Six myths about high-rise apartments.

With a housing shortage in Toronto, there is a mentality that the only way to house more people in our city is through high-rise apartment buildings. Logically it makes sense to think that taller buildings provide more density.

Developers, planners and politicians seem to believe it too. Weston is one of the densest parts of Toronto and yet, developers only seem to be able to propose tall buildings for Weston. Politicians are supposed to look out for residents’ best interests but sadly, we don’t have adequate representation at City Hall and it’s cheaper for developers to build a tall building and walk away; especially if they’re allowed to cut corners. There are guidelines but these are often circumvented. Sadly, in the past, politicians and planners approved tall buildings in the name of efficiency. Weston is littered with reminders of this. Europe has seen the folly of high-rise buildings and is replacing them with lower and more humane housing.

Myth 1: High-rise buildings provide better density.
The centre of Barcelona achieves a density of 531 people per hectare – compare this to Weston, which has a paltry 292 people per hectare. Barcelona achieves its higher density with mid-rise buildings. Tall buildings need more floor space devoted to sway prevention, utility conduits, sprinkler systems and dry pipes for fire department regulations.  Then there are elevators – taller buildings require more.

The centre of Barcelona holds 531 people per hectare. From Apple Maps. Click to enlarge.
The 11th Arrondissement of Paris has 410 residents per hectare.

Myth 2: High-rise buildings are energy efficient.
High-rises don’t have a low carbon footprint. Glass is a lousy insulator and modern high-rises are covered in it. The best double glazing has an R-value of under 4 (R stands for resistance to heat loss). Triple glazing is better but still loses lots of energy and developers aren’t prepared to pay the extra costs involved. The bottom line: high-rise apartments are poorly insulated, have huge energy losses and are terrible for the environment. High-rise buildings have twice the carbon emissions of low-rise buildings. In fact, the taller the building, the more wasteful it is.

Street-level houses built before the recent focus on energy efficiency have walls insulated to a value of R-13. The higher the R-value of a surface, the better insulated it is). Nowadays, standards are much higher; (R-22 and up for walls) newer homes are much more energy efficient than older ones with far lower heating and cooling bills.

Myth 3: A high-rise is simply a vertical community.

Source: https://www.mdpi.com/2078-1547/10/2/34/htm

Weston is still a depressed area and placing additional high-rises in areas with disadvantaged residents is not a good idea. Research tells us that even with moderating factors (higher income, larger apartments, better amenities), high-rises are isolating, depressing and poor places to raise children.  Studies have shown that behavioural problems are greater in children who live in high-rises. There is also evidence that crime and fear of crime is greater in tall buildings.

Myth 4: High-rises provide more affordable accommodation.
We know that high-rise buildings are expensive to heat and cool but what about maintenance costs? Maintenance and utility costs approach $1000 per month for a two-bedroom unit in an older building. Elevators are highly sophisticated machines and expensive to maintain. They are regularly out of action in some older buildings. As buildings age, they need new wiring, boilers and air conditioners and this is expensive. Bottom line, high-rises don’t age well, or cheaply.

The apartments at 650 Parliament Street were closed for over a year after an electrical fire. CBC.Ca

Because of the numbers of residents, security is often needed to monitor people coming and going. In smaller buildings, people are more likely to spot strangers attempting to enter.

Myth 5: High-rise buildings provide a safer and better lifestyle.
Talk to people awakened in the middle of the night by fire alarms or who have been inconvenienced by power and water outages.  Accessing an upper floor requires a form of transit i.e. an elevator. If the elevators go out of service, it’s no fun lugging groceries to your unit on the 20th floor. To add to the quality of life issues, bugs and tobacco / vaping smoke and noise can often find their way into neighbouring apartments. Fumigating apartments because of bedbugs or other pests can be inconvenient and also puts residents at risk if the chemicals used are also toxic to humans and pets. This is less of a problem in smaller buildings.

From parenting.com

Because residents need to take a form of transit to get outside or to fitness amenities, they are less inclined to go outside; especially those on higher floors. Psychologist Daniel Cappon writes in the Canadian Journal of Public Health that high-rises discourage exercise because of the extra hassle in getting to the ground. He says that high-rises keep people away from, “neighbourhood peers and activities.” leading to life-shortening alienation and isolation that increases with the height of buildings. Children raised in apartments above the fifth floor were found in one study to be delayed in their development.

Myth 6: High-rises add value to a neighbourhood.
There is a reason that wind and shadow studies are performed when tall buildings are proposed. Adding large vertical slabs to a landscape creates wind tunnel effects that are unpleasant for people outside. They also create shadows that can permanently eliminate sunshine from an area. Architects try to get around this by putting thinner high-rises on top of a podium so that shadows are narrower and the wind is deflected at the podium’s base rather than at street level. Thinner high-rises have a lower density (see Myth 1).

As for aesthetic value, let’s face it, many Toronto condo buildings are just plain ugly.

Lastly, high-rise buildings with large areas of glass kill birds in huge numbers, especially if they are built along a migration corridor.

4 thoughts on “Six myths about high-rise apartments.”

  1. Good one, Roy.
    Hard to argue this one.

    Perhaps, in addition:

    Myth #1 – How much more attractive a uniform height could be (across the board) in an urban community and shown in the photos – and as I’ve seen on past visits to Paris. Very interesting look & effect. No phallic competitions going on their. (Those ancient cities are pretty congested though. And, they have no where near the green tree canopy that we’ve nurtured around our city.)

    Myth #2 – Cram it in, stack it up! And, good luck getting around easily to all needy units when the time comes – and it will come. And oh, what about that styrofoam siding that 33 King Street was adhering to their north & south sides. (Remember that styrofoam snow fall?) But, in fairness they did put some lipstick on it – to make it warm & fuzzy. After all, it’s artsy,right?

    Myth #3 – Clearly, it wouldn’t be easy to get your kids outside to play in decent & safe play areas. Pretty tough to tell them to just, “go outside and blow the stink off!” Plus, how often have we heard about resident’s apprehensions about aging “kids” hanging around the hallways with all their tough guy swagger. Hanging around keeping warm in the winter, and cool in the summer because it’s the easier. But, not easy for anyone more senior in a high rise community just wanting to live in peace.

    Myth #4 – Yeah, affordable for who? No one wants to take the hit when it comes to the responsibilities of expensive maintenance & repairs – inside and outside. Understandably, no one wants to pay a high rent. And, for condo owners – along with their mortgage & tax payments, their “common expenses” escalate regularly, often beyond belief. And, that’s with reliable and trustworthy property management types. So then, what happens when unscrupulous types weasel their way into management, and then soon scam ownership? In addition, have to believe that the increased security & technology can really eat into those “common expense” budgets, these days.

    Myth #5 – The negatives listed here could quickly present residents with a real “hell on earth”, just higher & deeper.

    Myth #6 – Yeah, maybe it adds to an area like the “mink mile” on Bloor St. But, their pockets are deeper, and they’re not raising children down there.

    Bottom line: Sadly, these massively high complexes do really rob a community of natural light, and then generate enough ground level winds to drive turbines! And, too bad you couldn’t bottle that energy.

    Maybe the “Old World” has a better design idea worth emulating that doesn’t dwarf people & things that try to exist below. And, where you might be able to keep that helpful & healthy green canopy, more easily.

  2. Excellent analysis of the problems of high rise buildings for people in them and for the environment and the surroundings: these are issues that have been proved over and over again, and yet our planners and developers ignore decades of evidence for quick profit.

    We need to wake up from this shining glitter of $$ for the developers and look at the long-range and destructive effects all around us, here in Weston on Weston Rd., on King St., in the UK with Grenfell Towers …. everywhere.

    Time to think it through. Thank you, Roy.

  3. I would love Barcelona style density. Unfortunately that can’t be built here because zoning and over NIMBY stuff.

  4. In addition to many poor choices allowed by politicians and the “assertive” developers that they entertain, please consider what’s been done with our Harbourfront area, especially along Queen’s Quay.

    Somewhere along the line, developers were allowed to get the go ahead and then stacked ‘em higher & deeper – to the point of not being able to see the lakefront from the north side of Lakeshore Blvd.

    But, if you could afford to buy or rent one of the prime view units facing the lake on the south side, you scored very nicely.

    So now, when the debate comes ‘round to what to do with that constantly crumbling eyesore of an infrastructure – our stilted Gardiner Expwy, we have to choose, repair it again.

    Ca-Ching!

    The Gardiner has often been compared to San Francisco’s old two tiered expwy, which was finally leveled & demolished after the ‘89 quake and thus allowing that city to easily choose the “level it” choice, thereby opening up that beautiful Embarcadero roadway – which is very impressive.

    And, was a viable choice because developers weren’t allowed to knock down the old warehousing along the inner Bayshore.

    Sadly, Toronto’s debate has no traction because of the way development was allowed. No matter what, we’ll never have the open concept imaginable.

    So now, if Council allows that to happen along our downtown lakeshore area, what’s to stop that madness up here in Weston, south of the 401.

    ———————————————————

    And at this writing, Mr. Murray has reported on yet another meeting to come regarding the Little & Weston development project.

    But, apparently this meeting is “closed door” for a select few – the developer, the Councillor and those who are “members” of something called, the Weston Village Rate Payers, evidently a most exclusive & powerful few who “pay the Village rate”.

    Hmmm?

    Do they really invest more or pay more in property tax than the rest of us invested around here?

    Or are they just the kinds of people who just need to see and be seen like some sort of “big fish in a small pond”?

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