all that marble and glass all over the world, the construction of this tower all have huge upfront carbon emissions, or embodied carbon as many call it. That’s an externality that everyone on the planet is paying for.

Perhaps it’s time for a big carbon tax on upfront carbon emissions in construction. It might encourage developers to build more efficient buildings with smaller apartments. It might encourage renovation instead of demolition. The rich might be able to afford the real estate here, but the rest of us can’t afford the carbon anymore.