Getting High in New York … or Dubai?

Updated: Mar 9


Joe Biden has had a month in office now and his to-do list is very impressive. How much will get done is another matter. That is the trouble with occupying the Oval Office; as Harry S. Truman observed, “the buck stops here”. Harry, of course, was talking about responsibility, but that saying has another edge; everybody escalates everything that troubles them about the world to the presidential office. And in the last few months a new problem is causing much trouble.

It is, it has to be said, a rich person’s problem, but rich people are better at getting attention for their problems than the poor. Even so, we suspect that Joe will not be paying too much attention to this one. The problem is in New York, where rich persons and problems often meet. Now, if you are a rich person, and you happen to be reading this in your 75th floor double-height condominium, you may just wish to adjourn to the coffee shop down in the lobby. The problem? The latest generation of high-rise apartment towers. Like models, it seemed that high-rises can never be too tall or too thin. Except, it turns out, that may be true for models, but there is increasing concern that high-rises are a different matter altogether. High-rise buildings are after all a bit of an economic absurdity, to tell the truth, however beautiful or elegant they look soaring above the New York skyline, or the Great Lakes, or even the Gulf shoreline of Dubai. The higher the building, the more the technical complexity and cost of getting all those vital support systems to the higher floors, albeit slightly less so for apartments than offices - the people density is less in residential buildings.

But this very factor, combined with new technology, has led architects, always a profession to seek to do things differently to how it has been done before, to make their residential designs thinner and thinner but taller and taller. This means that in any tall thin building large parts of each floor level must be taken up with elevators and service conduits – so that it is not uncommon for more than a quarter of each upper-floor level to be occupied by those essentials of living with a view. You might think the high-rise developers might baulk at the costs of such construction, but from a profit point of view there are enough buyers prepared to pay enormous premiums for living very high up that they more than meet the extra expense of constructing their skyward dreams. Whether they are paying for the views or the sense of isolation or a cloud-shriven superiority, who can say. JG Ballard had a go in his wonderful novel “High-Rise” which may take you further into the curious minds of those who want to build or live high (the film version with Jeremy Irons is also well worth a viewing).

Now, even those of us who know little about these things may yet spot the problems of building tall and thin. The wind. Hopefully, it will not come inside your beautiful apartment, though it may on occasion take a window or two out in a playful sort of way (not so playful if it lands on passing cars or heads, of course.) But from time to time the wind gusts quite hard, and what that will do is to cause the building to sway. Anybody who has worked in high-rise offices will be used to that slight sensation of things not quite being nailed down, but that is nothing compared to being, say, on the top floor (96) of 432 Park Avenue, NYC, NY. This is the crème de la crème of high-rise apartment towers, the acme of what are known as “pencil towers”, and the highest residential building in New York, for now anyway (another higher thinner version will be along soon no doubt). It is 1,396 feet (425 metres) tall and was completed in 2015. The sales value of the building is estimated at over US$3bn, and guestimates are that it cost around $1.25bn to build. That does not include the land and finance costs, but even so you can see there is a profitable attraction to developers in building high. The very top apartment sold for $88m.

But the statistics of the building are even more compelling. Let us use the Empire State Building as a handy comparison. That building is 1,250 feet (381 metres) tall, about 424 feet (129 metres) across, and is in floor-plan more or less square; on a windy day in down-town New York it can sway up to six inches (15cm). 432 Park Avenue (such a modest name incidentally for such a flamboyantly visible building) is 1,396 feet (425 metres) high but only 93 feet (28 metres) across. It is square, giving about 8,300 square feet (771 square metres) per floor, of which 6,000 square feet (557 square metres) is usable for living space, at the top as single penthouses, two or three or even four apartments per floor further down, and the rest being devoted to elevators and pipes and cables. And emergency staircases. If you stand an inch square foot ruler on end – don’t try it, it’s very unstable and you may knock your coffee cup to the floor - the height to width ratio is 1:12. Mind-bogglingly, the height to width ratio of 432 Park Avenue is 1:15.

So, let’s get back to the swaying. On a very windy day the building, its occupants, their beautiful things, and their hard-working staff will find that they could be moving through the clouds a couple of feet back and forth, maybe even up to three feet. That's just under a metre. Nothing to worry about; the building is designed to move that much to manage its wind resistance. The side effects though seem to be more troublesome. In very high winds the elevators automatically shut down as a safety measure, to stop the luxury cabins engaging the shafts and problems with cables swinging around. Those closures on a good old stormy night in the Big Apple may go on for a while, not ideal if you want to go to your office on Wall Street, or shopping, or have an ex-President over for supper and you want him to leave. Flexing pipes tend to spring leaks and a leak seventy floors up can do a lot of damage below ($9.3m of damage from one last year). Flexing cables can make fitful connections causing power outages. Flexing buildings groan and creak as they sway, with all those designed-to-yield bits rubbing and grinding against each other. 432 also howls as the wind sweeps through, a particularly annoying problem exacerbated by having several floors without facades at various points, a feature designed to reduce wind resistance.

The upshot of all this creaking and wailing, water cascading down, power flickering on and off is what you would might expect. Lawyers. 432 Park Avenue is of course exclusively inhabited by rich people and after an aggrieved resident has called building service (or an all-night plumber) the next call is generally to New York’s second finest. Outcome: the building has almost as much litigation as cladding. A particular target of residents is the service charge. That went up by 40% in 2019 and is likely to go up a lot more in the current year. Much of that is insurance costs, reflecting claims for water leaks, but also repair charges are higher than forecast, and so are litigation costs. But the one which will really make readers’ hearts bleed is that the cost of the (compulsory) subscription to the tower’s in-house restaurant has gone up from $1,200 five years ago to $15,000 this year. And the free breakfasts for residents have been done away with. Oh, what?

It is of course easy to laugh at the noise-cursed, damp plight of those who paid a lot of money for their super-rise apartments, even if most of them have residences elsewhere (especial tough luck on those who bought an alternative dwelling at Mar-a-Lago and find themselves with THAT new neighbour). But there are lessons for us all in this. One for developers is that if you are going to build so high and so thin it has got to be done with no possibility of faults, because an 80-mile per hour gale will find all your errors a thousand feet up. One for purchasers, is that at that height you look silly rather than superior stuck in a dark apartment without power. And having to make your own breakfast. And one for everybody, in the year of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, is that there was a time, not that long ago, when we all vowed never to live, work, or shop in such tall buildings ever again.