China bans super skyscrapers, putting a ceiling over new buildings that exceed 500 metres, citing safety concerns

·5-min read

China, home to almost half of the world’s 100 tallest buildings, has banned the construction of super skyscrapers amid fears that the race to push skyward over the past three decades may have compromised building safety and led to a glut of office space.

New buildings taller than 500 metres (1,640 feet) will no longer be approved, while towers exceeding 250 metres must be strictly limited, and structures taller than 100 metres must strictly match the scale and the fire rescue capacity of their locations, according to an order issued late on Tuesday by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top planning agency.

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The order, two months after the unexplained wobbling of the 72-storey SEG Plaza in Shenzhen, would halt – at least for the time being – the construction boom that has led to mainland China being home to five of the world’s 10 tallest 500-metre structures, all completed in the past six years. Still, the ceiling may not have much impact on the commercial property market, as the most popular floor plates lie somewhere between 180 and 200 metres, said Knight Frank’s research director Martin Wong.

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“Companies look for location, quality and whether their buildings are energy efficient and sustainable, not merely for heights,” Wong said, adding that developers in mainland China began to change their strategies and mindsets for sustainability about five years ago.

China is home to 44 of the world's 100 tallest buildings. Source: The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
China is home to 44 of the world's 100 tallest buildings. Source: The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The proliferation of super skyscrapers correlate to high vacancy rates, as developers vie to find tenants to fill their space.

“The taller the buildings the smaller the floor plate per floor,” said Wong. “Most commercial buildings are between 180 and 200 metres, as that height provides the optimal floor plate to attract tenants, especially those that are involved in new-economy or hi-tech industries, the sectors that are expanding the fastest right now.”

Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, each city boasting one of the world’s 10 tallest buildings, also have the highest commercial vacancy rates in the country, totalling 7.9 million square metres of empty space in the second quarter, equivalent to 29 blocks of the International Commerce Centre (ICC), Hong Kong’s tallest building.

The Shanghai Tower towering over surrounding skyscrapers in the Lujiazui financial area in the Pudong District of Shanghai on December 28, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg
The Shanghai Tower towering over surrounding skyscrapers in the Lujiazui financial area in the Pudong District of Shanghai on December 28, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg

“Building quality, specifications, efficiency, design and accessibility are typically more important than heights in terms of generating higher rents,” said Savills’ China research head James Macdonald, adding that good views or panoramas do occasionally command higher rents. “There has also been the trend of developers building smaller [towers] that can be leased or sold to companies as their own corporate headquarters, allowing for dedicated access and signage.”

The Shanghai Tower, completed in 2015, is China’s tallest building, standing 632 metres on the eastern banks of the Huangpu river that cuts through the nation’s commercial hub.

With 128 floors topped by the world’s highest hotel, the 20 billion yuan (US$3.14 billion) building struggled for years to fill its 576,000 square metres of space (6.2 million square feet), not including 380,000 square metres on the ground. Ant Group, an affiliate of this newspaper’s owner Alibaba Group Holding, occupies four floors in the building.

Second on the list is the 115-storey Ping An Financial Center, completed in 2017 in the southern Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen, the home base of China’s largest insurer.

The Tianjin CTF Financial Centre under construction on April 17 2018. The 530-metre building, which holds joint position with its Guangzhou sibling as the world’s seventh tallest building, was completed in 2019, the newest addition to the world’s top 10. Photo: EPA-EFE
The Tianjin CTF Financial Centre under construction on April 17 2018. The 530-metre building, which holds joint position with its Guangzhou sibling as the world’s seventh tallest building, was completed in 2019, the newest addition to the world’s top 10. Photo: EPA-EFE

Chow Tai Fook Enterprise (CTF), the privately held controlling shareholder of Hong Kong’s New World Development, has developed and lent its name to two Chinese super skyscrapers. The 111-storey Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre stands 530 metres in the Guandong provincial capital in seventh place globally, holding joint position with its sibling Tianjin CTF Finance Centre in the eastern Chinese seaport. The Tianjin tower, completed in 2019, is the newest addition to the world’s 10 tallest buildings.

At about 5 metres for every storey, 250-metre buildings will have about 50 floors, said Wong, adding that the most sought-after floor plates are about 20,000 square feet per floor.

In Shenzhen, new-economy enterprises have each been taking up between 10,000 and 100,000 square metres (1.07 million square feet) of office space, according to JLL.

At least 20 super skyscrapers are on the drawing board in China, six of them taller than 500 metres, some scheduled for completion as soon as 2022. The tallest among them is the 597-metre Goldin Finance 117 tower in Tianjin, developed by the debt-strapped Goldin Financial Holdings, which received a bailout from Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing last July. The 128-storey building is due for completion in 2022.

China Evergrande, the world’s most indebted property developer at one stage, has its 518-metre Evergrande International Financial Centre under construction in the Anhui provincial capital of Hefei, scheduled for completion in 2025. The bamboo-shaped building features 128 floors.

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