When it comes to high-rise living, the Far East has got it down to a fine art. So why can’t our own crowded little island do something similar?

I grew up in Macau in China, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Within walking distance from my home there were shops, parks, cinemas, a secondary school, a gym, a football stadium, a horse track and a bus station that connected you to all other parts of the island. And the reason this city works in a way that London does not? High-rise development. By expanding up rather than out, the amount of time and energy people spend travelling is greatly reduced. It’s what sustainable development is all about.

Macau has learned a lot from its fast-growing neighbours such as Hong Kong while also managing to hold on to its heritage. Traditional Chinese temples mix in with Roman Catholic churches built by the Portuguese and of course the modern high-rise towers. Now that I live in London, where we’re running out of living space and the housing stock is a mix of low-to-medium density, I can’t help wondering why we don’t borrow a few ideas from the Far East.

One reason, of course, is that high-rise housing has a bad public image in the UK, created by ugly, unwelcoming concrete blocks in the 1960s. This prejudice is not going to be easy to overcome. As housing is responsible for more than half of UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, selling the sustainability message would be a good start.

High-rise construction can without a doubt be more sustainable than low-rise. Much of the design of a tower block can be made generic and therefore repetitive, which means prefabrication can be used to cut costs. It also reduces the amount of temporary work and formwork required on site, and reduces site waste. Construction materials per household can also be reduced, as access, circulation, refuse and environmental systems are all shared between the occupiers. The building form also results in a reduced external surface area per household and heat is therefore transferred between levels.

Within walking distance from my home were shops, parks, cinemas, a school, a gym, a football stadium, a horse track and a bus station

With new energy regulations coming into force this year it is vital for designers to incorporate in their schemes sustainable options and the use of renewable resources; high-rise buildings offer an opportunity to achieve this. Most developers select conventional methods because they see sustainable resources and renewable energy as an extra expense. With high-rise buildings, however, the number of occupants drives unit costs down.

It is essential to change our attitude towards the use of urban space, and a cultural shift will be required to achieve a more sustainable level of development and meet the government’s targets for housing in London. Clients and developers should consider the lifetime costing of the projects rather than separate the capital costs and the running costs. Upfront investments could result in long-term returns to the environment, the developer and the residents. A sizeable portion of the budget for each housing project should be dedicated to sustainable development.

All of this requires a considered thought process at the initial stage of any housing scheme. That’s where structural engineers can play a role. With early involvement we can demonstrate how sustainable options can work and encourage clients and the design team to create a more sustainable London.