The Folly of Living in Tall (high-rise) Buildings

In previous posts we have talked about a tipping point for the U.S. housing market and subsequently, many of the homeowner associations in the country.  Back in 2009, when CIDA’s founders introduced the tipping point thesis to the industry dialogue we were referring to the year 2020, at which time the majority of the homeowner associations (HOA) in the United States would be at least 20 years of age.

Adding to the problem of an aging HOA housing inventory is the reality that over the last 25 years the number of “vertical communities” has also increased. The term “vertical communities” is an industry term that refers to residential housing developments in which the dwelling units are stacked on top of each other rather than being situated beside each other. This horizontal layout, either in an attached (common wall) configuration or detached houses as typical in the traditional single-family housing development, is the distinguishing feature between a vertical or a “horizontal community.”

The worst of the vertical living schemes are high-rises, or as they are sometimes known in the architecture field (tall buildings.) Since 1980 the number of high-rise condominium developments throughout the United States has grown exponentially. The exact definition of a high-rise building depends on who you talk to, but in general it can be argued that any building more than 5 stories tall above ground level is unique in terms of more traditional housing schemes such as the 1 to 3 level single family home.

Modern buildings that contain more than 3 levels of enclosed, interior living space will typically contain fire suppression/alarm systems and lift equipment (elevators) that are less common in shorter buildings. Buildings that are taller than 3 levels above ground present maintenance challenges due to the height of the structure. Exterior maintenance of tall buildings is more complicated and expensive, with costs rising exponentially floor by floor.  

At 4 stories and above the issue of access to the exterior of the building will start to impact all forms of building maintenance. As the building increases in height, the cost of every element of facilities maintenance, operation and management becomes more expensive.

From a practical standpoint any building that stands 5 floors above ground or higher, is a unique and very expensive form of housing when it comes to maintenance and renewal of the building elements. In particular with respect to exterior building maintenance and replacement of long-lived building assets such as the roof, windows, rooftop equipment and sub-components of the building enclosure assembly.

The partial collapse of the Champlain Towers Condominium building in Surfside, Florida on June 24, 2021 has focused the world’s attention on the subject of high-rise buildings in general and in particular the practice of housing people in tall buildings. Unfortunately, the Champlain Tower is not the only example of a tall building that has been called into question in terms of the stability of the structure or the stewardship of the facility.

As this is written the evacuation of a second multi-floor building in Florida has been ordered by local officials, due to concerns over the safety of the building occupants. Meanwhile, the 58-story Millennium Tower in San Francisco, CA, has been slowly sinking into the ground a mere four blocks from the San Francisco Bay, almost since the construction was completed in 2009.

In future installments of this series, we will examine the reasons why housing large numbers of people in high-rise condominium buildings is a bad idea, and the ways in which the CIDA REPORT™ can help buyers in their due diligence efforts.