HOW HIGH IS TOO HIGH? The City Council on Tuesday approved building heights to be studied as part of the Downtown Specific Plan, which will guide development in the shopping district for decades to come. (Daniel Archuleta

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) has long advocated for a low-rise city — that is, a city primarily with buildings no taller than four stories. In this first part of two articles, we will dig deeper and discuss the benefits of such a low-rise city. The most important benefit is sustainability. Because the cleanest, nearest energy source is the sun, which is relatively abundant here, so we can design our buildings for maximum photovoltaic gain primarily with roof top solar collectors and with future advanced photovoltaic glazings.

The problem with high-rise buildings is they make bad neighbors by shading and blocking lower neighbors from getting their photovoltaic sunlight and block their access to the natural afternoon breezes that could be used to offset the need for expensive energy consuming air conditioning. Thus tall buildings create the adverse effect of  “a race to the sky “as buildings try to outdo one another to get higher to get sun access for power and access to wind. Technologies are being developed that may allow photovoltaic gain from walls, windows, and other surfaces, but we need to reduce energy consumption today as we know from the current Paris Climate Conference’s warnings. So the limited areas of roofs are today our best energy source. In low-rise buildings, the rooftop supply available for solar energy is inevitably more in line with the energy demands of the building than it is for mid- or high-rises.

Low-rise buildings are typically 40 to 50 feet high, but because of allowable parapets, elevators etc., up to 18 additional feet of height  is allowed, which can block  views, and creates canyonized alleys and streets, which do not fit the friendly ambiance of our city.

Finally, low-rise buildings are more survivable (resilient) in the event of a catastrophic earthquake when the city will be limping along at reduced water and power availability. This is particularly true if the quake occurs on the San Andreas Fault, which separates the city from its far flung energy and water sources.

In next week’s Part Two column, we will discuss the other numerous advantages of low-rise buildings to our city’s future.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA Planning Commissioner, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission. For previous articles, see