Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lets get high: A three minute history of high buildings

Dean Cracknell is the author of this post. He is a Freo devotee interested in creating diverse places for people. He is a guest contributor to The Fremantle Doctor blog. Dean can be followed on Twitter by checking out: @city_pragmatist

“If you want a new idea, read an old book” is a brilliant quote that has rattled around in my head many times.

It’s also a pretty good way to introduce a really short history of tall buildings. Building height has been topical and contentious in Freo recently. Debate continues on what the port city should look like in the future. Debate is great, but it’s sometimes useful to look back to see where we’ve come from in order to work out where we should go in the future.

Tall buildings aren't new

Tall buildings are not new - we have had them for thousands of years. The Romans developed 10 storey buildings over 2,000 years ago. In fact, cities as far apart as Edinburgh, Scotland (14 storeys), Bologna, Italy (97.2 metres high) and Shibam, Yemen (11 storeys) also had tall buildings hundreds of years ago. The first modern “skyscraper” was built in Chicago in 1884 and was 10 storeys high.

Towns and cities used to be compact as they were surrounded by high, defensive walls, which limited the geographical extent of urban areas. The main mode of transport was walking, which also helped to produce compact, mixed use city centres. Old cities then were quite familiar with taller buildings. I spent some time living in London last year and loved soaking up the atmosphere and history. As a town planning nerd, I was amazed to read in the Museum of London that building height limits were introduced in London 345 years ago to help control...fires!

The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London in 1666 had just devastated large swathes of the medieval wooden city. The speedily introduced London Building Act of 1667 specified that all new buildings were to be built from brick or stone to help prevent fires. It also set maximum building heights. The Act stipulated four types of residential buildings that would be permitted.

1. Buildings of the first sort

- A basement cellar, two storeys plus an attic sited on small streets and lanes.

2. Buildings of the second sort

- A basement cellar, three storeys plus an attic sited on larger streets.

3. Buildings of the third sort

- A basement cellar, four storeys plus an attic sited on main roads.

4. Buildings of the fourth sort

- Mansions with fewer restrictions than the other three but still restricted to four storeys plus cellar and attic.

Check out some examples from London:

An example of a 'Building of the Second Sort' in Mayfair, London

An example of a 'Building of the Third Sort' in Sloane Square, London
I am not going to pretend that I have read the London Building Act of 1667 (even town planning nerds have their limits!), but this dusty, old statute book may have some new ideas for us to think about.

What can we learn?

I reckon there are four points relevant for Freo today:

1. Permitted building height was based on the size and importance of the street – bigger streets could have taller buildings.

Urban designers now think that this is a pretty good idea. A rough rule of thumb they use is that building facades (or frontages) should be no taller than the width of the adjacent street. A 1:1 ratio helps enclose the street while still allowing for sunlight to reach the street for most of the year. We often now refer to this as human-scale development as it is very mindful of the comfort of pedestrians walking along the street.

I think this is a pretty good starting point for thinking about building height. The standard is clear, transparent and easily understood. The standard would mean that a street 20 metres wide could have a building facade up to 20 metres high (5-6 storeys). Taller building elements could be set back further behind the building facade if necessary.

Smaller streets and laneways would have lower building heights. This rule of thumb works from an urban design perspective as well as a pragmatic perspective I think.

2. The building requirements developed in 1667 still shape the appearance of many areas of central London (count the number of storeys plus attic if you go to London). This is a very important point as it demonstrates that planning decisions can have big impact over decades and even centuries. We should be planning and building for the long term and mandating high quality development, rather than encouraging disposable buildings that we can toss away after 20 years in another illustration of our throwaway society.

3. Taller buildings are found throughout the most expensive and exclusive areas of London (as well as most other European cities). East Perth has a similar building form and is also an expensive area. This suggests to me that the quality of the building matters more than the height of the building.

4. Three of the four housing types specified in the 1667 Act allowed building heights greater than that currently permitted in the Fremantle city centre - 345 years later. Of course Freo is special, but I think it is difficult to say that Freo can’t handle a bit more high quality building height.

While on the subject of getting ideas from old books, did you know that London taxi drivers are still required by (a never repealed) law to always carry a hay bale and bag of oats?

Can’t say I have seen that in a London cab. Maybe not every idea from an old book is still appropriate. But I think a bit of history can help us think more about Freo’s future.


  1. Hi Dean.

    Cool post.

    What about floor to ceiling height?

    A 20m building could be three or four storeys.

    1. Good question.

      I have done a bit of research on this question. I think allowing an average of 4m per storey is a decent standard. 4m per storey allows for generous floor to ceiling heights, services and enough room for different styles of roof (rather than flat roofs all the time).

      The stock-standard residential apartments have between 2.4-2.7 metres floor to ceiling height. This is too low for high qualty development and makes spaces feel smaller.

      If you look at heritage buildings, they often have high ceilings, architectural elements and lots of character. Spaces with high ceilings feel bigger and roomier.

      4m per storey also allows flexibility for uses to change over time. Retail and offices usually have higher floor to ceiling heights, especially when the services hidden by false ceilings are taken into account.

  2. I think Scheme Amendment 49 provides for 4.5m floor to floor heights. (On the ground floor only?)

    I think Australian building standards for residential buildings are 2.7m.

    Colin Nichol might know.