Are Glass Skyscrapers affecting our environment?

As buildings are said to consume maximum energy, are high-rise glass buildings bad for our environment? What does The Big Apple have to say in this regard?

New York’s skyline is the stuff of legend. With over 6,486 completed high rise buildings, the city boasts of a skyline that no other city in the world can. The tallest building in the world, The One World Trade Center, is located here. People flock in thousands each year to have a view of the city from The Empire  State Building, another iconic skyscraper. Undoubtedly, New York has played a significant role in the development of the skyscraper. It has been through two construction booms that saw the construction of some of the world’s tallest buildings. The second construction boom saw a sharp increase in the number of glass skyscrapers being built. But, recently a number of activists have protested against the construction of glass skyscrapers stating that their energy deficient designs contribute to global warming. The New York Mayor Bill de Blassio has also stated that “skyscrapers made of glass and steel have no place in our city and on our earth anymore.” He insisted on his administration to restrict the high-rise development of glass skyscrapers. But, why so? What has led to a change in mindset about the very buildings that have defined New York city and etched a distinctive image in people’s minds all over the world? When people think of New York all they can think of is the bustling of the city and these structures. But, the mayor seems determined. Let us have a look at some of the plausible reasons.

Glass was never considered as a construction material before because of the glare which will be received indoors once the construction is complete; glass allows heat to pass in and out without any obstruction. The temperature indoors will rise according to the temperature outdoors and the only way to ensure comfort for the people inside is continuous air-conditioning. Carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are said to be 60% higher than those with natural or mechanical ventilation. Without air-conditioning, it is a real challenge to keep the temperatures stable inside. Earlier, glass structures were extensively used for growing exotic plants that required concentrated heat to grow well or they were used along with steam and hot water when central heating systems were needed to keep the interiors warm. Reflections on glass buildings are also a major problem. In one infamous incident, cars parked outside a London high-rise glass structure have said to have melted due to the incessant reflected glare.

British architect Ken Shuttleworth, best known as the chief architect of London’s City Hall and 30 St. Mary Axe or “The Gherkin”, who once used glass liberally for his work now speaks against it and encourages other architects to use other sustainable material. He has said, “”We’re looking at a sea change — a lot of architects think the same way as us,” when referring to the change required in popular construction materials.

Alex Wilson of Environmental Building News writes, “Some of the world’s most prominent “green” skyscrapers, including New York City’s One Bryant Park (the LEED Platinum Bank of America skyscraper) and the New York Times Tower, wear the mantle of green with transparent façades. But there is a high environmental cost to all that glitter: increased energy consumption. Until new glazing technologies make technical solutions more affordable, many experts suggest that we should collectively end our infatuation with heavily glazed, all-glass buildings.” The construction of glass structures have been around for some time and critics have warned against its dangers for quite some time too. Some of the earliest critics include Swiss architect Le Corbusier who had criticized the design of the UN Secretariat stating that its large and unprotected glass surfaces were unsuitable for New York’s climate. But, such advice has been ignored in order to focus on the aesthetic appeal of glass structures. It was considered the future of architecture and a symbol of modernism. And, thus it rose in stature and once it did, it was impossible to curtail it.

Some of the other advantages of glass building include the access to natural daylight with ceramic frits or tinted glass to limit the exposure and a transparent connection to the outdoors but this comes at a cost.

Even though no significant decisions have been taken regarding the construction of glass skyscrapers in New York, the fact that the mayor of this exemplary city has passed such a statement will have a profound impact and will pave the way for more sustainable architecture around the world.

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