Ian Milne

Asia Pacific

Ian Milne is Senior Design Director for the Atkins Hong Kong studio. He has been responsible for the design of various high-rise towers for Atkins, ranging from a mixed use pair of twin tower that are currently under construction in Zhuhai (China) and a 500m office and hotel tower in Southern China.

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What we’re witnessing today is the growth not just of high-rise buildings, but of high-rise living. In many cities across Southeast Asia, high-rise, high-density living is now being embraced in a way the West have never seen.

So if we’re asking whether such huge buildings are justified, it’s worth considering the value of their new sense of purpose. In many Western countries, such as the UK, high-rise blocks of flats have historically been associated with economic deprivation, or more recently, as multimillion ‘lifestyle’ bachelor pads – with not much to offer anyone in between. But that’s certainly not the case in cities like Hong Kong, where extended families wanting a convenient central address live happily next door to each other, supported by excellent, nearby transport links to get around the city easily.

Perhaps it’s by moving upwards, and not outwards, that these new high-rise buildings are working hardest, in conserving the surrounding countryside? Planners aren’t making the costly mistakes of urban sprawl that we’ve see in the West. Take Hong Kong for example – it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world, yet has a higher percentage of land left as wilderness than the UK. Hong Kong is also an exemplar for ‘transport oriented development’. Driven by ongoing efforts to cut emissions and improve air quality, in essence this means incorporating very close access to public transport from the new building from the outset.  As a result car ownership and usage, a major cause of carbon emissions, is at its lowest in cities like Hong Kong.

So – could this be the best, most sustainable solution to house the growing urban populations of Asia’s emerging nations? Arguably, yes. Especially where good design and affordability are key factors from the outset. Southeast Asia’s new high-rise buildings are becoming living micro-towns in the sky, with stunning views, shopping malls, and space for culture and entertainment. As such, they’re showing us that high can also be mighty.

An example currently under construction by Atkins is Landmark 81 in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam (client: Vincom). Despite the obviously limited area of ground footprint available in this fast-growing city of more than 8 million people, the project doesn’t compromise on providing quality living space in the heart of the city. When complete, it will be the tallest building in Vietnam – but it’s also going to serve as a vision of the future being made real, offering a range of residential units, most of which are already reserved.

While I’m not saying that those in the West who reject the idea of high-rise living are wrong, I would assert that they need to recalibrate the criteria on which their judgement of high-rise buildings is based when looking to projects in the East. But also, it doesn’t mean that even the most successful models from the East can simply be exported to the West, as we are seeing some developers attempting to do in cities like London and New York.

*This article was first published on

Asia Pacific,

A new build is always a positive sign, especially as many of the world’s economies make the slow but steady climb back into growth. But does the return of “supertall” buildings signal the start of something new? Experts from Atkins around the world share their insights.

By Ian Milne, senior design director, Asia Pacific

Work is underway to create a new landmark in Shenyang, the largest city in northeast China. Over the last year the Baoneng Shenyang Global Financial Centre has been slowly taking shape. It includes the Atkins-designed Pearl of the North – a 568-metre tower that will become the tallest in the city – and a smaller 308-metre high building. The total project is estimated to be worth over £1 billion and is an example of China’s rapid rise.

supertalls infographic
The supertall Pearl of the North alongside some of the world’s most famous landmarks.

Shenyang is just one of a number of cities across China constructing or planning towers over 300 metres. Three of the ten tallest buildings in the world have been built in this country. But what is driving this development?

In larger, high density cities like Chongqing there is a need to deliver greater efficiency from the available land, and high plot ratios are often sought as a result. This style of living does create a number of challenges for authorities who also need to ensure the city is able to cope with the influx of people that developments of this scale encourage. They’re looking to neighbouring Hong Kong for ideas on how to get the balance right.

In Hong Kong development is closely linked to public transport infrastructure, particularly the metro and railways. And this has a positive impact on the sustainability of the city. More people use public transport because it is accessible and efficient, and that means that car ownership is low. China is keen to learn from such success. There has been a huge increase in construction near rail and metro stations across the country as authorities try to create similarly strong connections between the infrastructure and the adjacent developments.

In this way there is certainly a case for building tall in China. But the economic case for construction gets less compelling as extra floors are added – 250 metres is considered a reasonable height but there is often another reason that authorities and developers choose to go higher. It may be because of their aspirations for the city or the opportunities that a signature project unlocks. They may be used to attract people and investment to an area, which in turn makes the case for other development, for example, adjacent residential buildings.

There are a number of stand-out buildings across the Asia Pacific region, including Petronas Towers in Malaysia and Taipei 101 in Taiwan. But while they are prominent additions to their city’s skylines they have not sparked the same level of development that we’re currently seeing in China. There is no doubt however that this could change as infrastructure spending in neighbouring countries increases. And there is always a desire to push the limits of what we can achieve.

The question that remains is what comes next? It’s unlikely to be the technology or the technical challenges associated with building supertall that limit our ambitions. It will be the investment and commitment needed to go beyond what we already know is economical viable and sustainable.

See: Supertall buildings: a new dawn? Part two

See: Supertall buildings: a new dawn? Part one

See: The return of the supertall

Asia Pacific,