High Floor – High Life? What Changes as You Climb Upwards?

Just like Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the epitome of modern high-rise living, seem to appear from the water, a city of Shibam, consisting entirely of  5 to 11 storey tower-houses originating from the 16th century, rises in the middle of a desert in Yemen. This UNESCO World Heritage Site reminds us that high-rise living is not as recent phenomenon as we might usually think. On the contrary, apartment buildings rising up to 10 and more floors were built even in ancient Rome.

Shibam, Yemen, “the Manhattan of the desert”; photo by Michel Banabila

However, it wasn’t until recently that high-rise living became wide-spread and available to so many people, and since it can be expected that its prevalence would only grow further, the following question becomes relevant: If you were to choose between two identical apartments, would you go for the one on a lower floor, or the one on a higher floor? Which would be your ideal living height? Since living high in the air is evolutionary novel experience for our species, one wonders how well are we able to adapt to it.

Mud brick skyscrapers in Shibam; photo by ninjawil

Relying upon Gifford’s (2007) recent review of literature on consequences of high-rise living, I’ll focus on some research investigating a relation between the floor people live on, and some psychological outcomes. I was specifically interested in differences in the same building, and not across different building types – that is, all other factors like the neighbourhood and apartment size being equal, what are the effects of floor height? Obviously, as you go up, prices usually go up as well, views get wider, traffic noise subsides, the winds get stronger, and the potential for all kinds of fears rises (the fear of falling, the fear of being trapped in the case of fire, the fear of consequences an earthquake, and post 9/11, the fear of a plane crashing into the building). In terms of psychological outcomes that researchers dealt with, there can be extracted 3 pros and 3 cons of living high up.

Manhattan; photo by rwatson1

The 3 pros:

  1. the rooms of the same size are perceived larger if they are on the higher floor (Schiffenbauer et al., 1977, according to Gifford, 2007; Kaya and Erkip, 2001.), but in some cases this was found to be true only for women (Mandel et al., 1980, according to Gifford, 2007).
  2. the rooms of the same size and with the same number of people living in them, are perceived to be less crowded if they are on the higher floor (Schiffenbauer et al., 1977, according to Gifford, 2007; Kaya and Erkip, 2001.).
Crowded? Wilis Tower, Chicago; photo  by contemplative imaging

3. due to lower sound levels from traffic, children who lived on higher floors in high rises built above a major highway in New York, were more able to discriminate sounds and had better reading skills, than children who lived in lower floors (Cohen, Glass & Singer, 1973, according to Gifford, 2007).

photo by Christopher Barson

The 3 cons:

  1. In a study conducted in Israel, women who lived in higher floors knew more of their neighbours, but women who lived on lower floors had closer relations with their neighbours (Churchman & Ginsberg, 1984, according to Gifford, 2007). While this doesn’t sound as neither a reason for or against living on higher floors, when you include research across different building types, there is enough evidence to conclude that the lack of social support and possible withdrawal are more prevalent for those who live high up.
  2. there are many findings pointing out that high-rise living is related to strain and poor mental health. For example, rates of mental illness rose with floor level in an English study (Goodman, 1974, according to Gifford, 2007).  On the other hand, a Canadian study (Gillis, 1977, according to Gifford, 2007) showed that on higher floors, men experienced less strain, whereas women experienced more strain. The women in this study were all mothers, so the difference may well result from the difficulties of parenting in high-rise.
Apartment building in Hong Kong; photo by Pondspide

3. the issue of parenting difficulties in high-rise deserves some extra attention. Children who live on higher floors go outside to play less often (Nitta, 1980, in Oda et al., 1989, according to Gifford, 2007). Two of the more recent Israeli studies found that children under 8  in high-rises, especially on the higher floors were not allowed to go downstairs by themselves, but after they were allowed to go down, parents found it difficult to supervise their play (Broyer, 2002; Landau, 1999, according to Gifford, 2007).  So, compared to their peers, they were overly protected when they were younger, and possibly under-supervised when they were older. There are some consequences for children’s development, too. For example, a Japanese investigation (Oda, Taniguchi, Wen & Higurashi, 1989, according to Gifford, 2007) concluded that the development of infants raised above the fifth floor in high-rise buildings is delayed, compared to those raised below the fifth floor. The development of numerous skills, such as dressing, helping and appropriate urination was slower.

photo by eytonz

All taken into account, it seems like the reasons against living on high floors carry much more weight than the reasons for living high up. However, there are many moderators to be taken into consideration, that is, factors which, in conjunction with high-rise living, change the psychological outcomes.

According to Gifford (2007), high-rise residents  may well escape most negative outcomes and experience many of the positive outcomes of their living situation if:

  • they are not poor – which means that they probably live in an apartment in good condition, and possibly have a second home where they can escape when they’ve had enough of the city life
  • they choose to live in a high-rise when they have other housing options (some research was conducted on dormitory residents and people in public housing projects, who were randomly assigned to their apartments)
  • the high rise is located in a desirable neighborhood
  • dwelling-unit population density is low
  • there is an easy access to nature
  • residents are one of the following: young mobile singles, childless couples, families with employed women, people who had grown up in apartments

The case where most of those criteria are met would be, for example,  aforementioned skyscrapers on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan, which makes them a highly desirable address. However, it’s good to remember that they don’t offer a typical high-rise living experience, which is often unsatisfactory for many people.

Skyscrapers on the edge of Central Park: not a typical high-rise experience; photo by proforged

The apartment’s floor height alone can’t be considered an advantage of disadvantage of one’s living situation – it can be good in certain context and for some people; and bad in another context, or for different people. But, either way, it’s an important factor that’s worthy of being taken into consideration by potential residents and architects. Some examples of interesting design solutions I really like would be 385 West 12th Street designed by FLAnk Inc or Soho Mews designed by Gwathmey Siegel, including different apartment types on different floors – town house type on lower floors, flats in the middle, and penthouses on top floors, thus making the most of each storey.


References

1. Gifford, R. (2007). The consequences of living in high-rise buildings. Architectural Science Review, 50(1), 2-17.

2. Kaya, N. and Erkip, F. (2001). Satisfaction in a Dormitory Building. The Effects of Floor Height on the Perception of Room Size and Crowding. Environment and Behavior, 33, 1, 35-53.

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