Tall buildings are more energy-hungry than low-rise, research finds

New research from University College London (UCL) has found that buildings use more energy per square metre the taller they are.

Electricity use per square metre of floor area is nearly two and a half times greater in high-rise office buildings of 20 or more storeys than in low-rise buildings of six storeys or less, researchers at UCL’s Energy Institute found.

Gas use also increases with height by around 40%. As a result, total carbon emissions from gas and electricity from high-rise buildings are twice as high as in low-rise.

Their hypothesis is that taller buildings are more exposed to cold and heat, requiring more heating or cooling.

Researchers analysed data from 610 office buildings in the UK, looking at energy consumption in operation.

Professor Philip Steadman said: "The use of air conditioning plays a part in but does not provide a complete explanation of these results. On average, carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are found to be 60% higher than those from offices with natural or mechanical ventilation.

"It is not the case, however, that the high-rise buildings in the sample are air-conditioned and the low-rise are not. The sample includes buildings of both types, of all heights. The increase in emissions with height is seen in buildings with and without air conditioning."

The research team also looked at all residential buildings in 12 London boroughs and found that gas use increased substantially with height, while electricity use also increased but less sharply.

The analysis was made by taking census districts in the capital and comparing total gas and electricity use in each district with the total heights of all houses and flats added together, along with their volumes, footprint areas, and other building and population aspects.

Professor Steadman added: "We suspect that the reasons for our findings are connected with the physical and meteorological consequences of building higher. Air temperature decreases with height, and average wind speed increases.

"Taller buildings that stand up above their neighbours are more exposed to these strong winds, as well as to more hours of direct sun. Thus energy use for heating and cooling would both be increased. But these hypotheses have yet to be tested."

A third part of the study looked at the relationship of different forms of building to their densities, where density is measured by taking the total floor area and dividing by the site area.

The work has shown that, in many circumstances, the densities achieved by tall towers can be achieved with lower-rise slab or courtyard buildings.

It is not always necessary to build tall to achieve high densities and energy use could, in many cases, be greatly reduced by building in different forms on fewer storeys.

Image: Hong Kong skyline (David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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  1. Interesting to read this, the hypothesis is a possibility in many ways even in tropics.The research could also look in to/might have seen/ the effect of high wind at heigher floors of exposed buildings in two ways: the first is convective heat loss from the envelope, the second is that windows always remain closed to avoid discomfort due to draught which necesitate conditioned mechanical ventilation. Promising research direction even contributing to the thinking for new urban forms.

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