Close

High life: the benefits of building up instead of out

Ever looked at a building and thought to yourself, can someone build houses on top of this? Turns out plenty of others have too. 

Top image: Jerusalem's Old City. Credit: Ben Mack

Some fast and heavy logic here: not building on top of things means space is wasted. After all, if Aotearoa prides itself on being a land full of natural beauty and open spaces, why spoil that by building out further into it? Why not build up instead?

Modular building (buildings built in a factory, then shipped to a site to be erected – which have the advantages of being able to be built quickly and for less at a time when the construction industry is still being limited by a shortage of money from the Global Financial Crisis, decline in skilled labour, and depleting resources) is one solution, says New Zealand-based architecture firm Isthmus’ Earl Rutherford. He adds that if we want to build up, we need to think about what, exactly, what’s below can support. In other words: you can’t build higher if you don’t have a strong enough foundation.

But let’s say you’ve done that, and everything is as solid as Stephen Curry’s basketball fundamentals. What can you build – or in this case what can you build on top of? Let’s examine some options.

Housing above supermarkets

It sounds like a simple solution for urban sprawl and using space more efficiently, and it is. So why isn’t this a thing everywhere?

It is in some places. In Germany, supermarket chain Aldi is building flats atop some of its locations in Berlin. About 2,000 flats will be built and rented to students and others needing affordable accommodation – a big deal in a city where skyrocketing rents and ever-increasing competition for available rooms (seriously, it’s not unusual to attend a “casting” when looking for a flat with 50 or more also keen on getting the same place) make housing a serious issue that threatens to stall growth. Could retailers like Countdown, New World or Pak'n Save one day do the same on a large scale in Aotearoa? We can hope.

Flats and shops above (or connected to) bridges

Far-fetched? No. This has been a thing for a while. There’s the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England. Venice, Italy’s famed Rialto Bridge. Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. The Yongji Bridge of Chengyang in southern China. The point being: there are a lot. So why aren’t they really a thing in New Zealand? Admit it: it would save space – and be pretty badass to be able to tell your friends you literally live on a bridge. We’d sign up faster than you could say “unparalleled waterfront views.”

Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England.

Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

The Yongji Bridge of Chengyang in China.

Things above train stations

Visit any train station in Europe or Asia or South America or North America or really anywhere, and you’ll quickly realise something: they’re a whole lot more than just train stations. There’ll be shops, restaurants, offices, hotels, medical clinics, pharmacies, and more. Heck some of them (here’s looking at you, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Köln Hauptbahnhof, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, and really all the Hauptbahnhofen in Deutschland) are like their own self-contained cities, or at least malls that use space very, very efficiently.

Unfortunately, New Zealand doesn’t have too much of that. Britomart in Auckland is a start, but what about everywhere else?

Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Airport cities

Think about it: besides planes that take you from one place to another, airports practically have everything else: shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, medical clinics, offices, public transport links, even gyms and parks and cinemas and libraries (like at Tallinn Airport in Estonia – it’s so distracting good luck even getting out of the airport and into the city proper). So why not housing?

It’s an interesting idea, and not everyone would want to have to listen to the roaring jet engines of gargantuan A380s 24/7. Sure, there’s often a lot of housing BY airports (ever been to Cusco, Peru? That bloody thing is basically smack in the middle of downtown. Ditto Phnom Penh.), but not IN airports. That needs to change. Not only could it solve issues of urban sprawl (and save the environment since everything you need is right there), but how rad would it be to say you LIVE IN AN AIRPORT. For someone who seemingly lives on planes anyway (as many, many people do these days), it’s also incredibly economical.

Tallinn Airport. 

Building on top of the sea

Houseboats have been around for a while, as has the idea of “floating cities” on the surface of the ocean, which have the added benefit of being able to rise with sea levels. Things such as abandoned oil rigs or ultra-large ships could be repurposed, too, a la the Principality of Sealand (based on an offshore platform in the North Sea since 1967) or the cruise ship MS The World (which permanently sails around the world, and has several residents who live aboard full-time).

One of the biggest proponents of the idea of building on the sea – particularly the idea of “seasteading” and creating a libertarian utopia where Rush Limbaugh can apparently be worshipped like a god and guns everywhere would be totally cool and THERE WOULD BE NO TAXES DAMMIT – is none other than “New Zealand’s own” Peter Thiel. Make of that what you will.

Of course, if you don’t want to build up, you can always build below, like under a mountain. Those are called caves.

The 'Can We Fix It?' series, which looks at how we're using innovation and ingenuity to try and solve some of our thorniest problems, is brought to you by KiwibankKiwibank is passionate about the future of New Zealand, and about making Kiwis better off. They’re 100% Kiwi-owned, which means their profits stay right here in New Zealand.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription, an Idealog t-shirt and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).