Designing with Air: Building in Manhattan

Juan Roque Urrutia | ODA

This essay is an excerpt of Unboxing New York by ODA, published by Actar Publishers.

Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos.

For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to heaven and down to hell.

VI-A American Law of Property § 28.3

Land is at a premium in Manhattan, but its real value is up in the skies. The 1961 introduction of the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) made ad coelum a very lucrative business: A lot seized the right to be developed multiple times its size. This guideline capped buildable areas and made them the device to measure New York’s level of development. (Fig. 1)

Available FAR can be tracked through websites like

Whether developed or waiting to be realized, air rights pile up in Manhattan lots to define the city’s “maximum skyline.” In its limited availability, a square foot of Manhattan’s “air” has escalated in value, averaging $225 as of 2017. With 300 million square feet of ZFA available, roughly $67 billion in air rights are hovering over the island, waiting to be developed.

Even though the FAR is a quantifiable right to build, the system has become the unit of conversion for the diverse actors involved in New York’s development. For city agencies, establishing FAR is a way to regulate density, anticipate tax incomes, and exercise greater control over private developments. For developers, FARs help stabilize the value of land and forecast financial balances. And for architects, FARs set non-descriptive limits to buildings’ bulks, contributing to greater design flexibility.

Behaving as a currency exchange, New York’s FAR system is a nimble device to be operated and its use reveals hidden angles of city development.

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