Wednesday 16 October 2019

Paul McNeive: 'Planners must change their mindset on tall buildings'

The right moves

Paul McNeive
Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Dublin is an outlier among European capitals in its lack of tall buildings, and we live at a density of less than half that in comparable cities. That's a result of a "low-level" mindset among the city planners for decades. The outcomes are that we spend huge parts of our lives commuting, land values are artificially high, we have some of the highest office and apartment rents in the world, and the most boring skyline this side of the moon.

The economic arguments for tall buildings are a "no-brainer" - so why are we isolated? Scarily, it comes down to the subjective view of a handful of planning officials, and their opinion as to whether or not tall buildings look nice, and can be located close to older parts of the city.

The issue is emotive and topical and I had the interesting job last week of facilitating a roundtable discussion called 'Building Taller in Ireland', organised by global construction consultancy experts Linesight, for an audience of developers and industry stakeholders. Linesight is involved in many of the taller buildings currently under construction.

Tom Phillips, a chartered town planner and urban designer, provided a fascinating insight into the planning legislation around tall buildings, which has been divisive and confusing. He cited the example of the Ronan Group's two sequential applications to build a 22-storey tower at Tara Street, Dublin 2.

The site had been identified as suitable for a tall building by the planning authority, and the applications complied with all requirements. Dublin City Council refused both applications. An Bord Pleanála then refused the first application, contrary to its inspector's positive recommendation, and granted the second, contrary to its inspector's recommendation to refuse.

Interestingly, planners in Cork have taken a more positive view of tall buildings, and for many years Ireland's tallest buildings were in its second city.

Alison Haigh, of international architects Chapman Taylor, an expert in residential towers, spoke on the importance of carefully locating towers, allowing their scale, mass, proportion and silhouette to have a positive relationship with adjacent buildings, and allowing for the maintenance of views and framing of key vistas.

The managing director of Linesight Europe, Richard Joyce, and Linesight director Jonathan Cooke spoke about the cost considerations for both commercial and residential buildings. They advised that the shape and size of floor plates, and the ability to build repetitively, have a major impact on the building cost.

While the cost of building tall rises incrementally as height increases, Linesight director Stephen Ashe took us through an appraisal of the redevelopment options for an existing low-rise office building in Dublin, ranging from adding extra floors to demolishing and replacing with a tall building. The developer's profit increased as the new building got taller, albeit that risk increases also.

Ireland's tallest building was The Elysian residential tower in Cork, at 71 metres high, and Capital Dock, Dublin 2, at 79 metres, is currently Ireland's tallest residential structure. The Exo Building, an office building nearing completion at The Point Village, Dublin 1, will also be 79 metres high.

But Cork will regain the title with the construction of The Sextant, a 25-storey apartment tower, which was recently accepted into the fast-track planning system.

A measure of the restriction of tall buildings here was Alison Haigh's comment that 18 towers over 20 stories are under construction, or completed, in Manchester, since 2016, and 16 more have planning approval.

In my view, a huge opportunity has been lost by maintaining "low-rise" cities for so long. But there are signs, at An Bord Pleanála and ministerial level, of a growing recognition that taller structures are needed.

Linesight has produced a detailed report called 'Building Taller in Ireland' and copies are available by emailing

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