Karl Fender lives a quarter of a kilometre into the sky.
In his eyes, “it’s the most elegant, convenient and safe way of living”.
Though the co-founder of architecture firm Fender Katsalidis concedes high-rise buildings have plenty of room for improvement, too.
“Architecture and urban design, really, are the fundamental determinants for the quality of our built environment and, therefore, the quality of our lives,” Mr Fender told The New Daily.
“So I reckon every new building carries with it a key responsibility to contribute positively in a broader sense to our cities. And they have to do it not just with quality, but also in a sustainable way.”
In the past, apartment blocks have all too often consumed more than they’ve contributed, Mr Fender said.
They’ve gobbled up public space, taken more than their fair share of water and energy, and, more often than not, given non-residents little in return.
“But they have the potential to be contributors, depending on how they’re designed,” Mr Fender said.
Among other things, this means replacing private foyers with public spaces, and providing infrastructure and services lacking in the local community.
Cox Architecture director Paul Curry believes OSK Property’s $2.8 billion Melbourne Square project will do exactly that.
Occupying an entire city block on Melbourne’s Southbank, the mixed-use project will span more than 20,000 square metres and have a 3700-square-metre public park at its feet.
It will come with a new supermarket, a handful of restaurants, and a new childcare centre, in what its creators say is an attempt to “address the amenity gaps currently existing within Southbank”.
“There’s been a real shift towards an expectation that people buying into an apartment building need that amenity, and they want to know that the areas in the cities that they live in are great,” Mr Curry told The New Daily.
“Apartment buildings and mixed-used projects need to contribute and improve the city, and not just put a residential project in the city without considering the impact.”
The aim is to provide spaces which support residents’ wellbeing and simultaneously encourage neighbours to connect with one another.
Mr Curry said Melbourne’s Queens Place project – which Cox Architecture designed in partnership with Fender Katsalidis – would do something similar.
“That area of the city is incredibly dense … so we’re opening up the ground plane, and making it fully accessible year-round,” he told The New Daily.
That means incorporating a retail precinct that introduces new lanes to Melbourne’s rich laneway culture, and providing through-site access to Queen Victoria Market.
The challenge of sustainability
The challenge these types of projects face is that it’s inherently difficult for high-rise buildings to achieve a high level of environmental sustainability.
Most are designed in a way that makes them reliant on air-conditioning. And the lion’s share are built with energy-intensive glass and steel.
“We have enough evidence now to show that tall residential buildings perform surprisingly badly in terms of both water and energy consumption,” writes Brendan Gleeson, an urban planning professor at the University of Melbourne.
“You might build high-rise buildings for various reasons, such as if there is a land shortage, but there isn’t any environmental reason for building them.”
According to research by University College London, electricity use, per square metre of floor area, is nearly two and a half times greater in high-rise buildings of 20 or more storeys than in low-rise buildings of six storeys or less.
Which is perhaps why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently threatened an all-out ban on “classic glass and steel skyscrapers”.
Ask Mr Curry about sustainability, though, and you get a more nuanced take. He says the glass industry has made huge strides in improving thermal performance and efficiency in recent years, and that correct orientation can dramatically boost a building’s green credentials, too.
“At the same time, though … in the city of Melbourne, the urban design team is looking for a shift away from the numerous glass towers that have created the city, to get more diversity and texture into the city, which obviously starts to open up other possibilities as well,” he said.
“So some of the new projects we’re working on at the moment do have a lot more masonry elements (stone) within the tower components.”
Meanwhile, Mr Fender is also optimistic that high-rise towers will continue to improve their green credentials.
“We now have the technology to harvest water and energy from our buildings, and this can help make our cities self-sufficient, even with zero waste,” he said, adding that governments should give more of a leg up to sustainable buildings, by providing greater rewards and incentives.
The many faces of apartment living
With Australia adding more than 388,000 people to its population in the 12 months to March 2019, few would dispute the need for greater density in our cities.
Continually ripping up our urban growth boundaries to build new suburbs on the fringe is not a sustainable model. It eats into agricultural land, forces people to travel large distances to work, and normally leaves them without essential infrastructure.
But high-rise towers aren’t the only alternative. Low-rise, medium-density projects in our middle-ring suburbs can keep a lid on emissions, while connecting people to jobs and infrastructure.
While a little taller than other medium-density projects, Woods Bagot’s Short Lane project in Sydney’s Surry Hills provides a glimpse into what these projects can offer residents. It effortlessly fuses private and public space, in an engaging and vibrant manner.
As does Breathe Architecture’s Nightingale project in Brunswick, Melbourne.
Both have won national awards.