When Bigger is not Always Better

Building Heights

Last week SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica architects for a responsible tomorrow ) discussed the notable advantages of a low-rise city composed primarily of buildings no higher than 4 stories. Among the advantages of low-rise buildings previously noted were: 1) their superior ecological sustainability in its many forms 2) their resiliency when cut off from power, 3) their minimal impact on adjacent streets, and 4) their increased access to views, sunlight and natural ventilation. This week we continue to discuss additional advantages of low-rise buildings.

One of the most obvious advantages is that low-rise buildings are cheaper and faster to build than their taller counterparts, primarily because the material costs are much less. The lower cost of construction translates to shorter construction time as well as less disruption to the neighborhood during construction.


Another advantage of lower buildings is that their occupants are able to closely monitor the street and hence exert more “territoriality “on the neighborhood. This makes the streets safer because since more eyes on the street discourage crime. It has been shown that occupants living above 6 stories typically have little idea what’s happening at the street level and therefore do not feel as protective of “their street”. Another advantage, in the event of fire, is that it’s easier to escape or be rescued from a low-rise building than one that is taller. Obviously, lower building’s roof decks and yards have more privacy when they are not dominated by adjacent high rises.

Preservation of existing streetscapes and businesses give a sense of place to a city. When new codes allow heights substantially above the existing urban fabric, it becomes a death sentence for the existing buildings and businesses since the potential profit of taller construction becomes too tempting for developers to resist. Often when they are rebuilt, the prior businesses and tenants cannot afford the higher rents of the new, more expensive replacement buildings. The result is that they are forced to vacate further reducing the stability of the neighborhood. Needless to say, this process dooms many historical buildings that might have been excellent candidates for adaptive reuse. It also degrades the livablity and ambiance of the exisiting neighborhoods.


In the final analysis, low-rise buildings consistently out-perform mid- and high-rise buildings in terms of their cost, safety and liveabilty. Thus, they are better for both residents and the city as a whole. Their short term drawback is that they are often less profitable for developers. Ultimately, however, the most important reason to build and maintain our low-rise buildings is that they preserve the City’s character, desirability and hence, our land values as well. Santa Monica residents like their small beachtown ambiance, and would like to keep it that way.

(Part 2 of 2 articles)

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)


Why a Low-Rise City?

The Value of Low-Rise Buildings

SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) has long advocated for a low rise City: that is a City primarily with buildings no taller than four stories. In this first part of two articles, we will dig deeper and discuss the benefits of such a low rise City. The most important benefit is sustainability. Because the cleanest, nearest energy source is the sun, which is relatively abundant here, so we can design our buildings for maximum photovoltaic gain primarily with roof top solar collectors and with future advanced photovoltaic glazings:


The problem with high rise buildings is they make bad neighbors by shading and blocking lower neighbors from getting their photovoltaic sunlight and block their access to the natural afternoon breezes that could be used to offset the need for expensive energy consuming air conditioning. Thus tall buildings create the adverse effect of “a race to the sky “as buildings try to outdo one another to get higher to get sun access for power and access to wind. Technologies are being developed that may allow photovoltaic gain from walls, windows, and other surfaces, but we need to reduce energy consumption TODAY as we know from the current Paris Climate Conference’s warnings. So the limited areas of roofs are today our best energy source. In low rise buildings, the roof top supply available for solar energy is inevitably more in line with the energy demands of the building than it is for mid or high rises.

Low rise buildings are typically 40’-50’ high, but because of allowable parapets, elevators etc.,up to 18 additional feet of height is allowed which can block views, and creates canyonized alleys and streets which do not fit the friendly ambiance of our City.


Finally low rise buildings are more survivable (resilient) in the event of a catatrophic earthquake when the City will be limping along at reduced water and power availability . This is particularly true if the quake occurs on the San Andreas fault that separates the City from its far flung energy and water sources.

In next week’s part two article we will discuss the other numerous advantages of low rise buildings to our City’s future.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)



New Water, Old Pipes

Water Conservation

In April of 1949, a large new reservoir being built under San Vicente Boulevard collapsed, killing a 62-year-old workman from Venice. The new 5-million-gallon reservoir was part of extensive work on the city’s infrastructure, and was financed with a large bond measure. This tragic accident happened during a period when the city’s residents and businesses worked hard to improve the city’s underlying infrastructure and prepare for the postwar boom that was already underway.

That commitment goes back a long way. Thirty-three years earlier, the city–with a population of about 15,000 residents– spent over a million dollars per resident (in today’s dollars) to purchase a number of private water companies and consolidate them under one roof. And in the following decade, as the city’s population doubled during an extreme drought, the city approved another expansion of the water system, including the purchase of water-bearing lands in Mar Vista, and two new reservoirs (one at Bundy and Wilshire, the other on Franklin Hill), at a cost of $14 million in today’s dollars. Ten years later the city easily passed yet another large bond measure to build a huge new reservoir under the tennis courts of the Riviera Country Club.

Those long-term investments serve us to this very day. The estimable Susan Cloke, writing elsewhere in 2009, said: “Water, water shortages, water conservation, water quality are interwoven with the history of Santa Monica and with our future. Our identity continues to be defined by our care of our precious water.”

Today, the city’s infrastructure–including streets, water, sewer and electricity–have become tangled up in the complicated politics and economics of development, and the controversies that accompany them. On the one hand, some of City Council’s efforts to deal with water shortages show that the city is trying creative new avenues for water conservation. One example is the concept of “water neutrality” rules that would require new developments to pay for, or offset the use of the increased water they will require. One proposal would have a new development pay to install new showerheads and toilets in older buildings elsewhere to offset that new project’s use. But it is unclear how the city will monitor water use, and find out if the refurbishment of older buildings actually offsets the water use of new projects, and what measures could be taken if not. For one thing, most older apartment buildings do not have individual water meters. And for another, the city has a poor record of enforcing public-benefit agreements with developers, to put it charitably. It is unclear how much energy the city will expend to make sure that water consumption by new developments is actually offset in its entirety elsewhere.

On the other hand, even while the city attempts to deal with water shortages, it tries to avoid building necessary infrastructure by tweaking water-usage policies, in an effort to allow room for more development without the infrastructure investment that must follow. For example, the draft Downtown Specific Plan estimates that water demand downtown will increase by 30 percent by 2030. But the problem is that “a number of water lines may be deficient to meet future demand as anticipated in the DSP”, and it suggests that implementing water-reduction policies will change the “water use habits” of residents and businesses, and “expand the capacity of the water system to serve future needs…”.

Water conservation, especially during droughts, is a goal that most residents strongly support. But imposing water conservation measures to avoid building actual, hard infrastructure and supplying the water to fill it, is a different matter altogether. Counting on habit-changing policies as a way to “expand the capacity of the water system” is not the equivalent of real pipes and water. Habit-changing water conservation policies should be taken only to conserve water, and not to provide increased capacity for development, especially when the new habits that result from those policies may change along with the weather.

The draft Downtown Specific Plan is commendably more explicit about the sanitary sewer system in the downtown area. The system is, in parts, simply inadequate: “Sewer lines that are already operating at or over capacity should be considered priorities for a replacement or upgrade program and are critical in order to adequately service future increases in demand.” Anybody looking at their water bill sees the link between sanitary sewers and water demand. What goes in must go out. So if the Downtown Specific Plan anticipates an increase in the demand for sewers, it must expect that overall water demand will also increase, despite the habit-changing water conservation policies mentioned above. Where will all this extra water come from?

Our colleague Thane Roberts recently wrote that between 2005 and 2013 the residential sector’s water use dropped 6 percent, while the population increased by 7 percent. At the same time, the commercial sector increased its usage by 12 percent. Clearly, the burden of conserving water in this city was largely carried on the backs of residents. But there is only so much that can be accomplished by changing the habits of residents, and even of transient visitors. At some point we must acknowledge that more users will require more water, no matter what habit-changing conservation measures the city takes. That water will have to come from somewhere.

An old saying goes: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Changing people’s water-using habits is a wonderful conservation effort, but not a substitute for pipes and water when those are needed by more users. The city must address this issue with the same energy and creativity as it did in earlier eras, when the city’s population increased during a time of heavy drought not unlike today’s. Better to plan ahead, than to find oneself high and dry, or worse–floating away in the inexorable slow flow of a rising brown tide.

Dan Jansenson, Architect, for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow