Within the new London Plan policy framework it is important to keep a sense that tall buildings should be exceptional – both in terms of design and number. There is a danger that by identifying areas appropriate for tall buildings they become the go-to typology in these areas, rather than a design-led solution, that understands the heritage impact, particular to each area. This would and should be a finer grain, context-led approach to resolve where tall buildings are actually appropriate and the constraints they need to work to and the opportunities they may offer.
This was the conclusion of the NLA Expert Panel on Tall Buildings who met this week to discuss the impact of the new London Plan on high rise developments.
In the City of London, arguably more experienced at tall buildings than other local authorities in London, this has led to some very detailed three-dimensional context modelling which alongside heritage analysis has developed a 3D ‘Jelly mould’ to establish sites with a ‘green light’ for taller buildings. This has given the City team very clear understanding of the height parameters, the ceiling of height as well as thermal comfort concerns and public realm opportunities.
This is a less reactive approach to planning. Potentially future proactive planning guidance is the way forward where experience can deliver to developers an outline of issues and key deliverables required for a site from the ‘Local Authority’ perspective – clarity on the starting point for any discussion on development.
Agreed this kind of context-led analysis or masterplanning is the glue that enables the spatial elements of the policy and the design requirements of the policy to come together in a sensitive and context-led way.
Many boroughs have already prepared tall buildings studies as part of character studies over the last 18 months - they are being adapted to reflect on the six storey minimum and many Boroughs have completed a sieving exercise that produces areas that are "least sensitive" or "more suitable". For many this then puts the emphasis back on masterplanning and detailed site proposals to make the case and resolve where they actually go and how tall they are. As has been proven, through planning appeal, just because there's the other tall buildings in area doesn't necessarily mean that that further tall buildings are always a given.
The London Plan is going to require Boroughs to really robustly assess character and quality so there is an increasing need, or duty, to cooperate, learn from and engage with neighbouring Boroughs as well as to have designs reviewed by appropriately experienced and skilled professionals. So, in addition, a robust Advisory structure of Design Review Panels to support authorities in determining ‘exceptional’ design will be important.
Achieving approval, tackling the complexity of issues, achieving environmental and social sustainability, tackling solar and wind effects, delivering excellent public space above and below ground, considering flexibility and futureproofing of tall buildings has become much more complex for Architects but that means tall buildings also requires skill and resource within the approving Authority to handle applications. The answer therefore does not seem to be prescriptive design codes that limit design flexibility and invention in our Capital City.
A tall building has to contribute to the social, environmental and economic well-being of all who engage with it now and with robust credentials for the future –long life and loose fit.
We seem to be very ‘down at heel’ in the UK about the ability for tall buildings to create communities and to consider the health and well-being of the people affected by them – but the reality of living in them, by my own experience, from the USA, to Asia, to Wandsworth Council’s Somerset Estate* and a more elevated time in RSHP’s Montevetro is quite different. We need to create an environment that promotes excellence in tall building design where they are a recognised benefit to the city.