Skip to main content

Tall buildings in Birmingham

Tall buildings By Alex Carter, Partner, Structural Engineering – 24 January 2022

Looking up at tall glass skyscrapers against a blue sky


Alex Carter in shirt with office interior background with glass feature

Alex Carter

View bio
Rob van Zyl in a dark suit and tie with office blurred background

Rob van Zyl

View bio
Graham in an open collar shirt and suit jacket against a dark wall

Graham Barker

View bio

The city of Birmingham is currently on an upward trajectory and this is reflected in the upward curve of it’s skyline.

Tall buildings play a key role in cities, acting as way finders and encouraging densification that can reduce the carbon output of the city. However, they are also complex, attracting numerous construction and financial risks that can block development.

The complicated challenges associated with tall buildings can only be unlocked if it is designed by an experienced group of consultants who are willing to embrace collaboration throughout the design process.

Cundall has co-authored the guidance document ‘Viability Analysis – Tall Residential Development in Birmingham’ alongside Core Five, Glenn Howells Architects, Knight Frank and Turley. The document acknowledges the above fundamental challenge to the delivery of tall buildings and utilises the different perspectives from across the contributors to identify how success can be achieved.

Below are some of the key engineering considerations when designing a successful tall building in Birmingham.

Structural solutions:

The size, proportions and external pressures on tall buildings dictate a significant structural response, which for a residential tenure is almost universally a reinforced concrete frame. Such structures are costly and, built traditionally, slow to construct; their optimisation is central to the viability of tall buildings in the Birmingham market. From a cost perspective, shear walls are significantly more costly than columns, remove flexibility from the end user, slow floor cycles and add weight. Beyond certain tipping points in respect of height, however, they become a necessity. Our research indicates that tall buildings in Birmingham should be structurally led, with architecture reacting to structural layout constraints. Where architectural layouts dictate structural design, this can lead to a sub-optimal frame solution.

Services strategy:

Building services and lifts can account for circa 20-30% of total construction costs. The design solution for heating and cooling the building, mitigating solar gain and providing ventilation where façades are potentially sealed in a noisy city centre environment with air quality issues, is pivotal to a tall building being viable in Birmingham. The major issue typically encountered is thermal comfort, though this can be overcome by introducing purge ventilation to sealed façades. Several developments are now adopting a decentralised all-electric strategy for heating, hot water and kitchen hobs, which improves net: gross efficiency, while offering some cooling to prevent overheating. The cost of electrical distribution also increases with height.

Central plant systems for buildings over 60m high (circa 20 storeys) increase in cost due to pressure breaks through hydraulic separation and a general increase in the pressure rating and relief of pipework. Typically, separation will be at around 60m but could be as high as 100m, though this may not be cost effective. Additional cost is encountered through increased electrical distribution and enhanced protection via sprinklers and wet risers.

Vertical transportation strategy:

The benefit of giving early consideration to a tall building’s vertical transportation strategy is twofold; finding the optimum balance between the number of lifts and lift speeds will minimise capital costs whilst offering acceptable waiting times to the building populace, and will have a significant bearing on the attainability of the net: gross ratio of 80%; this should be targeted on a typical floorplate, although this becomes more difficult as a building gets taller.

Whilst lift traffic analysis can be used to determine the optimum number of lifts relative to waiting times, this needs to be balanced with sales values. Lifting strategy (and what is deemed to be an acceptable waiting time) needs to be considered as part of an initial brief due to the significant impact on core sizes and therefore net internal area (NIA): gross internal area (GIA).

Net zero carbon

Birmingham City Council has declared its aim to make the city carbon neutral by 2030. The West Midlands Combined Authority has set a target to have zero carbon emissions by 2041, with interim targets of a 36% reduction by the end of 2022 and 69% by 2027. Any tall buildings being constructed within the region need to consider these targets from the outset of design.

The specification of the façade fabric, materials and HVAC systems will all have a significant impact on the energy demand of a building. However, orientation, form factor and glazing ratio are even more fundamental. A building’s glazing ratio is key to minimising energy demand, reducing winter heating while avoiding summertime overheating and balancing daylighting. The optimum glazing ratios for Birmingham are up to 25% glazed on the southern elevation, no more than 20% on the east and west elevations and as little as possible on the northern elevation. All buildings should be designed to achieve a heating demand of no more than 15 kWh/m2/year, yet this target can currently only be achieved (with triple glazing with U-value of 1.0 W/m2.K) on south-facing apartments.

The embodied carbon of the building will have to be reduced by around 40% to less than 500kgCO2/m2. Timber-frame buildings are limited in height and composite buildings with steel frames and cross-laminated-timber floors and walls might be necessary. Locally sourced low carbon finishes and equipment will be required.