The Supertall Episode
Felix Salmon: Hello and welcome to this Supertall episode of Sleep Money, Your Guide to the Business and Finance News of the Week. This week began with going off the news. We have a very, very special episode all about skyscrapers. I’m Felix Salmon of Axios. I’m here with Emily Peck of Axios.
Host 2: Hello. Hello.
Felix Salmon: I’m here with Elizabeth Spiers.
Host 2: Hello.
Felix Salmon: But mostly we are joined by an extremely special guest, Stephan ELL. Welcome.
Speaker 3: Thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.
Felix Salmon: Introduce yourself. Who are you and what is the name of your book? I think I gave it away already.
Speaker 3: I’m an architect and also an author of Supertall How the World’s Largest Buildings Are Shaping Our Cities and Our Lives.
Felix Salmon: First, we shape our buildings and then they shape us. Who said that? Was that Churchill, correct?
Speaker 3: Yes.
Felix Salmon: We are going to talk about how the buildings shape us, what kind of reveal preferences we have in buildings, why so many super tall buildings are being built, the economics of them, the environmental impact of them. It’s a wide ranging discussion globally and in terms of subject matter. But I do get to ride my favorite hobbyhorse, which is to 70 Park Avenue. It’s all coming up on sleep money. Stefan Let’s start with Supertall skyscrapers, since they’re the subject of your book. There are many of them these days. These are the things that are a thousand feet or so, 300 meters or higher. Is it really difficult to build one of these things? Has it become easier? Has technology advanced? So this is the reason we’re seeing so many more of them, just because it used to be hard and now it’s easy.
Speaker 3: If you look at the history of super tall buildings, meaning taller start and 300 meters or roughly a thousand feet, you see that up until the mid-20th century, there were only two. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. But now there’s, you know, more than 100. And every year, there’s about a dozen of new ones that are being built. You know, it’s certainly a story of technology, right? How technology has gotten more advanced, more sophisticated. We have concrete that’s stronger. We have structures that are better, elevators that are faster. And, you know, we can design these things with more precision, understand and simulate wind flows. But it’s also, I think, a story of societal preferences, because if you look at the past 30 years, especially in Asia, there’s been a really big push towards the city. And I think skyscrapers are kind of a symptom of that of that story.
Felix Salmon: So let me just ask you, like, how would you disaggregate that if you had to sort of say on the one hand, it’s just become a lot easier. The technology exists. We can pump concrete thousand feet into the air in the way that we used not to be able to. We can make elevators that go 48 miles an hour, all of this kind of stuff which you detailed in your book and I love. And it’s fascinating the technological stuff on the one hand, versus just the imperatives of the city on the other. You’ve got to squeeze a lot of stuff into a small area and the only way to go is up. Like which one of those two do you think is has more explanatory power in terms of explaining why we’re getting a dozen of these things here?
Speaker 3: Well, I think it’s the the latter. The fact that we’ve seen this incredible push towards the city, which, by the way, now due to COVID, is maybe pausing this this great push of urbanization. But if you look at where these towers happened, they happened in places that precisely saw this incredible urban push. So, for instance, China, right. Which over the period of a single generation has added half a billion people to its cities. That’s also, not coincidentally, a place where we’ve seen so many of them.
Speaker 3: Right. So I would say the 20th century was really the story of the American skyscraper. You could say right as it was invented in Chicago and then came to full fruition maybe in New York. But if you look at it today, the 21st century is really pointing towards Asia, as the Asia century is where most of the economic and urban growth is occurring. And skyscrapers kind of exemplify that.
Host 2: Is there one other factor besides technology and move to the cities that drives the human urge to build super tall buildings would be to see if we can would be like who? You know, it’s just like we want to go really high, like these super tall buildings. There’s not a practical ones. Like we have more people moving the city. We got to move them into this super expensive building on West 57th Street. You know what I mean?
Speaker 3: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, if you look at history, you know, the the ancient Egyptians, they built pyramids. If you look at, you know, the, you know, 17th century France, we see the pope building, you know, ever higher cathedrals. It’s it’s to some extent maybe innate or right that we’re trying to reach towards the sky. And it’s maybe part of a larger human ambition that we’re trying to break new ceilings. And sometimes this comes with with risk as well. So, you know, one of those stories may be kind of Easter Island, right? And all these resources were spent on creating these amazing statues. And until today, a lot of anthropologists believe that it was this kind of desire that ultimately led to the societies collapse.
Felix Salmon: And yet, I think starting around the time of the Eiffel Tower, there’s also been a sort of popular backlash to tall buildings. The tall buildings go up and the people, a lot of normal, everyday folks, instead of going, wow, look at this amazing tall building, go, shit, that’s terrible. We don’t want it. Where does that? Come from?
Speaker 3: Yeah, I ask myself that too. And if you look at the Eiffel Tower, it was certainly rejected by so many people, the French elite, they called it a towering smokestack and they made a lot of plans to dismantle it. And it was only until Mr. Eiffel himself was able to show that his hollow tower had some utility, namely put a antenna antenna on it so he could broadcast messages that they eventually and reluctantly decided to keep it.
Speaker 3: Now, if we look back on that, we find that kind of bizarre, right? Because today, you know, nothing represents Paris more than the Eiffel Tower, you could say. So what then kind of drives us to maybe against those projects? I think part of it has to do with novelty, right? When you suddenly see something that’s so tall, that’s taller than everything else, it feels foreign. And if you look at the reaction of, for instance, today, a lot of New Yorkers or people that visit the city and they see these new Supertall towers, they kind of feel like, oh, this thing is sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s not proportional to the rest of the city. And part of it is novelty.
Speaker 3: But if you look at some of the early skyscrapers, it was the same story. They were maybe only ten, 11 stories. And there was such such a big response against it that we today think, oh, was that really necessary? It’s not that told. There’s many more taller buildings today. But I think, you know, there’s other things, too. These towers symbolize things that people reject. So in New York today, a lot of these super tall towers are playgrounds for the uber rich right there, these billionaire’s playgrounds. And, you know, some of them are so tall that they cast long shadow as one Central Park, and many of them are empty because people are they don’t want to spend more than half a year there. Otherwise they have to pay New York City taxes.
Host 3: How much of it do you think is really sentimental attachment to a city having a particular skyline? Like I’m thinking specifically of the Extell building and Lower East Side and backlash to that because it does kind of stick out like a like a sore thumb, as you would say. And there’s no kind of it’s not one of the more garish or even tallest buildings that’s being constructed, but it’s more about where it is and what it does to the skyline. How much do you think that plays into it, especially in large cities where you already have a lot of Supertall?
Speaker 3: New York is a kind of a special case because a lot of those tall towers, they’re built, as we call it, as of. Right. Meaning that developer has the right to build them if they have the kind of air rights or the floor area ratio that they need to to build this project. In other cities, there’s a very extensive vetting process and the public is involved.
Speaker 3: Think about London, for instance. So London has a very extensive protected view corridor system, and I believe there’s 13 view corridors going from iconic sites to iconic buildings. So think about, you know, regions. The view from Regent’s Park to, let’s say Sid Paul’s Cathedral. And these were set up in response to what people perceived as eyesores and these were very much respected up until I would say, you know, ten or 20 years ago. That’s when also the tide started to swing the other way.
Speaker 3: So I think part of the problem in New York seems to be that the regulatory framework allows for these contextual projects, meaning a super dense skyscraper in a relatively low density environment. But that’s just a function of the way in which the zoning is regulated. It’s like a distribution of bulk or a distribution of map of mass. Because of these FDR regulations or floor area regulations, you can move, let’s say, a mass from one site to a very tall tower, meaning that the other, the adjacent site, will be low density because mass has been removed, but then that this new site becomes very high density.
Felix Salmon: One of the things that’s happening in New York is that a very large number of the new skyscrapers, including the one that Elizabeth was talking about, are residential. And you mentioned that in that sense, they become these sort of avatars of inequality. But by the same token, they only make economic sense because of the premium that people are willing to pay for the luxury of living thousands of feet up in the sky, you know, and that has created the economics of all of these these buildings, which wouldn’t make any economic sense otherwise.
Felix Salmon: Is that something that you see when you look across the super talls in the rest of the world, or is that a peculiarly New York thing? How much what proportion of those 12, 12 Supertall a year would you say a reverential?
Speaker 3: No, I think it’s really representative of a larger trend when you think about 20th century skyscrapers that are extremely tall, like the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower or the Chrysler Building, they were all office buildings. Increasingly, they’re becoming more mixed use. So mixing hotels with residential, with office, with retail and residential. So there’s a clear shift towards that. And, you know, in a way you can ask yourself back then they were also kind of symbolic of wealthy corporations. Today, maybe they be symbolic of wealthy people. Wealthy individuals, right? So so maybe the response towards them should be the same as the way in which we looked at them before.
Host 2: I’ve been thinking about this, reading your book and how you explain that the Supertall now are are trending towards mixed use and not office space as of old. And I mean, I’ve been thinking and so many people have been thinking about the pandemic’s effect on offices and people going to work. And maybe it’s not going to be as drastic a shift if it’s already been taking place in the real estate sector, in the commercial real estate sector, like maybe it’s just accelerated a trend that was already happening.
Felix Salmon: Yeah, that was that was definitely one of the things that people are saying about Midtown Manhattan is that it was too commercial, there wasn’t enough residential, there wasn’t enough of a mix there. And presumably then if the new buildings that go up are more mixed, that’s a welcome development.
Speaker 3: Yeah, I would say so. You know, mono functional zoning, as we used to call it, like the idea of a business district where you just have commercial offices and like a dormitory town where you just have residential. That’s kind of an outdated concept. And it stems from, you know, the early 20th century with modernism and the idea that, you know, everything needed to be logical and separate. But that’s not how we live. Our life cannot be compartmentalized in these things. And if we look at something like walkability, right, we we want to be able to walk everywhere within 50 minutes. We want to be able to access our office, go to, you know, a grocery store, restaurants, to schools.
Speaker 3: So this this mixed use idea is coming back and has proven to be quite resilient. So the financial district, for instance, which prior to maybe like a decade ago was really predominantly office, had become more residential. Some of the offices have been converted to residential and AC more restaurants I think was much more resilient than the Midtown, which really became a ghost town right during COVID.
Speaker 3: And now around the world, cities are implementing what they call like the 50 minute city or the 20 minute city in which you can walk to any place within 15 to 20 minutes. So for a skyscraper to embody that also gives developers some benefits because they have multiple incomes. Create income stream. It’s not just a hotel for us. It’s very risky, but having other types of or diversification that can be beneficial. That’s not to say it’s easy to build a mixed use skyscraper. It’s very complicated because you’re dealing with, you know, different regulations, building codes regarding every use.
Felix Salmon: So the avatar of this in New York, of course, is the much loathed Hudson Yards development on the west west side, which combines offices, retail, hotels and a chunk of residential. And literally everyone hates it. Like how you have a chapter in your book about Hong Kong as the sort of archetypal skyscraper city of the future, where you get this and create these incredible mixed use development developments. You know, if a subway station and then you come up into a shopping mall and then you have offices and then you have residential and it works really well in Hong Kong. What is it about Hudson Yards? That should be Hong Kong and in fact, just fails?
Speaker 3: Well, a big problem with that project is that it was built on top of rails, actually one of the largest rail yards. So they had to build a platform over it. So the air rights were were sold, or at least I should say. So. The problem with that is that the platform is really thick as a result. If you if you look at the like the ground level on Hudson Yards is actually much higher than the street level. So it’s more on the level of that of the. Highline than it is on the streets.
Speaker 3: One of those problems was that because it’s higher, it really feels like an enclave. It doesn’t feel like it’s integrated in the city. Right. And when you walk by, it’s on the street level. There’s lots of, you know, entrances for trucks. Blank walls. It doesn’t feel like, you know, the excitement of, let’s say, you know, Fifth Avenue or with, you know, lots of the storefronts that you may expect a new development to have. So I would say that’s you know, part of it was was really because the challenge was so big to build this on top of a rail station so that that gave the designers a lot of restrictions.
Host 3: You talk a lot in the book about comfort level for people who are especially at higher levels and building buildings that are super tunnels. One of the points of backlash here due to a lot of super tunnels that are residential, is that people buy up those upper floors and then they don’t live in them. So you don’t really have a sense of what people living at that elevation are really experiencing. The closest thing I’ve ever had to it, I lived in one of the higher residential towers in Brooklyn when it was the highest residential tower in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy. And you could feel the whole building swaying and almost everybody in the top floor of the buildings went down to the basement for the duration because everybody was getting nauseated. How much do you think in super tall building specifically, the building demand is really driven by residential demand where people actually do want to live at those heights and they’re willing to tolerate some level of discomfort because of it.
Speaker 3: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Well, we’ve seen a lot of complaints of tenants of these apartments because of Subway, for instance, or elevators that stop working because of this weight. And I think what this shows us that especially these extremely skinny buildings, it shows us that, yes, we know how to do it right. We know how to build that tall and that skinny, which is, you know, extremely difficult. But is it is it flawless? Is it comfortable? And the answer is no. I mean, there’s elevators that make swooshing sounds that the moment they sway too much, they have to stop them. And you can be trapped. You can feel uncomfortable for residential.
Speaker 3: The standards are much higher than for office building, by the way, because when you’re in your office, typically you’d be busy doing things right. You could be, you know, working or are meeting. But in residential, there’s many times that you’re going to be by yourself and maybe staring at that glass of water that suddenly starts to ripple because the building is swaying. So that’s why for a residential, those defects are more apparent. And that exacerbates these issues.
Felix Salmon: Tell me about the pricing, though. Like there is a revealed preference for living on high floors in residential towers. The most expensive apartments are the ones right at the top which sway the most. If I decided to give you just because I’m feeling generous today, a full floor apartment in 432 Park, which is the, you know, one of these skinny scrapers in New York City. What floor would you choose? Would you choose the most expensive one at the top or would you choose one like lower down?
Speaker 3: I’d probably, you know, pick the top one. Yes. Yeah.
Host 3: High tolerance for motion sickness.
Speaker 3: I’m not sure if I want to live there, but. Yes.
Felix Salmon: But it’s weird, right? Everyone who lives there seems to hate it. There are all these lawsuits going on. The elevators keep on breaking. They’ve had to put in like little air locks, like in order to go into the elevator. In that building, you need to sort of pass through a series of sealed doors so that the the difference in the air pressure between ground level and the top of the elevator shaft is so great that they they people wound up getting like stuck in the elevator for hours. So they needed to create this these systems to equalize the pressure and all of this crazy stuff. And there were these $100 million lawsuits against the developer. And yet that doesn’t seem to have hurt the values in the apartment. There seems to be like, you know, it’s a terrible place to live, but I still want to pay, you know, $85 million to buy an apartment there. Where does this demand desire come from?
Speaker 3: Yeah, at a certain level it becomes not just rational, it becomes status. And we see this also in the history of New York’s buildings. So there’s the Empire State Building, for instance. There’s a great study by Jason Barr, who’s an economist, and he studies skyscrapers. And he looked at what he thought was kind of the, you know, the perfect formula for a building from a profit perspective. You want to build tall because you can put more floor space in and you can rent it and I rent it out. But if you go too tall, then you pay more for structure to make the building standing. And that would offset kind of the additional income you could get from leasing out those floors.
Speaker 3: So he made a really convincing argument that a building like the Empire State Building is not rational from a profit standpoint. It’s purely because the developer won its status, right? They want to have the tallest building, which brings them value, whatever that may be. But I think it’s the same situation here. You know, it kind of defies human logic, right? It becomes a status object, like, you know, like a like a Gucci handbag or a mozart. Right.
Host 2: Yeah. I was thinking that and reflecting on the book, it just seems like it’s not really rational to build these super tall buildings. They’re basically these kind of buildings go up when an economy is booming. Like you mentioned, the Empire State Building and Chrysler went up before the Great Depression. The Great Depression happens. No one’s building large buildings. We have just gone through this period of enormous economic expansion. So, of course, these things went up again and they just sort of they just looked like big symbols of extreme wealth inequality. Like, is there a reason to to build a really, really, really tall building? Like, a rational reason that makes sense for a city, really?
Speaker 3: Yeah. So we use a term in architecture which is called, you know, efficiency of, of a building. So we look at what’s the usable space on the floor versus all this space that’s dedicated to, you know, circulation elevator structures, mechanical systems. Right. And if you look at these extremely tall buildings, they have very low efficiency, meaning that, you know, the taller you build, the more space you lose for all the elevators that you need to get people up. Right. All the structure that you need to have the buildings standing. They defy that logic. Right. But they have a kind of a logic of their own, in this case, people willing to pay up for those views and having that status symbol. So it’s kind of a different logic.
Speaker 3: And maybe, yes, you’re right, maybe those are kind of symptomatic of periods of economic expansion. And the real estate sector, I should say, is kind of like a lagging indicator of that because it takes so long for these projects to get built, right. So for these extremely tall buildings, it’s at least in New York, it sometimes took decades for all the air rights to be assembled, you know, for the permits to come in the project to be designed, you know, the building to be constructed. So they’re in a way behind. Right. And also, yeah, if you go back to the kind of the Great Depression, there’s a couple of examples of buildings that that were under construction and they were not finished. And, you know, today they’re still existing.
Host 2: After the Great Recession in oh eight, I lived in Williamsburg and it happened. And then there was like a two year, three year period where it was just like ghost towns of like unfinished construction projects. They were everywhere and everyone was like, this is a disaster. What’s going to happen? We’re going to it’s going to be awful. There’s half finished construction projects. Lo and behold, it was fine, like, but the economy picked up and now all those buildings are occupied. They’re extremely expensive and no one can afford them.
Felix Salmon: This is one of the crazy data points that I put in my newsletter earlier this month was the top floor of one Vanderbilt, which is one of the new super tools in New York City, just rented out at $322 a square foot for a space less than 10,000 square feet, which, if you work it out, it’s about just under just about the size of two basketball courts. They’re renting it out. A Canadian waste management company is renting out that space for north of $3 million a year.
Felix Salmon: This isn’t just plutocrats doing like consumption goods, you know, it’s not like, well, I could spend $100 million on a Picasso. I could spend it on an apartment. I may spend it on the apartment. It’ll hold its value just as well. Yeah, this is a, you know, a commercial entity is spending $3 million to rent out a small but very high office like can like it does that. And then if that’s the case, if developers know that people will be willing to spend that kind of money to rent out super high offices, then that obviously changes the economics of super tall buildings and makes them more attractive. But that bit kind of puzzles me a little bit. I can understand the personal ego thing and the residential thing of people wanting to be high. What puzzles me is like how does a Canadian waste management company justify to its shareholders spending that much rent on an office?
Speaker 3: It puzzled me too, in its in its defense of one Vanderbilt. I must say that the design is really quite intriguing because they have relatively high ceilings. So, you know, that’s another study that would be interesting to do. If you look at the average ceiling height for offices. And part of the reason one Vanderbilt exists is because of the Midtown East rezoning, right. Because a lot of New York came to realize that a lot of the office stock in Midtown East wasn’t really up to standard anymore because, you know, corporations expecting higher ceilings and it’s kind of the standards changed over time. So the Chrysler Building of the Empire State Building, that office space that was first class, you know, for a long period of time, no longer is right.
Speaker 3: So for New York to remain competitive, the city decided we need to rezone in this case, Midtown East, allowing developers, you know, to build higher in order to kind of refresh this this office stock. And I think one Vanderbilt kind of represents that. And interestingly, the Midtown East rezoning in this case was kind of a quid pro quo. So developers were allowed to build higher if they contribute to, you know, public improvements. So I believe, for one, Vanderbilt, there was a $200 million investment that went into public transit improvement. So Grand Central Station. So New York has a history of kind of cross-subsidy subsidizing public goods with private developments.
Felix Salmon: You have the example in your book of Hong Kong, where the transit agency is the only profitable subway in the world, basically because they get to capture a bunch of the revenue from the increased revenue, from the development rates that come along when you build a new subway station.
Speaker 3: Yeah. So Hong Kong is kind of the the, the dream of any transportation engineer because the MTA or the Metro is superior. Right. You can get to anywhere in the city.
Felix Salmon: With, oh, my God, changing trains in Hong Kong is the.
Speaker 3: Most.
Felix Salmon: Blissful thing in the world. All subway systems should be like the Hong Kong subway.
Host 2: Why? Why is it so great to change?
Felix Salmon: Because they do it like in every other subway system. What you have is each line is separate. So you go. The line will go one way on one side and the other way on the other side. Right. But you never want to change from from a train going one direction to going back to the way you came in Hong Kong. They have all the lines going in the same direction next to each other.
Host 2: So you can. Well, that’s very you can.
Felix Salmon: It’s much. Oh, my God. It’s it’s a thing of beauty. And they come so quickly and they’re so clean and they’re so efficient.
Speaker 3: And yet they have wi fi, they have air conditioning, you have nursery changing stations. It just goes on and on. It operates like clockwork. And because it’s also a real estate developer, it can kind of crop subsidise. It’s it’s it’s transit, making it, you know, relatively affordable and and creating these seamless connections between buildings and subways. So very quickly from the metro station, you can rise up into an office lobby. So it’s, you know, really unique case that is only possible because the transit authority is also a real estate developer.
Host 2: Well, and I just wanted to add, when you were talking about New York City having real estate developers do public spaces, you have this whole story in your book how how that initially worked, which was they made these awful public spaces where like the benches had spikes on them and no one was there. And, you know, it was like a total kind of joke.
Felix Salmon: And the same thing is happening in Hong Kong too, where you have like the security guards shooing people out of the so-called public spaces like this or Trump Tower is a classic example that the ground floor of Trump Tower is supposed to be a public space, but you try hanging out there.
Speaker 3: Yeah. So in New York, thankfully, we, you know, people were onto that and they started investigating and yeah, they did find actually it was William White’s is beautiful book that he wrote. It’s called The Social Life of Small Public Spaces. And there was also a documentary that he made. It was a very extensive research project of how people use public space. And yeah, he found out that a lot of these plazas were not designed for people to be there. And by the way, it wasn’t just kind of hostile developers that did that with the spikes. It was also kind of architects preferences because they wanted these vast empty spaces, because they look good in architectural photographs, they punctuate space.
Felix Salmon: Yeah. I used to walk across the big plaza in between the two towers of the World Trade Center. I used to walk across it every day on my way to work, and it was the archetypal windswept, empty plaza. Nothing ever happened in that plaza. It was just completely wasted space.
Felix Salmon: One of the big things which we haven’t really talked about, which runs through your book and I really love about your book, is how you’re always hyper conscious of the environmental cost of buildings and especially the concrete that goes into buildings. Which brings me to my favorite hobbyhorse of these days, which is to 70 Park, which is the new headquarters of Jp morgan, which is going up in this Midtown East Zone, two and a half million square feet, massive, great big building. They tore down a lead platinum, super efficient building that had been retrofitted, which used to be the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. Beautiful building to to 70. Park tore down the old Union Carbide headquarters. They are building a new building which architecturally like aesthetically I think everyone hates by Norman Foster or at least by foster and partners.
Felix Salmon: But the thing that Jp morgan is really pushing here is its environmental credentials. They say that it’s a zero carbon building. Is there such a thing as a zero carbon building, like even conceptually? Is that true or is this just a regulatory, like, clever regulatory thing where they like signed the contract with one of the energy providers who’s connected to a dam and they have this blockchain which has all of the energy and it’s all electric. And if you heat with electric rather than your own. Cogen but, you know, gas boiler, is that actually greener?
Speaker 3: Yeah. No, that’s that’s a very good point. And I should say that the way in which we develop or, you know, define green buildings is very shallow because we tend to think just about operational energy that we waste in buildings like heating and cooling and running the elevators. No, I think that’s based on a very limited conception of what is a green building, because we tend to focus on a green building that’s that’s run operationally very efficiently, meaning all the energy that we use to heat the building, to cool the building or to to run the lighting that we have, like energy saving devices, or we’re using renewable energy for that.
Speaker 3: But what we don’t take into this equation is all the energy that we need to construct a building. So if you look at global carbon emissions, 40% of that stems from buildings. Two thirds of that is from the building operations. And one third of that is the all the energy that you use for the materials. So think about the concrete that goes into the walls, the floors, the steel, the metal, the glass. So you may have a building that is extremely efficient operationally, but you still have that enormous kind of carbon costs that you had in constructing this building in the first place.
Speaker 3: So think about concrete for for for. It’s incredibly hard on the planet. All the carbon that gets emitted by the process of creating concrete. And the major culprit is cement, which is one of the key ingredients. So in order to get cement, we need to excavate mines and get material like lime that we need to transport that lime to a facility where we heat it up to more than a thousand degrees. So in that whole process, we use energy. But not only that, when we heat up the cement it emits emits carbon into the atmosphere as a byproduct of this chemical process that creates cement. And then we still need to transport it to the site, we need to mix it with other stuff and create the building and then eventually, you know, maintain it and eventually take it down.
Speaker 3: Right. So that is a tremendous amount of energy. There’s no regulations about this, right? We have the energy code that’s making sure that our buildings are run more efficiently. And by the way, the energy code is only kind of indirectly regulating the energy that we use for buildings. It just saying that, oh, we need to have a certain facade that is well insulated and we need to have systems that are efficient. It doesn’t say, Oh, you can only run this amount of energy for this type of building. That’s that’s changing, however, with a new law in New York called Local Law 97. But but broadly speaking, we only have regulation for the operational energy, the embodied energy or the energy that’s in the building construction that has been completely neglected. And maybe because it’s been so complicated, because, you know, architects are trained to use concrete and steel and glass, even though we probably shouldn’t, because these materials are really harsh on the planet.
Speaker 3: So little by little, we’re seeing how also this is getting addressed. So Europe, for instance, has a circular economy framework and in which kind of new developers or in the future will have to do some lifecycle. Assessment of their buildings. They have to justify how they’re going to, you know, use recycled materials. And then when when the buildings lifespan has come to an end, how their own building will be dismantled and recycled.
Felix Salmon: So I think we should have a numbers around here. My number, I’m going to because it’s vaguely on topic. I’m going to go. My number is $185, which is the amount of money you need to pay if you want to do something called City Climb at Hudson Yards. Now city climb at Hudson Yards, one of the big skyscrapers. Hudson Yards has some stairs at the top on the outside of the building. And you can climb up a couple of stories at the outside of the building on a kind of diagonal. You clip yourself into the outside and you climb up a couple of stories up these stairs. And then once you reach the top, you get to a platform. You can kind of lean over the platform while you’re well, you have a rope holding you onto the building and you can look down. And for the privilege of doing of climbing up these stairs and looking down from a platform, the price is $185.
Host 2: Have you paid this price?
Felix Salmon: Felix So I don’t know anyone who has paid this. If anyone has paid this or if you know anyone who has paid this, please email us on Slate Money. It’s late because I want to talk to anyone who thinks that $185 on climbing some stairs is a great idea. But Elizabeth, you’ve done it, right?
Host 3: No, I’m terrified of heights, which is why your book fascinates me, because all of its international, like the entire floor, super tall buildings. But yeah.
Felix Salmon: So what’s your number?
Host 3: So my number comes from a Bloomberg headline that’s derived from Jamie Dimon shareholders letter, which just a gift that keeps on giving where he brags about the fact that Jp morgan is responsible for 285 billion in climate sustainability financing. But then if you dig further into the piece, it also notes that they’re responsible for 295 billion of issuances of fossil fuel bonds. So where do you net out in that?
Felix Salmon: It is zero, man. It’s always net houses, zero zero.
Host 3: And they also know that this is partly the carbon offsets that they’re buying or being powered by harnessing blockchain technology. And there’s no calculation in there for how much that’s costing on a climate basis.
Host 2: Cool.
Felix Salmon: Yeah. Yeah. This is the this is all a local law 97 arbitrage. It’s this idea that you can get your hydropower blockchain something, something blockchain to prove that it’s all green, run your all electric building on hydro and thereby ensure that it has zero emissions. I’m not sure. I can’t intuitively understand that. But I mean, what’s your number?
Host 2: My number is a little bit morbid, but it’s also to do with low rise building. If you think about it, stay with me. My number is 56%. That is the number of Americans who died and were cremated in 2020. This number is up. 60 years ago was less than 5% of Americans. Big change see a change in the death industry back in the day, you used to have, you know, big cemeteries. There were almost kind of like parks. And now you could argue that this is this is kind of a progress in terms of space usage, maybe. I don’t know. But this is from a piece in The Washington Post that we will link.
Felix Salmon: The most expensive piece of real estate I’ve ever bought in my life on a per square foot basis is a niche. It’s like a one cubic foot niche. Green-Wood Cemetery. And it’s it’s got north and west exposures that overlooks the koi pond and it’s glass on two sides. Oh, wow. And, and I’m getting a little too inside it and.
Host 2: It was you took it really morbid. Feel it.
Felix Salmon: Oh yeah. I’m telling you, man. But the thing about the thing about this land is you’re buying it in perpetuity. And it’s very hard to buy anything in perpetuity. Normally, you know, once you buy. Any kind of property, you still have to pay property taxes. You know, you have to pay maintenance charges and all of that kind of stuff. But when you’re when you’re dead, you can’t really pay any of that. So they have to charge all of the cost upfront.
Host 3: How much was it? I have to ask.
Felix Salmon: It was it was a significant force for figure sum.
Host 3: What this maybe the most expensive Manhattan or New York City real estate that you’ve purchased?
Felix Salmon: Oh, by far. By far. I mean, at least on the square foot basis, I would say that my apartment did actually cost more on an absolute basis. But I have many, many more square feet, let alone more cubic feet. This is only like one cubic foot, this little niche.
Host 2: It’s good real estate, though.
Felix Salmon: I’m absolutely great view of the Statue of Liberty. I think that’s actually a protected view. Should the view from Green-Wood Cemetery to the Statue of Liberty, you’re not allowed to build skyscrapers along that view because that view is protected.
Host 2: And that’s not for the people buried there. It’s for the people who visit the people buried there just for preserving the view, for.
Felix Salmon: Just for the.
Host 3: Avoidance, depending on what you believe in.
Host 2: Like I. I’m just trying to make it a little lighter. I don’t know. I feel bad for returning home here.
Felix Salmon: What’s your number?
Speaker 3: It’s 10 billion. So we collectively, every year as a society, use 10 billion tons of concrete.
Felix Salmon: So? So that’s if there’s 10 billion people on the planet, give or take, to an order of magnitude. That’s a ton of concrete per person, per year. Just correct.
Speaker 3: Correct. More than a ton. And and that’s about 20 bathtubs full for every person every year. Which is crazy. So it’s not just buildings. It’s also infrastructure bridges.
Felix Salmon: And then presumably for those of us in the rich world, we massively overindex on that, that the rich world, you know, is using more concrete per capita than, you know, say sub-Saharan Africa.
Speaker 3: Well, China is because they’re the ones.
Felix Salmon: China is the big one.
Speaker 3: Developing so much. I think in a couple of years, they use more concrete than the United States in the entire 20th century. It’s just the sheer amount of of building that took place. And it’s one of the most consumed consumed resources in the world after water.
Felix Salmon: And as someone who lives in the concrete building, I can tell you, I think about it a lot.
Speaker 3: If you think about what would happen if our society would come to collapse, archaeologists there would find the earth in this orange concrete crust, right? With all their rebar rusting. It would be a weird site.
Felix Salmon: On which note, I think we’ll wrap up. Sleep money for this week. Thank you, Steph and Al for coming on the show. It was amazing and wonderful to have you on. And we yeah. Go everyone go out and buy your book, which is called Soup at All by your local independent bookstore. Many thanks to Shannon Roth for producing and we will be back next week with more sleep money.
Host 3: You talk a lot about glass in particular being important to the preferred aesthetics of most of the stuff that we’re getting and still getting built now. How much do you think that sort of preference for curtain wall buildings with glass facades is preventing adoption of more sustainable materials? And how do you get in front of that if it really is just an aesthetic preference that drives commercial preference?
Speaker 3: Yeah, it’s a huge problem. Glass is a, you know, beautiful to look at and look through, but it’s also a horrible insulator. And it may be, you know, great to have a glass building for growing tomatoes right in a greenhouse. But to actually work there in a in a kind of glass tower that’s taller than other tower is kind of bathing in the sun that’s just asking for trouble. Right. So these towers are very much dependent on air conditioning.
Speaker 3: So there’s been a move away from glass through this new movement called the Passive House Movement, which originated in Germany. And. And they’re looking at. Kind of having less windows. And they’re looking at things like the win, the wall ratio having less windows per wall. But still, how can we create a building that’s aesthetically that with that crystalline aesthetic that we so much appreciate but maybe achieve that for other types of building materials? So there’s been a couple of new buildings that kind of represent that, that shift. So so yeah, that that is, again, the societal preference that’s that’s hurting us. Right. And something that will probably have to change, but it’s going to take a long time.
Felix Salmon: We have one of those new buildings in right here in New York or not in Manhattan. We have it on Roosevelt Island as part of the new Cornell campus there. And it’s it’s like a dormitory building that is is this passive building that like as as an architect, just aesthetically speaking, what do you make of it?
Speaker 3: Yeah. I think it’s it’s it’s difficult when you don’t have glass at your disposal. How can you make it still kind of beautiful and and given that shimmer or crystalline and I think there’s other types of materials that you can use for this. There’s a return of ceramics as a kind of a cladding system in skyscrapers. And it can be really beautiful. Right. And the way it kind of glimmers in the sun.