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Future cities: towards sustainable vertical urbanism by Arch. Felino Palafox, Jr.Published: October 21, 2014Updated: December 2, 2014

Architect Felino Palafox, Jr. discusses the points made about sustainable real estate development during the recently concluded Congress for Architects, Planners, Designers, and Thinkers.


In September, the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) hosted its annual Congress for Architects, Planners, Designers, and Thinkers in Shanghai, China. This year’s theme focused on the Future City: Towards Sustainable Vertical Urbanism. The Conference’s aim is to drive thinking beyond just buildings, and create a harmonious urban whole to improve the building’s contribution to the city physically, environmentally, culturally, and socially. Shanghai couldn’t have served as a more fitting venue for the Conference, as China currently holds the title as the tallest country in Asia and the world.

Cities need to be thought of, and buildings planned for, in all three dimensions – not just be vehicles for isolated programs and products of two-dimensional zoning plans and height limits.

A lot of interesting positions and discussions were shared during the Conference, from the social sustainability of high rises, architecture culture, to design principles for future high-rises. As Fellow and Country Representative of CTBUH, I moderated a session on Urban Community on the third day of the Conference. Shanghai, Dubai, Singapore, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Frankfurt, and Paris, in my opinion, have been at the forefront of developing successful vertical urban structures that respect the surrounding community while effectively addressing the city’s urban density.

Design Principles for Tall Buildings
According to CTBUH Executive Director Anthony Wood, “Cities are becoming terribly homogenized…We need to find an indigenous response to skyscrapers all around the world.” To reduce their homogenizing effects and sharpen their integrative capabilities, what is needed, Wood said, is not just an enlightened design, but a better engagement between urban planners and other decision-makers not directly involved in the projects’ financial outcomes.

Wood shared ten principles during the conference that every tall building should:

1. Relate to the physical characteristics of place
2. Relate to the environmental characteristics of place
3. Relate to the cultural characteristics of place
4. Vary with height – in form, texture, scale and program
5. Maximize layers of usage on all systems and materials
6. Provide significant communal, open, recreational space
7. Introduce façade opacity and variation in skins and envelopes
8. Embrace organic vegetation as an essential part of the material palette,
9. Introduce physical, circulatory and programmatic connections, such as skybridges
10. Bring all aspects of the city up into the sky

He cites the Commerzbank building in Frankfurt as a standard in sustainable vertical urbanism. Designed by Foster + Partners and completed in 1997, the 53-storey Commerzbank is considered as the world’s first ecological office tower. The building was designed to be naturally ventilated for 60-80% of the year, with winter gardens spiraling up around the atrium to become a visual and social focus for occupants. The tower was designed with respect to the existing historical structures and the surrounding buildings of central Frankfurt, and reused and restored existing perimeter buildings of the site to maintain the streetscape.

Faster, Taller, Greener
As Asia becomes the focal point for ambitious, urban construction projects in the next decades, sound project management that sees building construction from concept, commitment, construction, to completion is needed. During the plenary on the Challenges of Constructing and Project Managing Tall Buildings in Asia, making clients accept reasonable budgets, working on compressed timescales, changes in economic and weather conditions, antiquated codes, and architects working with developers need addressing and warrants updating. I believe that these are also crucial issues that many tall building projects in our country face today.

As an example, Cathy Yang, CTBUH Trustee and Manager of Taipei 101, shared her experience on Taipei 101. “Construction is a manufacturing business, but property management and operation is a service business. If we believe in the benefits and advantages of supertall buildings, we are obliged to place heavy emphasis on energy and resource efficiency to justify the existence of supertall buildings and make them more acceptable to the citizens, as well as to maintain their attractiveness to tenants.”

Testament to the LEED-Platinum accredited building’s success is how Yang’s team still continues to make environment-friendly improvements, from adding motion sensors in low-occupancy spaces to facilitate lighting and exchanging halogen for T5 lights.

Sustainable supertall buildings (300-plus meters) were also some of the intensive discussions during the Conference, where height criteria, the human scale, and green technology applications in some of China’s completed supertalls were challenged. Beijing, for example, has been designed for economic improvement in the past three decades, but livability was not considered. The Philippines, however, has no supertall building yet in construction, and we can learn from the lessons learned by some of the architects and developers who has successfully overcome the obstacles thrown in their way.

Sustainable vertical urbanism is indeed possible, says Wood, but it needs an establishment of a new social, economic, and political framework between city government and private sector.

NOTE: The CTBUH is the world’s leading body in the field of tall buildings. The non-profit association helps disseminate multi-disciplinary best practice information on tall buildings, facilitate business exchange amongst its international network, and arbitrate tall building height. As of 2013, the CTBUH member network included more than 700,000 individuals from around the world. To learn more about memberships, visit

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