HRH (High Rise Hyperbole) - a matter of economics versus aesthetics

Richard Steer reflects on how rising construction costs are passed onto end users; the “brawn drain” effect gets UK regions affected by London prices – building height is not just a matter of aesthetics, but a case of watching land footprint costs, and their further-down-the-line effects on fairer access to affordable housing across the nation.

HRH Prince Charles has not always been feted by those working in the creation of the built environment. Some architects were none to supportive for instance when he made his now infamous National Gallery ‘carbuncle’ speech in 1984.  In more recent times, in 2010, he was far from popular with some commentators when he opposed the proposed design of the Chelsea Barracks scheme. His current proclamation over what he sees as high-rise hysteria compared to the majesty of mid-rise has proved thought-provoking and has stirred up an interesting debate.  

The 62 page report that has ignited this issue is called Housing-London - a mid-rise Solution. It follows the results of a survey from the urban design body, New London Architecture, showing that at least 250 towers of 20 storeys or more are either currently planned or already under construction in London, most of which are blocks of apartments for private sale.  The report states that London’s future should be a return to mid-rise buildings. It argues that six to eight storeys is less intrusive, you can enjoy light on the other side of the street, you can still create green spaces and the design fits with its Victorian counterparts that make the capital what it is today.  Mid –rise, it is argued, can feature a wider range of building materials than the steel and glass of high-rise. Also, it is recommended that we employ different types of tenure, including owner-occupiers, private renters and key workers in affordable housing and social housing – it is also claimed they are cheaper to construct.

So will it work from a commercial standpoint?  

Housebuilders rightly point to the fact that the cost of building land in London is now at an all-time high. This is key to making the sums add up. If you go upwards in a high-rise it may cost you more to build with cladding, steel fabrication and bespoke materials but your footprint is much smaller and land acquisition costs less. To construct mid-rise developments the average cost of six to nine storey units is £1,700/m2 whereas with high rise developments the average cost of 10 to 25 storey units is £2,100/m2. This difference in cost between mid and high rise is attributable in the main to increased substructures, external envelope enhancements, lifts and staircases and constructing at high level. The report says that to achieve less high-rise and more mid-rise housing densities need to increase and the public sector should make available more land for development. 

The ‘brawn drain’

Labour is another core issue and here the south-east faces a particular challenge. We are already seeing a shortage of bricklayers, plasterers, dry liners, joiners and stone fixers. If you are reading this in Newcastle or Norwich and thinking this has nothing to do with you just compare wage rates and think again. 

Inevitably you are getting what is becoming known as the “brawn drain” as brickies move south to capitalise on the rates, sleep in cars overnight and double their wages. This has a knock-on effect in other areas of the UK where house prices are forced up as tradesmen end up in short supply. 

To move the debate away from London, it is true that mid-rise versus high rise may not be a big issue as yet for the residents of Salford, where an average house costs £85, 731, less than a quarter of the average London home at £362, 699. However, affordability is key wherever you live, and that is one of the key issues highlighted by the report supported by Prince Charles, which is not just about high-rise versus mid-rise. The profile and mix of ownership is an issue that resonates everywhere. Which leads me to conclude that it is not always wise to shoot the messenger just because you don’t agree with the contents of the message. 

Richard Steer is Chairman of Gleeds Worldwide.

Opinion piece first published in Property Week on 9th May 2014



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