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Karen Cook: Distinctive skyscrapers are not ‘vanity projects’

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Karen Cook of PLP Architecture responds to calls for a more standardised approach to skyscraper design, claiming distinctive schemes are more than mere ‘vanity projects’

In recent weeks Stuart Lipton called for the cost of constructing London’s tall towers to be slashed by half and is leading a group of engineering and construction specialists (including AECOM) to devise a pilot scheme to deliver a standardised 40-storey tower costing just £125 pounds per square foot to erect.

They plan to achieve this using uniform rectangular floorplates and cheaper details, to a design specification that satisfies occupiers’ needs and can be reproduced across the capital in the future.

As an architect who has designed a number of tall towers, both in London and abroad, I will follow their progress with interest. After all, what credible project team would query a design concept that benefits developers and occupiers, whilst delivering value for money without compromising design principles?

Even before the global property crash, prudent commercial developers have sought to reduce costs at every stage of development and the design conception stage is fundamental to the overall price of a completed scheme. However, clients have also understood that to continue to attract the most desirable tenants, they must build the most desirable offices, in terms of performance, aesthetics, and cost.

I have no doubt that the expertise of Sir Stuart Lipton’s team will lead to a thoughtfully considered pilot project – they have established themselves in their respective fields and have devoted time and attention to the project. My concern lies in the potential for subsequent project teams to misinterpret the guidelines, delivering buildings which don’t respond to the individual nuances of their surroundings.

London’s economy has profited from the variety and quality of its architectural styles, and therein lies one of its strength as both a tourist destination and international business hub. Sir Stuart’s assertion that we must constantly seek to determine occupiers’ needs is entirely correct, but this should not be considered revolutionary. The role of the project team, from architect to engineer to contractor is to deliver the best quality, functional building, and tall towers are no exception.

The capital has built a world economy on its ability to attract global corporates, many of whom have chosen to locate in iconic offices that reflect their brands and foster their business’ growth. Many occupiers seek buildings that differentiate them from their competitors and as architects we must continue to work closely with our clients to ensure that they are able to deliver buildings that respond to changing business needs, allowing people to work flexibly in a variety of different spaces.

A number of the towers criticised for unusual floorplates and facades have been hailed as vanity projects. In truth this is reductive and hugely underestimates the designers working to provide solutions that resolve unique design challenges that are upheld by London’s complex planning system. Broadly speaking these projects have made a considerable contribution to the public realm as well as fulfilling client and tenant needs. These tall buildings have been crafted through a lengthy consultation process with planners, CABE, and English Heritage among others, which shouldn’t be underestimated - these parties’ demands must marry with the client’s objective of enticing tenants and their staff to want to work in the City.

One area of major recent change has been the information technology advances used in both the design and manufacturing stages of a tower, and which already help project teams to dramatically reduce costs. I certainly see this as a major area of potential change in the industry, making more shapes possible, both in terms of fabrication and minimising waste. To the contrary of simple details, I expect a resurgence in craft and custom detailing will emerge.

I welcome a pilot scheme that seeks to minimise cost through thoughtful collaboration of the design and construction teams. However, if an initiative is to be rolled out on a wider scale it is essential that projects are undertaken under the careful guidance of a qualified team to ensure good quality buildings. I hope that, inside the simple rectangles it will still be possible , despite times of austerity, to remember the fundamental objective of making people feel well, encouraging their contribution to a more productive and creative society. 

  • Karen Cook is a partner at PLP Architecture
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