Kevin Brass, Public Affairs Manager & Journal Editor, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
He is an advocate of quality development. Whether it is tall or small structures, Kevin Brass believes in high-quality, sustainable, smart and efficient projects. Public Affairs Manager and Journal Editor of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), he has spent more than a decade chronicling the development of tall buildings and urban centres world over. Speaking from his considerable experience, Brass explains the intricacies of building tall in conversation with SHRIYAL SETHUMADHAVAN
Where is the global construction industry headed?
Economic cycles and their impact on construction are interesting. What excites me is how next-generation cities are going to be created. Over the past few years, people have been looking at cities as a whole - connecting several projects to create an environment that is not just good business but efficient too. There has also been an interesting wave of iconic buildings that were termed as 'cool'. But now, the pendulum swings back. The aim is not just to deliver a great piece of architecture but a structure that makes sense in terms of efficiency and sustainability.
Five of the world's tallest 20 buildings in 2020 are estimated to be located in three countries in the Middle East: the UAE, Saudi rabia and Qatar. Is there really a demand for tall structures here?
Motivations differ. Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Tower is going to be 1 km tall. Economically, a 1 km tower does not make sense. But the tower is a central piece for a huge development around it; the simple idea is to improve land value of everything around it. However, once you start building above a certain height, economically it cannot be rationalised. Burj Khalifa in Dubai proves that building a huge building need not improve the land value around it. So, there is a different economic formula for these tall structures.
Are these structures 100 per cent occupied?
In many such buildings in Dubai, about 50 per cent of office space is vacant. On the other hand, China is witnessing many tall structures following demand from urban centres. There is a shift from the countryside into cities and their motivation factors are different.
A 2011 report stated that China will have 800 skyscrapers in the next five years...
There was a controversy in China as well as they too witnessed the phase of iconic 'cool' structures. But today, cutting-edge buildings are being developed in an environmentally sophisticated and green way. Also, billions of people in China live and work in cities. With such a scenario, the country is still planning on how to accommodate this population.
How can international expertise play a role in giving an edge to India's tall structures?
I have been educating myself about India and one of the key issues is that a lot of tall buildings in the past have been looked at as affordable housing. However, international expertise can show how to integrate tall buildings into a neighbourhood. The advances have been huge, similar to that of lifts - you cannot think of a tall building without sophisticated lifts because nobody wants to spend 30 minutes in a lift. Of the two to three limitations to build taller, lifts have always been one.
But is building tall economically viable for India?
It is on a different equation. If looked at from a more holistic app¡roach, like integrating transportation and retail in the neighbourhood, it makes sense. From just being offices earlier, you now have tall buildings with half of the space being residential. This changes the economics and everything around the building. For instance, retail will then make sense and nightlife can be introduced. In Indian cities, one of the true drivers of tall building development is availability of land. In a city where land is scarce and so valuable, it only makes sense to go vertical.
What is the current trend in technology and material?
Earlier, all tall buildings used steel. Today, there is concrete and composite. There has been a dramatic shift in terms of materials and I am expecting this shift to continue. For instance, the biggest dramatic leap in Burj Khalifa was the pouring of concrete at 828 m. So today, concrete can be poured at a height like never before.
Are there any precautions that Indian town planning authorities need to take note of?
What is changing globally and for India as well is that we are moving back to the cities. This is causing many problems for people and city planners. A holistic approach is the key. You need to find ways to connect several projects and create an environment where everyone can work together.
What are the challenges faced by developers while building vertical structures?
Sourcing materials could be expensive. Further, getting talent, expertise, skilled workers and space is very challenging. From a builder's perspective, the wrap-up time in terms of research, study and design takes much longer than development time. Actual construction takes even longer. So having your money tied up in a project that will probably take three years to complete is not viable. Off-plan sales and models do not work anymore as well. Also, considering that a tall building will call for a scale of changes until constructed, initial time must be devoted to the design process to ensure that everything is right the first time.
In India, developers need clearances from not less than 49 windows before starting work on a project. Is it a similar situation globally?
In the Middle East, if Sheikh Mohammed is behind a project in Dubai, it will be approved faster. This is true for China as well owing to their government structures. Rules in the US are much more stringent compared to the Middle East and China because in the US, bureaucracy is not just at a city level but on a neighbourhood level as well.
Do Indian codes need to be improved to suit the development of tall buildings?
It is all about planning cities and not just codes. One needs to create master plans and the government and leaders play a role here. Also, green space may be defined differently. For a project in the US, suggestions included having golf courses as green space in the master plan. A golf course is not a park to me. Hence, a clear master plan is required along with the idea of including parks and green spaces.
Is going vertical part of a new strategy for developing countries to get on a par with or enjoy an iconic status similar to that of developed countries?
There is a trap here. Several emerging countries consider 'building tall' as symbolic. This can be more about ego than good planning in these emerging markets. A tall building does not change the essence of what the city or country is. It can become a great symbol for a city. But Paris is not a great city just because of the Eiffel Tower. The focus needs to be on what is more viable.
How about emerging countries focusing on Tier-II and -III cities?
In China, dozens of Tier-II and -III cities are fighting for recognition. Hence, they construct incredibly tall buildings as icons. In some cases, there is also a legitimate concern for the city. Undoubtedly, tall buildings have put Dubai on the map. On a fundamental level, Dubai wanted to become a tourist, financial and trade centre and tall buildings and construction helped it achieve this. The key word here is affordable and not competition. In China, cities are competing against each other today.
Sustainable structures have been playing an important role in urban development. Does it make sense to remake existing cities in a sustainable way?
Several cities bring down their old buildings to be more efficient. But tearing down an old building and all the material going to waste is not sustainable. In many cases, you want to preserve not just the old building but the city's cultural heritage as well. It is not only a brand new tower that identifies a city - older buildings and heritage are equally important.
According to you, which countries or cities genuinely require tall structures?
With a population of 7 billion globally, 50 per cent live in cities. By 2050, the population is expected to reach 9 billion with 70 per cent living in cities. In a fundamentally huge country like China, cities are going through a huge urbanisation process and that is the key driver for tall buildings here. I consider the situation in India to be more or less the same. Traditionally oriented agriculturally, India is now getting industrial and urbanised. But rather than being country-specific, there is a global shift taking place.
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