Is it time for London to ban glass skyscrapers?

Posted by Derek Mason

23rd July 2019

You may have seen it reported, earlier this year, that New York mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to pass laws to prohibit the construction of heavily glazed skyscrapers.

Soon after, a London-based sustainability expert suggested it would be wise for London to “follow suit”, and ban new glass and steel towers.

Simon Sturgis, the founder of sustainability consultancy Targeting Zero Carbon said he backed the move from across the pond.

The reality of Mr de Blasio’s plans is not fully clear. While launching the New York City Green New Deal back in April 2019, he declared, “We’re going to introduce legislation to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming.” He added, “They have no place in our city or on our earth anymore.”

However, he then backtracked a little, saying, “If a company wants to build a big skyscraper they can use a lot of glass as long as they do all the other things needed to reduce emissions.”

The mayor’s goal for New York is to reduce emissions in the city by 30 per cent by the year 2030. He said buildings were the biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

Days earlier, the City Council had passed legislation forcing buildings to reduce greenhouse gases by 40 per cent by 2030, or be hit with substantial fines. The overall goal is for the city of New York to all but eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and become a so-called net-zero economy.

These are ambitious plans and London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has already set similar plans for London to be a zero carbon city by 2050. But should we be banning glass towers in the city?

Simon Sturgis thinks so, declaring two environmental problems with using glass in construction. He said, “The first and most obvious is that glass buildings absorb huge amounts of heat which requires high levels of cooling to remove.

“Secondly the cladding of an all-glass building has a life of about 40 years, so replacing it on this cycle has significant embodied carbon costs over the life of the building.”

He also suggested that commercial pressures could ensure developers move away from glass-based construction, without the need for legislation. He added, “I believe we are moving to a position where all glass buildings will be seen as environmentally irresponsible, will consequently have difficulty in attracting tenants and therefore be seen as an investment risk.”

However, other commentators have emphasised the fact that glass is a natural material, which is recyclable, and that energy efficiency in buildings is improving.

In a related story, researchers have been awarded at £1.65m grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which will help them to create new technologies to improve the energy efficiency of buildings.

The researchers from the University of Nottingham, Loughborough University and the University of Exeter will work on developing new optical components that can be built into conventional double glazing to brighten daylight levels inside buildings.

They believe it could reduce building’s annual energy consumption from annual artificial lighting, heating and cooling by over 30%.

At a time where major cities – including London, Birmingham and Bristol – have declared a climate emergency, hopefully technological advances can make a significant impact on reducing carbon emissions.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic, and if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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