The Tower on Its Side

“Tower on Its Side” (LNV 1995)

It is a fallacy to confuse “density” with “height”. We can achieve high density with buildings 3.5 stories high. Thinking about this concept, more than 15 years ago, I made the drawing “The Tower on Its Side”.

For the 2011  SUNN: Vancouver Historic Quartiers study we used the following density figure:

  • Tower density (100 units/acre x 120 acres/quartier x 2.2 persons/unit) = 26,400 people per tower neighbourhood.
  • Urban House density (75 units/acre x 120 acres/quartier x 2.2 persons/unit) = 19,800 people per walkable neighbourhood or quartier.

In round numbers, we see achieving 75% of tower density as achieving “equivalent” density. Thus, we see 3.5 storey urban houses achieving equivalent densities to towers when density is measured at the scale of the walkable neighbourhood or quartier as a whole, rather than one lot at a time.

We realize that such a result is a counter-intuitive. There are some mitigating factors. First, we use of a nominal number for tower density. Tower height, and size of the floor plate are variables that can add space. Given an opportunity we will research and measure the density of a neighbourhood such as North  Shore False Creek in order to have a measurement taken at the scale of an actual neighbourhood. Second, towers, apartment slab buildings, and walk-ups use about 15% of the built area for circulation (corridors, elevators, & exit stairs). The urban houses combine the circulation space with living space (this may change if the house is sub-divided into multiple strata units).

Where the equivalencies end, or where the comparisons grow widely divergent, is when we compare the resulting urban quality of the human-scaled quartier, and the tower neighbourhood. In a walkable neighbourhood setting, the human-scale urbanism that builds with urban houses is far superior to the results towers obtain. The metrics are everywhere: energy efficiency; cost of servicing; shadowing and overlook; vehicular congestion; social functioning; local governance and economics; the anonymity of the tower’s base and the individuality of houses that may have started as identical units in a row; the chained barbecues to the railings of houses in the tower podium.

Only in the hyper-dense regional centre do towers appear to return positive results. Perhaps the most important consideration for the development of our neighbourhoods is that very few tower neighbourhoods have achieved lasting quality. Human-scaled neighbourhoods of high renown—albeit built mostly in the era before Modern planning—seem almost ubiquitous.

Thus, our contention is that “downtown towers” belong downtown. The use of the tower form should be contained within the Central Business District of our regional capitals where the concentration of services is sufficient to absorb the tower. Furthermore, it is a fallacy to suggest that we need to build towers to achieve density in the neighbourhoods. The land area of our neighbourhoods is less concentrated than the downtown, and the human-scaled form that can deliver equivalent density to the tower zone, will also deliver far superior results in the quality of neighbourhood streets, and public open spaces.

“The Tower on Its Side” (1995)

The sketch is literally that. A drawing of half of a tower, turned on its side. A top level is added as a roof terrace, and a neighbouring structure appears to the right. What looks like a smoke stack, and a stair to the left are just so many bits added to disguise the “brutal facts”. Essentially the coloured areas are taken directly from the tower. The ‘pilotis’ or columns at the base of the row house are really the balconies in the tower turned on its side. The 9-foot floor-to-floor spacing of the typical residential tower makes for a good 18-foot wide row house.

© Lewis N. Villegas, March 2012, Vancouver.


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