BERLIN – The Grenfell Tower fire in London last Wednesday, which has left at least 79 people dead or presumed dead, may have been preventable with better oversight and renovation technology. But there is a strong reason why it wasn’t prevented: High-rise buildings aren’t suitable for public housing (often called social housing in the United Kingdom and Europe), and wherever they are used in this way, they are a source of danger.
The investigation is ongoing, but so far the facts of the Grenfell Tower case appear straightforward. Residents have long complained of inadequate fire safety in the 24-story building — power surges, insufficient and outdated firefighting equipment, an insufficient frequency of inspections. In response, they received at least one lawyerly demand that they take down blog posts.
Last year, the building was refurbished, receiving new windows, heating and ventilation systems — and also new, cheap plastic-and-aluminum-based exterior cladding, the same type that was responsible for a similar quick upward-spreading fire in a Melbourne apartment block in 2014. The local government, which owns the building, splashed out on the cladding to spruce up the grim-looking tower, built in 1974, because it was tall and visible from anywhere in the affluent area — Kensington, where the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment runs to £1,900 ($2,400) a month, compared with an average rent of £1,295 ($1,650) a month for London as a whole.
As in much of Europe, the use of tower blocks as public housing in the U.K. began in the 1950s with a decision to provide public subsidies based on building height. The 1965 Housing Subsidy Act spawned 4,500 tower blocks by 1979. It wasn’t a great idea for a lot of social reasons. By the end of the 1970s, a growing body of research showed that the social alienation of living in a high-rise increased psychological stress, that toxic materials used in industrial construction and insufficient thermal insulation led to health problems, and that widespread crime and disaffection was linked to the faulty urban planning.
These kinds of social problems are fixable to some extent, given a lot of determination on the residents’ part. New York’s Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in the United States, recently celebrated a year without a single shooting. But one thing about high-rises cannot be fixed: They have higher maintenance costs per square foot than human-scale buildings.
High land values in a city like London, New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo make it more cost-effective to build tall. But these are the kind of savings you make when you buy a cheap car: They are erased by the ownership costs over the years. Tall buildings have more public areas, expensive elevators, and complex wiring, heating, water supply and ventilation systems that are hard to service without disrupting the lives of hundreds of people. The buildings that sprung up during the early industrial construction boom have their own set of problems: The building technology was untried and developing on the go, so structural problems have since emerged with many of the buildings. Buildings populated by the poorest tenants ended up with the highest maintenance and repair costs.
In a market-driven environment, operating costs passed on to condo owners are higher in tall buildings. But when the buildings are owned by a municipality, there’s a high degree of moral hazard for local officials that nationally adopted policies cannot remove. In 2000, the U.K. adopted a program called Decent Homes, meant to improve social housing to modern standards. According to a July, 2016 report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting, 85 percent of housing owned by the local authorities is now up to the mark set by the program; Grenfell Tower has just been “regenerated” at a cost of £8.7 million. The cost was clearly insufficient, and the aesthetic changes may have made the building more vulnerable.
In many cases, local residents actually resist regeneration programs because they fear they may be a step toward gentrification and their eventual displacement. That’s far from unique to the U.K.: In Berlin, for example, residents of communist-era high-rises often fight the city authorities, demanding that their homes be left alone. That adds an incentive for the local governments to make their renovation efforts minimally intrusive. Meanwhile, problems accumulate.
London is in love with tall buildings again after a hiatus that lasted from the late 1970s through the 1990s. According to New London Architecture’s Tall Buildings Survey, 455 high-rise projects with an average height of 30 stories are in the pipeline in the British capital, after a record 26 of them were completed in 2016. These, however, are luxury-to-middle-class housing built by commercial developers. Local councils often require them to include affordable units in their projects, but that’s still not social housing: It’s meant for people who can handle the maintenance costs.
That’s the way it should be. Homes for the less affluent that are built today in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, which have extensive social housing programs, are not tall. Almere, not far from Amsterdam, is one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities; meant to create an affordable alternative to life in the Dutch capital, it’s predominantly low-rise.
Countries that still house many of their poor in tower blocks need to work on moving them out into human-scale housing that can be maintained more efficiently, including, when necessary, by the people who live there. The fundamental disconnect between the high maintenance cost of these buildings and their purpose is inevitably going to lead to more tragedies like that of Grenfell Tower. Poor oversight and underinvestment tend to become obvious only after the fact; they are both endemic to the failed high-rise solution.
Berlin-based Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.