Spread of fires in US buildings, high-rise (> 6 storeys) vs low-rise. Source: ‘High-rise building fires’, National Fire Protection Association

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins reckons residential towers are “creatures of egotistical architects, greedy developers and priapic mayors”. Writing last week in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, he argues residential towers – which he calls “alien creatures” – shouldn’t be built (The lesson from Grenfell is simple; stop building residential towers):

How many times should we say it? Don’t build residential towers. Don’t make or let people live in them, least of all families. They are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they can never be truly safe. No tower is fireproof. No fire engine can reach up 20 storeys, period.

Instead of high-rise, Mr Jenkins says housing should be provided at the “densely packed but low-rise” scale of streets like Walmer Road in North Kensington, just south of Grenfell Towers.

He’s only one of many commentators capitalising on the tragedy to make wider political or policy points (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). He’s not alone in opposing high-rise towers either; we have critics in Australia too (e.g. see Melbourne’s planning mess: we’re on a high-rise to hell).

So if they’re so bad, why are we building tall residential towers in the centres of Australian cities rather than restricting all new development to a maximum of (say) six storeys like the charming streets of North Kensington, central Paris or old Barcelona?

Consider that central Paris covers 105 sq km and has a resident population of 2.23 million, while 1.29 million people live in the central 98 sq km of London. In contrast, central Sydney houses just 0.66 million in 101 sq km and Melbourne a mere 0.43 million in 104 sq km. Our legacy one and two-storey terraces – almost all accommodating a single household – are a far cry from the six-storey apartment buildings that Paris Intra Muros inherited. Our cities are starting from a long way behind the western world’s poster high-density, low-rise cities.

The demand for high-rise towers in Australia arises because a lot of people want to live in or close to the centre where they can enjoy a cosmopolitan lifestyle and the huge endowment of physical, social and cultural infrastructure it enjoys.

But the scope to provide significantly more housing at Parisian densities is limited in the inner city. There are powerful regulatory and political constraints on redevelopment that limit the number of lots suitable for redevelopment, especially heritage protections and opposition from existing residents. Just as importantly, available development sites are in disparate and mostly private ownership; they tend to be small; and values are set by existing development expectations. Former industrial sites often require decontamination.

Given these constraints, towers are generally a more plausible solution in Australian cities than low-rise because, subject to sensible planning rules, they maximise the number of people who can live in a desirable place like the inner city; they’re the best solution to deliver on the many social benefits – like better environmental outcomes – of a central location. They make particular sense to the increasing numbers of one and two person households who prioritise accessibility and urbanity over dwelling space.

I’ve never lived in one for a long period but I don’t doubt that towers, like other housing forms, have their peculiar drawbacks and aren’t the ideal housing form for everyone. However I reject Mr Jenkins claims that they’re “antisocial” and “disempowering” – I’ve discussed this sort of unreflective nonsense before, noting there’s little evidence to support such claims when residents are able to choose their dwelling type (see Do high-rise apartment towers promote social isolation? and Is high-rise living unnatural?).

The advantages of high-rise living are all for nought, though, if towers are especially prone to catch fire or are especially dangerous in the event of a fire compared to other dwelling options. It’s hard to find conclusive data, but it appears high-rise might actually be safer than other building forms. The US National Fire Protection Association says “the fire death rate per 1,000 fires and the average loss per fire are generally lower in high-rise buildings than in other buildings of the same property use” because buildings higher than six storeys usually have better fire protection (see exhibit).

High-rise (buildings) are more likely to have fire detection, sprinklers and to be built of fire-resistive construction and (fires) are less likely to spread beyond the room or floor of origin, than fires in shorter buildings.

The Victorian Building Authority’s External wall cladding audit undertaken following a fire in Lacrosse apartments, Docklands, in November 2014, illustrates the considerable engineering and design effort that goes into maximising the fire safety of high-rise buildings. The Lacrosse fire, which spread largely because of the non-compliant use of external cladding material (Alucobest), required evacuation of all residents. But as the VBA observes:

This fire caused no loss of life. This was in part due to the response of the emergency services and in part due to the requirements of the Building Code of Australia to design and construct buildings with a multi-layered approach to safety. These requirements address issues about how people get out of a high rise building quickly by limiting distances from an apartment front door to an exit; use of automated sprinklers and alarm systems; and choice of building materials.

The Authority concluded that of the 170 buildings it audited, only one (in addition to Lacrosse) “was deemed to pose a significant safety issue due to the non-compliant use of external wall cladding material”.

Mr Jenkin’s charge that “no fire engine can reach up 20 storeys” is beside the point because internal fire stairs replaced ladders long ago; modern towers have two sets of fire stairs. His claim that “no tower is fireproof” is of course true; but it’s true of all dwelling types.

It now seems the Grenfell Tower fire was a case of gross regulatory failure; both in 1974 when it was constructed with a single escape stair (!) and more recently when it was refurbished with what appears to be flammable cladding. It was the result of flawed policy on public housing, not an inherent flaw in the nature of a particular building type.