Book Review of The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper

I’m reviewing The Heights: Anatomy of the Skyscraper by Kate Ascher as part of a TLC Book Tour. Other bloggers are also reviewing the book, and you can find links to their reviews here. I received a complimentary copy of the book, and I’d like to send it to a reader if anyone is interested in reading it. If you’d like it, just comment saying so by Monday, December 5th. If multiple readers would like it, I’ll pick one at random.


The Heights reads like a textbook for Skyscrapers 101. It’s full of interesting skyscraper facts along with diagrams and timelines. I learned a lot from the book, having no background in architecture or engineering. For someone who has studied these subjects though, I imagine that this book would be too elementary. However for me, it offered a useful overview of the history and science of skyscrapers.

Ascher details the process of planning, constructing, and owning skyscrapers, from the details of different types of foundations to building maintenance. She explains some of the challenges that skyscrapers present that I might not have thought about. For example, buildings with unusual designs that do not have straight sides must be designed with mechanisms for reaching the windows for cleaning and maintenance.

She also explores skyscraper financing. I was surprised to learn that the bulk of the cost of owning a skyscraper comes not from construction, but rather from cleaning and maintenance over the life of the building:

Although the annual cost of maintenance pales in comparison to the cost of constructing a building, over the life of a building — which can be upward of 100 years–it is much more significant. Holding aside capital replacement and reinvestment, the cost of the initial structure itself represents only about 5 to 10 percent of the total cost of owning a building over a 30-year period.

The visuals in the book were particularly well done. For example, Ascher offers visualizations of the real estate available within a skyscraper and then compares that to what the same amount of office, retail, and housing would likely look like in the suburbs. She also provides interesting diagrams that portray different elevator configurations that supertall buildings can use to maximize rentable building area and maximize elevator efficiency.

The book is also packed with trivia. I learned that today’s elevator speeds are not limited by technology, but rather by the human ear. The owners of the Sears Tower in Chicago were sued when elevator passengers suffered ear drum damage during the descent. Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, features an air-pressurization system to protect riders’ ears. Ears adjust more easily on the ascent, so elevators can travel up more quickly than down, adding another variable to consider in the effort to move people between floors efficiently.

Ascher discusses the cultural and legal differences that shape skyscrapers around the world. In Europe, all employees must work within 25-feet of natural light, leading to smaller floor plates than we often see in Asia or the United States. While the United States dominated the first century of the skyscraper, today’s tallest buildings and the tallest proposed buildings are in Asia and the Middle East. This is due in part to American zoning restriction, but in larger part to financing opportunities.

Despite learning a lot from The Heights, I was occasionally bothered by Ascher’s tone. The textbook language at times feels condescending, and I would imagine this could be grating for someone with more of a background in this subject area than I have. Also while she spends many pages on the virtues of skyscrapers, Ascher also supports antiquated arguments against them. On New York’s 1916 Zoning Resolution she writes:

It . . . established setback rules for specific tower heights, thereby ensuring that light and air would continue to reach the street and that towering street walls like the Equitable’s could never be built again.

Of course tall buildings cast long shadows, but suggesting that skyscrapers actually block air from reaching the sidewalk is not doing this urban form any favors.

Cities and the Market Process: Part 3

This series looks at some of the ways that people organize themselves to live alongside each other in cities. Part 1 looks at inherent problems with top-down planning, and Part 2 looks at the costs of local governments sanctioning collective choice. From this negative start, I’d like to turn to some of the advantages that make humans well-adapted to living in the urban environment, starting with some of Adam Smith’s insight in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Economists are often criticized, sometimes rightly so, for viewing people as perfectly rational and narrowly self-interested. Of course we are not. We all have unique motivators and preferences, which is what allows for the division of labor that we see in cities. One of the most important motivations, or “moral sentiments,” that we have comes in our desire for others to fare well and be happy. As Smith puts it:

Upon these two different efforts, upon that of the spectator to enter into the sentiments of the person principally concerned, and upon that of the person principally concerned, to bring down his emotions to what the spectator can go along with, are founded two different sets of virtues. The soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues, the virtues of candid condescension and indulgent humanity, are founded upon the one: the great, the awful and respectable, the virtues of self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct require, take their origin from the other.

This innate desire that most people have to relate to and be respected by those in their community makes people well-suited to city living. As Smith describes it, we generally seek approval from the “man within the breast,” a conscience that judges our actions based on their impact on others.

Economists typically discuss positive-sum games within the framework of trade in material goods; exchange makes everyone better off through the emergent order of the price system. Through our desire to earn approval from others, social norms create a similar emergent order. Of course we don’t always succeed in living up to these virtuous standards, but the fact the most people, most of the time are striving for others’ respect allows us to live peaceably alongside each other. In the dialogue of land use issues, the conversation often revolves around conflicts between individuals or stakeholders. However, if humans didn’t have an innate desire to get along, city living would be impossible, not merely prone to conflicts.

The Voluntary City, which we discussed in a podcast a while back, is based on this foundation of behavior that makes people well-suited to living in cities without the need for government intervention to regulate their behavior. In fact, as the authors discuss, civil society in a free market can take care of many of the things that we turn to government to take care of today, from crime prevention to unemployment insurance.

Unlike the market for goods and services, the market for behavior does not have feedback in the form of profits and losses. Still, though, human behavior has evolved over time so that by and large, behavior benefits both the individual and those around him.

TGIF Links

1. A reader from Vancouver wrote in to let Stephen and me know about a proposed policy to tax foreign investors at a higher rate than local property owners. Support for this policy is growing among residents, and with a mayoral election this Saturday, some are hoping to get candidates to endorse the policy now. Of course the higher tax rate would be done in the name of affordable housing for Vancouver natives. Hmm, with this one I’d say that the road to hell is paved with questionable intentions.

2. In other Vancouver news, recently upzoned parcels have sold for three times their previous value.

3. Two NYC taxi medallions sold for over $1 million each this week. On Marketplace, David Yassky, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission said that he believes the fundamentals are solid in the medallion market. When the supply of your commodity is rigidly fixed, you’re already halfway to strong fundamentals.

4. A University of Connecticut study finds that growth in the number of a city’s parking spots is inversely correlated with population growth rates.

5. Some have questioned whether the abismal state of American infrastructure is a fact or just something that everyone knows and repeats. Gizmodo points out that in the United States we have a road system that built with cheap initial construction but expensive and ongoing maintenance costs.

6. Roberta Brandes Gratz at The Atlantic Cities speculates that Jane Jacobs’ female perspective led her to be able to see the small-scale, bottom-up activities of cities more effectively than men, who tend to look at cities from the macro level. Not sure where this leaves Hayek.

Some Belated Thoughts on The Gated City

Several bloggers have already provided reviews of The Gated City by Ryan Avent, including Aaron Renn at The Urbanophile, Rob Pitingol at Greater Greater Washington,  and Lloyd Alter at Tree Hugger. I’ve finally had a chance to read it and would thoroughly recommend it.

I often support increased density on the grounds that this is what the market wants. To me, that’s still reason enough to support the repeal of many land use regulations, but Avent offers a vision of density that is perhaps more compelling to more people. Because the division of labor is limited by the size of the market, cities offer many amenities that are not supported in less dense places. The diversity of food, art, shopping, sports, and movies is all much greater in cities than in small towns because larger markets allow for more specialization. Of course taste is subjective; many people prefer the quiet of the suburbs to the chaos of the city. However we can see that currently, many people want to move to cities but are unable to by looking at vacancy and rental rates.

Avent also points out that cities provide a sort of employment “insurance.” He uses the example of a Vietnamese chef losing his job. If the restaurant where he worked is in a large metropolitan area, he will be able to find another job in a Vietnamese restaurant. On the other hand, if he lives in a small town, he will likely have to seek employment in a more generic restaurant where he won’t  be able to charge a premium for his specialized skills. This is true for jobs in many industries. If I were to lose my job in economics research, I’d much rather be searching for a new job here in DC than in a state with one think tank, for example.

Avent goes on to discuss the empirical evidence that people are more productive in cities, citing many and varied studies that demonstrate this fact along with the theoretical reasons that cities act as “economic processors.” By artificially restricting the potential supply of housing and office space, land use regulations prevent people from moving to cities, thereby limiting their earning potential. More clearly than any other work I’ve read, The Gated City brings together the research demonstrating that people are more innovative and productive in dense population centers with the harmful impact of zoning laws. Avent acknowledges that density has decreasing returns; at some level of density average worker productivity will begin falling. There is no reason that the market wouldn’t recognize this though, and shift to building out rather than up in a world of free land use.

It’s easy and tempting to blame the inefficient land use regime under which we live on urban planners, but Avent points out that often planners want to do the right thing. Using the example of the Brookland neighborhood in Washington, DC, he discusses a case in which the city planning commission wanted to allow for taller buildings and infill development around the Metro station to facilitate transit oriented development. The neighborhood vehemently opposed the change, though, and successfully lobbied to prevent the upzoning. In this case, Avent explains that NIMBYs were able to work together even when they had completely opposite complaints. Some said the new development would allow low-income residents to move into the neighborhood, while others feared that allowing fancy new condos would drive up housing costs and make the neighborhood unaffordable. These NIMBYs with opposing viewpoints managed to overcome their differences and worked together to block the change in any case.

As much as I appreciated Avent’s perspective in The Gated City, the book left me feeling pessimistic. Avent provides several policy recommendations that would make it easier for increased development where it is most needed, but none of them seem politically viable to me. He suggests giving neighborhoods property rights to their land and the land surrounding them so that developers could purchase it to build new projects where they will be valuable. He also suggests taxing density and using the revenue to compensate neighbors or creating a zoning budget so that urban planners faced a hard limit on how much density they could restrict. It just seems that if any of these were possible in the current political landscape, the market pressure for increased density would have led them to be adopted already.

He didn’t quite get to this in the book, but on Econtalk two weeks ago, Avent suggested that perhaps the best way to improve land use policy would be for people to become more tolerant of what other people do on their own land. I would concur and add that a live and let live tolerance could improve all sorts of American policies on issues from gay marriage to drug laws. Unfortunately, I don’t know what tools are available to speed up the societal progression toward tolerance.