From late 1980s to mid-1990s, Singapore’s skyline was dominated by three buildings standing at 280m each, namely, One Raffles Place Tower 1 (formerly known as OUB Centre), Republic Plaza and United Overseas Bank Tower 1.
Since 10 October 2016, the latest addition to the Singapore’s skyline is GuocoLand’s Tanjong Pagar Centre (TPC) that is a mixed-use development. Towering at a lanky 290m, it overshadows the three 280m buildings and crowns the title of ‘The Tallest Building’ in Singapore.
With continuing urban development set out by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), the landscape will see iconic developments that will rejuvenate Singapore’s urban fabric. As Singapore has only four supertall buildings currently, it is foreseeable that these cloud-busting properties will add on to the city’s vibrancy in the future.
How did skyscrapers come about?
Skyscrapers in modern cities are a norm today. Prior to the onset of skyscrapers, buildings were less colossal. A major factor that contributed to the rise of skyscrapers was the invention of elevators.
In 1853, an American, Elisha Graves Otis invented the first elevator which provided safe and convenient transportation to an upper floor. This made it feasible for buildings to be built upwards, thus allowing the development of the first batch of high-rise buildings in Chicago and New York.
Evolution of skyscrapers in the world
The emergence of high-rise buildings has shaped the way buildings are built today and contributed to the establishment of different categories of buildings according to their height (Figure 1). High-rise buildings have a height higher than 35m. The first batch of high-rise buildings started in Chicago and New York. The Home Insurance Building, completed in 1884 with 10 storeys, was the first high-rise building in the world. Thereafter, the Singer Building in New York was the first building to exceed 150m. Built in 1908, it stood at 186m.
Since then, buildings above 150m were categorised as tall buildings by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Subsequently, supertall buildings came on the scene. According to the CTBUH, supertall buildings are building structures that are higher than 300m. The 319-metre Chrysler building in New York was the first building to exceed 300m. In 2010, the completion of the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai led to the establishment of a new category of buildings. CTBUH categorises buildings above 600m as megatall buildings.
Skyscrapers started off predominantly with commercial buildings followed by mixed-use and residential buildings. The Chrysler building that was surpassed by the Empire State Building and subsequently World Trade Centre, were all office buildings. Increasing the height of supertall buildings became an issue in early 1980s because buildings can only be built higher if the base size increases proportionally which is not feasible.
This led to the introduction of mixed-use supertall buildings in mid 1990s. Residential, hotel and retail units sit at the upper floors in mixed-use buildings as they can function with narrower floor plates compared to office units, hence allowing greater height to be added at the top without increasing the size of the base. Such mixed-use developments provide a variety of real estate development choices for developers, offering greater flexibility in terms of tenant mix, massing and design flow.
Such flexibility coupled with bragging rights and pride of ownership, has resulted in more supertall buildings being built over the years around the world. Aligned with the rise of mixed-use buildings, there was a 450% increase in the number of the top 100 tallest buildings in the world being built from 1990 to 2010 (Figure 2). Subsequently, from 2010 to 2017 there was a 75% increase.
Out of these 100 buildings, mixed-use buildings represent the largest proportion of 45%. (Figure 3). This is in line with the need for buildings to be of mixed-use so that they can be built upwards.
Based on the data in CTBUH, the average building height of the world’s 100 tallest building increased from 281m in 2000 to 370m in 2017. There seems to be a race for the title of ‘The World’s Tallest Building’. Buildings are becoming more gargantuan.
The Jeddah Tower, set to be completed in 2020, will be the first building in the world to reach 1km in height. Currently, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa stands at 828m, followed by the 623-metre Shanghai Tower and 601-metre Makkah Royal Clock Tower (Figure 4).
To date, China has the most supertall buildings followed by UAE and US. China is likely to stay in the lead in the next few years as it has double the number of supertall buildings compared to UAE at present.
Out of the top 10 tallest buildings in China, nine are mixed-use (Figure 5). These are mainly hotels and offices without residential units.
Evolution of residential skyscrapers in the world
Supertall commercial buildings were subsequently accompanied by supertall all-residential buildings. The first supertall all-residential building Q1 in Gold Coast, Australia was completed in 2005. It has a height of 323m (Figure 6).
The world’s 100 tallest all-residential buildings were completed from 2001 onwards starting with the 232-metre MAG 218 Tower in Dubai. The highest number of the all-residential buildings completed in 2010 was 16 buildings (Figure 7).
Today, almost 20% of the world’s 100 tallest all-residential buildings are in Dubai, according to CTBUH. The height of the 100 tallest all-residential buildings ranges from the 232-metre MAG 218 Tower in Dubai to the 426-metre 432 Park Avenue in New York. This is significantly shorter than the top 100 tallest buildings which include commercial and mixed-use developments. They range from the 306-metre Etihad Towers T2 in Abu Dhabi to the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai (Figure 8).
There are reasons why the average height of the 100 tallest all-residential buildings is much shorter than that of the 100 tallest buildings. Based on a research done by CTBUH in 2013, the total shell and core and fit-out costs of residential buildings are higher than office buildings. As well, the floor plates for residential buildings are more complex than those of office buildings.
Nevertheless, developers are concerned with maximizing value and minimising cost. Values can vary depending on the quality and amount of space that can be squeezed into the floor area. However, this is a paradox for luxury tall residential buildings for which exclusivity, space and privacy are essential. Taking these factors into consideration place a constraint on the height of luxury residential buildings.
Evolution of skyscrapers in Singapore
Singapore’s first high-rise building was The Cathay which was built in 1939 to a height of 70m, followed by the Asia Insurance Building built in 1954 which was 87m high. During the 1970s, there was a rise in the number of skyscrapers built in the downtown core area such as Hong Leong Building, OCBC Centre, UOB Tower 2 and Marina Mandarin Orchard formerly known as Meritus Mandarin Singapore. The Marina Mandarin consists of Towers 1 and 2. Tower 2 stands at 152m and it was the first building in Singapore to exceed 150m in height.
Singapore’s first tall mixed-used development with residential units was International Plaza (Figure 9) which was built in 1976 with a height of 190m. Residential units are found on the 37th to 50th storeys of this development.
According to the CTBUH compilation, Singapore currently has 86 buildings above 150m (81 completed and five under construction). Based on these buildings, Singapore is placed 10th in the world and 7th in Asia. Residential buildings alone represent a substantial proportion of 30% of the tall buildings (Figure 10). There are 26 of such buildings.
The first all-residential building above 150m is The Sail @ Marina Bay that was completed in 2008. 9 out of the 16 all-residential developments above 150m are located in the downtown core area (Figure 11). The other seven developments are at the fringe of the downtown core, Orchard, Keppel Bay and Alexandra (Figure 12).
Compared to 10 years ago, Singaporeans are now offered with more varieties and choices of residential units in all-residential and mixed-use skyscrapers. The six tallest skyscrapers with high-end residential units were completed from 2008 onwards. Their heights range from 227m to 290m (Figure 13).
Prior to Wallich Residence, SkySuites @ Anson (Figure 14) and Altez (Figure 15) are Singapore’s tallest all-residential buildings placed 53rd and 54th in the world’s 100 tallest all-residential buildings.
The six developments are located in the downtown core district namely, Marina Bay and Tanjong Pagar. The downtown core is served by the MRT stations such as Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Downtown and Bayfront which allow easy commute to other parts of the island.
Penthouse units are available in these projects for those who would like a panoramic view of Singapore such as Marina Bay, Sentosa and the city. Buyers have a choice of penthouses that range from about 2,500sqft at Altez to 21,108sqft at Wallich Residence.
Receptivity of high-end apartments in skyscrapers
In November 2009, it was reported that 81 units of Marina Bay Suites were sold out of the 90 units released at one of the earlier private previews. The strong response due to the branding and central location resulted in a total of 90% of the total 221 units being sold at an average of S$2,700psf by mid-2013, before its official launch. Similarly, V on Shenton, which is six minutes’ walk away from Marina Bay Suites was also well received. This is also part of a mixed-use development with an office block and a residential block consisting of 510 residential units that stands at a height of 154m. Notably, more than 150 units were sold in the first four days after its launch in July 2012. This represents about 80% of the units that were released for sale. The units released were at the lower floors and the high demand was due to the attractive price that averaged out to S$2,200psf. This shows a strong demand by investors and end-consumers for such high-end apartments in high-rise developments.
In 2015, the Marina Bay Suites 8,514sqft double storey penthouse was purchased by a Chinese citizen at S$2,293psf and the 4,700sqft penthouse was bought by a regional executive from Facebook at about S$2,400psf amidst lacklustre market conditions.
In the same year, three 2,368sqft four-bedroom units at Marina Bay Residences transacted at S$3,150psf to S$3,665psf. Two units were sold to a Chinese Singaporean Permanent Residents and one unit was sold to a Malaysian Citizen. Similarly, a smaller unit of 1,055sqft transacted at S$3,365psf.
Between 2015 and 2016, apart from Wallich Residence, prices of the five comparable apartments ranged from an average of S$1,838psf to S$2,843psf. In 2017, units in Wallich Residence achieved the highest average price psf compared to the other five projects (Figure 16).
Do higher floors affect prices?
Based on transactions gathered from URA from June 2016 to June 2017, higher floors tend to translate to higher price per sqft (Figure 17).
In SkySuites @ Anson, units at the 30th floor and below transacted at an average of S$2,223 psf while units from 31st floor onwards fetched an average of S$2,449 psf. The average price psf was about 16% higher for units above 60th floor compared to units at the 40th to 50th floors.
In The Sail @ Marina Bay, units at the 30th floor and below transacted at an average of S$1,800psf while units from the 31st floor fetched an average of S$1,860. The average price psf was roughly 8.5% higher for units above the 55th floor compared to those units at the 40th to 50th floors.
Units in V on Shenton fetched an average of S$2,145psf for units at the 30th floor and below while units from the 31st floor fetched an average of S$2,348psf. The average price psf was roughly 6.5% higher from units at the 46th to 50th floors compared to units at the 41st to 45th floor.
The main contributing factor to higher prices psf on higher floors is likely due to a more panoramic view which lower floors are unable to offer. SkySuites @ Anson received the highest price premium of 16% for higher floors possibly because of the units’ southern facing towards the sea and the fact that Tanjong Pagar has lesser skyscrapers compared to Marina Bay. Hence, relatively more units can enjoy an unblocked view.
Supply of skyscrapers in Singapore
The future supply and location of tall buildings will depend on what the government has laid down in the Master Plan and Concept Plan that guide Singapore’s property and land development. The relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base to Tengah by 2030 will allow the relaxation of height constraints in the eastern and southern parts of Singapore. Hence, there is a potential for relatively taller buildings to be built in these areas while height constraints would have to be reviewed for areas that are affected by flight path in the Tengah area.
Currently, eight out of the 10 tallest buildings in Singapore were built from 2008 to 2016. This rapid increase in the number of skyscrapers is likely to continue in land-scarce Singapore as technology improves and plot ratios of prime sites increase.
The redevelopment of the 10-storey Golden Shoe car park located in the Central Business District into a 280-metre mixed-use development consisting of serviced apartments and office units is likely to commence in 2019 and completed in 2021.
Another upcoming project is the 118,400sqft Central Boulevard white site to be developed by IOI Properties Group and Hongkong Land. A maximum height of 245m is permitted by the URA. Out of the total gross floor area (GFA) of 141,294sqm, about 25% of the GFA can be used for residential units and retail outlets. The site was awarded at S$1,689psf per plot ratio which was 16% higher than the second highest bid. This shows IOI Properties Group’s confidence of the economy and office market in the area. At the point of writing, no further details have been given regarding the development mix of this project.
Demand for luxury apartments
Potential buyers for luxury apartments bank on lifestyle, brands, spaciousness and privacy. Such trophy homes are rare, and viewed as status symbols.
Compared to prices of top luxury apartments in Hong Kong, London and New York, residential units in Singapore are still relatively affordable to foreign buyers (Figure 21). Moreover, the Singapore luxury residential market has been showing signs of recovery in transaction volume. From 2014 there has been a year-on-year increase in the sales of non-landed residential properties above S$5 million in prime locations (Figure 20). This represents a growing demand for luxury residential properties.
Amongst the foreigners purchasing luxury residential properties in Singapore, Chinese nationals group represents the biggest of about 20% throughout 2014 to 2017, followed by Malaysians and Indonesians. The three groups of foreign buyers’ strong interest in the luxury market has been reflected by their significant contribution to about 50% of properties purchased by foreigners over the past three and a half years.
In the same period, amongst the 13 planning areas in the Core Central Region, the highest number of foreign purchases were in Tanglin, River Valley and downtown core area. The downtown core area is ranked third falling behind River Valley by a slight 2% difference. This shows that these locations are well sought after amongst foreigners.
Luxury residences in the world
The 10 most luxurious apartments in the world are mainly in New York and London. Their prices range from S$1,504 to S$14,659 psf (Figure 21).
Wallich Residence is the only property in Singapore to be among the top 10 and it is priced competitively. Five out of the 10 luxury apartments are above 200m (Figure 22).
Though China has the most number of tall and supertall buildings in the world, the availability of luxury residential units at the top floors in a building is more limited. The Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre is the only building amongst the top 10 tallest buildings in China that has residential units. The hotel occupies the top 16 floors in Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre while the residential units sit below them. The remaining nine consist of hotels at the top floors sitting above office units.
Limitations of supertall buildings
On a technical point, supertall buildings will require efficient and high-speed elevators. Back-up generators have to be used to ensure that lifts continue to operate in a blackout. Cranes may encounter difficulty in lifting materials up to super high floors and even for regular maintenance of the facade. The materials used for such buildings have to be carefully chosen to ensure they withstand the vagaries of the climate. Thicker glass panels are required and the concrete mix has to be of the correct composition at different heights.
The safety of supertall buildings is also a concern. Slim and slender buildings on small land parcels tend to sway and the impact of wind gets more evident at higher floors. Extra precaution has to be taken such as using dampers. Safety measures are extremely important especially due to post 9/11 traumas. For example, Burj Khalifa provides lifts in specified refuge areas to allow fast evacuation to the ground level during a fire. One World Trade Center has allocated a staircase specially for emergency crews to facilitate movement when people are evacuating the building.
Supertall buildings have to meet air safety regulations to prevent interference with flight path. One such example is Australia 108 in Melbourne which had to be lowered from the intended 388m to 313m due to Essendon Airport being a 25 minutes’ drive away.
The costs involved in supertall projects are high. Construction costs are high due to the deeper and wider foundations, advanced mechanical and electrical systems and more sophisticated technical requirements. These also contribute to high maintenance cost. Moreover, based on a research done by CTBUH, due to the space required for vertical transportation and other building service systems, skyscrapers are only left with 70% of useable space compared to more than 80% useable space in low-rise buildings. Higher costs are generally passed on to consumers who have to pay a higher price and rental for the properties.
According to the statistics in CTBUH, the number of buildings above 300m in the world is estimated to increase by another 112 by 2021 from the current 123, representing a growth of more than 90%. This statistic is based on the buildings that are already under construction. It begs the question of how high buildings can be efficiently built as newer buildings continue to surpass the height of older buildings.
The main factor limiting the height of buildings is elevators, as cables that are longer than 600m are too heavy to hoist. Nevertheless, a new system of rope-less elevators has been invented and is currently being under trials by German elevator producer Thyssenkrupp. The research will end in September 2018 and this could change the future of skyscrapers. The elevator would be able to move vertically, horizontally and potentially even diagonally. If successful, the sky will be the limit for buildings.
However, as buildings go higher, they tend to have unused space at the top floors. CTBUH refers to this non-occupiable space at the top as vanity height. Based on CTBUH Journal, Burj Khalifa has 29% or 244m of vanity height, Q1 in Gold Coast has 27% and Taipei 101 has 14%. This vanity height is applicable to many buildings and without this, numerous buildings would not meet the criteria to be classified under the category they are at present. It creates a waste of space in the skyline. Future tall buildings should minimize the amount of non-occupiable space.
Residential apartments housed at the apex of such supertall skyscrapers are a rarity. These large-sized abodes or super penthouses such as the one in Wallich Residence are meant for a select group of discerning buyers who place a premium on the trophy asset above all else.
In Singapore, given the limited land available, maximising the space in a given plot of land area is essential. The only way to accommodate the needs of such a densely populated city is to build upwards and downwards. The rise of skyscrapers has been predominant and ongoing while the idea of building downwards has not been fully developed as the cost is much higher. Moreover, Singapore’s skyline capacity has not reached its potential. There is still room for more residential skyscrapers to be built in future.
Additionally, given that the luxury market is picking up, the promising growth of ultra-high-net-worth- individuals (UHNWIs), and along with Singapore’s importance to them, the demand for luxury residential skyscrapers is likely to remain healthy in the coming years whether it is for lifestyle or investment purposes.