Taller buildings need far more energy than lower ones

New research shows that the higher a building, the more energy it requires for cooling, lighting, water and other systems. The findings could have a major impact on how urban planners approach densification.

Bisma Naeem at the Ryerson School of Interior Design in Toronto reviewed a number of studies, all of which demonstrate that the higher the building, the more embodied and operating energy required per square unit of measure.

She looked at a 2015 study that shows high-rise buildings require more operational energy – cooling, interior and exterior lighting, interior equipment, fans, water systems and other – to function in comparison to low-rise buildings. She also reviewed a 2017 study from the UK that concluded high-rise buildings are more energy-intensive than low-rise buildings. For instance, when rising from 5 storeys and below to 21 storeys and above, “the mean intensity of electricity and fossil fuel use increases by 137 per cent and 42 per cent respectively, and mean carbon emissions are more than doubled”.

While the two studies both demonstrate that taller buildings may not be the right solution for building dense and sustainable cities, there is hope yet for urban planners. The latter study conclusively showed that it is possible to provide the same floor area on the same site as high-rise buildings, but with far less storeys. In other words: a considerable amount of energy could be saved by discouraging tall buildings and encouraging low-rise ones in their place – all without sacrificing floor area and density.

Naeem’s professor – architect, developer and design editor of TreeHugger, Lloyd Alter – says cities such as Montreal, Paris, Barcelona and Vienna all demonstrate that it is possible to achieve very high densities with lower buildings and efficient plans, such as less spacing between buildings.

Image credit: mkjr_ via Unsplash

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