By Robert Adam
May 27th 2020


I’m not going to assume that Covid-19 is a permanent condition.

It may be, it may not, and there’s no point in concentrating in this debate on such a significant unknown.

If it did continue and social distancing and other measures became permanent, even for able-bodied people the maximum height to avoid being cooped up in a lift is four floors – and disabled people?

I’m going to assume that either a vaccine is found or that this passes naturally like all previous pandemics. But I’m not going to assume that we will return to the status quo ante this experience will have a significant impact.


So, what about tall buildings?

I’m going to separate residential and commercial buildings.

I think the argument against residential tall buildings – at least for the general population – was dealt with years ago. A government report in 2002 confirmed that, with the space required around residential tall buildings, they do not deliver any greater density than small houses with gardens or medium rise development and they do deliver a seriously curtailed way of life – particularly access to open space – and more particularly with emergencies like social distancing and lockdown.

Tall residential buildings can, however, be more attractive for relatively wealthy people who can afford to get away and can afford good concierge services and high-standards of maintenance – lifts and cleaning.

One outcome of this pandemic, however, is the increase in enquiries for rural and provincial housing (and even private schooling) largely from this demographic group. Another outcome is the accelerated retreat from globalisation, that is, amongst other things, free global movement of capital. much of the current high-end tall residential development is funded by far-eastern investors. if there’s any sign of price depression, only an idiot would invest. and emerging hostile attitudes to pacific-rim financing may well curtail this source of finance – we need to watch the major residential development of tall buildings in the Vauxhall area in South London, where prices were falling, and the large Star-Architect-based residential development around Battersea Power Station, in South West London, where Malaysian investors caught a cold.


What about commercial buildings?

There are two motives for building tall: status and economics.

I’m afraid that status and size are forever linked and can trump economics. No-one suggests that the Burj Khalifa was driven by a balance sheet. The deputy mayor of Paris said that no international investors would take Paris seriously until it had a tall building in the centre. There is an argument that the rash of tall buildings in the city was a status response to the challenge of the American Skyline in the redevelopment of London’s docklands at Canary Wharf.

Beyond status, you have tall buildings because they make more money. You make the money out of demand for space. Anticipation of that demand, combined with what will be allowed (planning), sets the land price and if you can beat that formula by building more – in city centres that usually means taller – you can make more money.

But status and economics can go hand in hand. The former Secretary of State for the Environment, John Prescot, not known for his aesthetic sophistication, looked for the ‘wow factor’ and this can deliver lettings, but this is, like the iconic building phenomenon, a diminishing return. In the time it takes to find this out a lot of cities can be irreparably damaged.


But what of Covid-19?

The one thing we all recognise, sitting where we all are, is the impact of home working.

The growth of home-working pre-dates Covid-19. Tomorrow’s Home, a research paper by my old firm, ADAM Architecture, established an increase in home working as well as a decrease in commuter journeys but an increase in distance – i.e. less days in the office and living further away. As more people discover the possibilities and benefits of this, this is likely to accelerate (and remember the housing enquiries).

Already the future impact is showing, businesses are questioning their quantum of office space. Facebook has announced that 24,000 of its staff will be working from home in the future. This won’t take away the agglomeration economics that drive major cities, but you don’t need to sit in a big room for five days a week to meet people.


Back to the economics

While I may think that planning has got this wrong, that too many tall buildings, for various reasons, provide a hostile street-level environment and that this is unsustainable, this is nothing to do with Covid-19 right now.

The commercial space in city centre tall buildings is almost all for the service industries. These are the workers most capable of increased home working. putting aside any recession – which is always short term, a structural decrease in demand for commercial space will affect the profitability that mops up the extra costs of building higher.

Unfortunately, the status of size will not go away and unfortunately planning, driven by a combination of status and an always behind-the-times view of commerce, will move slowly, if at all. A change in economics is by far the most likely influence on whether there are more tall buildings and it seems likely that these economics are changing.

So, tall buildings will not disappear overnight, but they may decline. Regrettably, valuers are only as good as their last sale and so this may take some time, some expensive failures and more damage to city centres.

It looks like the party is ending but there are always a few drunks left that won’t go.