Skyscrapers (Part 2 of 2)

The reserve of the Western world since the early 15th century, the Tallest-Manmade-Thing-in-the-World (TMTW) Baton has been passed around the Eastern Hemisphere for the last 15 years. And these things are getting taller. More generally, the average height of buildings in urban areas is increasing. There are problems with this, especially with respect to environmental impact. But current and emerging technology to green the skyscraper space is promising – if the people building them #WalkTheTalk.

(Continued from Part 1)

With the erection of its steeple in 1439, the Strasbourg Cathedral displaced the Great Pyramid in Gaza to become the tallest man-made structure in the world. After a centuries-long march of Western height dominance, the tallest thing in the world moved East in 1998 when with the completion of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia. For the first time ever, the tallest building in the world was not in North America. It’s been in Asia and the Middle East since. A good history of the tallest buildings in the world is here.

With all this talk of “tall” it’s hard to imagine what megatall-building “tall” is. It’s worth a minute to picture it before carrying on. The observation deck at the Burj Khalifa is actually only about halfway up the building, so you get high, but not that high. National Geographic’s Joe McNally shows us how high the tallest building in the world right now really is. (The video starts when Mr. McNally steps out at the top.)

Shifting East

It’s not just the world’s single tallest building that is now in the domain of the East – the world’s tallest buildings in general are going there.

In 1944, all 50 of the top 50 tallest buildings in the world* were in the United States, and 30 of those were in New York City.

In 2014, seventy years later, here’s the scorecard:

  • Asia – 25
  • Middle East – 16
  • North America – 6 (and only 2 in New York City)
  • Central Asia (Russia) – 1

(These only add up to 48 because two sets of towers are the same height.)

Winning country: China with 20 of the 50 tallest
Winning city: Dubai with 12

Half of the 50 tallest buildings in the world were built in the last five years – all outside of the Western hemisphere (13 in the Middle East and 11 in Asia. One in Russia.)

Allianz expects this “construction shift east” to continue, because of investor appetite, increasing populations and lower labour costs. I would add urbanization and deep pockets to that. And it’s not just labour costs – general construction costs are lower. 12 of the top 20 countries that have the highest construction costs are in Europe and North America. Four are in Asia (Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and Singapore). China is ranked 30th. Two are in the Middle East (Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one). Saudi Arabia is number 21. But they have money.

Getting Higher

So it’s no surprise that Wuhan, China and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia are the two cities to watch in the coming years as they race to take The TMTW Baton from Dubai.

The Phoenix Towers in Wuhan, the capital of central China (expected height: 1000m minimum, expected completion: 2018). A pair of mythological birds, “fenghuang”, and the concept of yin and yang inspire the twin towers. There will be a “female”, Tower Huang, and a “male”, Tower Feng. Hiufu Wong writing for CNN gives a colorful description. I haven’t seen anything about whether the Chinese government has approved the towers since around June when plans were unveiled. Let’s see what happens with that – if anyone’s heard of anything, shoot me a message.

The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (expected height: 1000m, expected completion: 2019). The design “evokes a bundle of leaves shooting up from the ground” to represent the tower’s role in catalysing development around it. The foundation is done, and above-ground construction started this month. The developers have already broken a world record by buying the tallest crane ever.

To put it in perspective for those familiar with the London skyline, a one-kilometer tall building would be about as high as the Cheesegrater (Leadenhall Building) atop One Canada Square atop The Salesforce Tower (formerly the Heron Tower) atop The Shard.

We can think bigger. Three years ago, world renown architect Adrian Smith said that building a mile-high (1.6 km) skyscraper would be possible (though maybe not for another 20 to 30 years, and as long as we figure out the elevator situation). Experts are already talking about a 12-mile (19-kilometer) tall tower. Here is an explanation of the tower’s structural design for your Inner Geek. They are figuring things out, but the 310 mph (499 kph) winds of the jet stream are proving to be problematic.

With respect to that elevator technology bottleneck, there is also talk of a space elevator by 2050. Japanese conglomerate, Obayashi, has not given up on the intent they expressed in 2012, despite skepticism. The only thing in the way is the ability to make carbon nanofiber tubes long enough.

But bigger is not always better.

Going Green: Environmentally Sound Building Technology

Skyscrapers can come with a hefty environmental price tag. They consume a lot of energy in construction and use, especially when cooling and heating spaces. The building sector in general accounts for 25% – 40% of final energy consumption in advanced economies (the OECD). Glass skyscrapers can suffer badly from the greenhouse effect (also called “solar heat gain” or “solar gain”). So you have a structure made of glass that heats up, then expend a lot of energy cooling it down. Waste management during construction and use is also a challenge.

And then there is solar glare. In 2013, the Walkie Talkie skyscraper in London melted and warped parts of bikes and cars, including a poor, unsuspecting Jaguar (car, not animal), and started a fire at a barbershop nearby. Fox News opened a segment on the “fryscraper” with a cheeky shot of a frying pan and eggs. The building will eventually sport a permanent sunshade.

By Arild Vågen (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Arild Vågen (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Thankfully, there are incentives that can help address these problems. An alphabet soup of certification standards, such as BREEAM (United Kingdom), LEED (United States and Canada), DGNB (Germany) and CASBEE (Japan), classify buildings according to how well the structures perform against environmental, health and other standards.

This year, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) established an annual Urban Habitat Award that goes to tall buildings or master plans (completed and executed, respectively – not just proposals or visions) that have demonstrated positive environmental and social impact. eVolo Magazine, an architecture and design journal, has held an annual skyscraper design competition since 2009. This year’s winners and entrants yielded ideas such as a skyscraper that builds itself out of pollution particles. Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan gives a great overview of 14 of the cooler buildings at Gizmodo Australia.

Scott Duncan, lead designer at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, an architecture firm, put it nicely in an interview with FastCompany:

Historically, super-tall buildings have focused on structural challenges: resisting gravity and lateral forces from seismic and wind. The rules have changed, and energy has become the defining problem for our generation.

Success stories among super- and mega-tall buildings exist. Taipei 101 underwent renovations from 2008 to 2010 to make it one of the greenest tall buildings around. In 2011, the US Green Building Council certified it LEED Operations and Maintenance Platinum – the highest rating the USBGC gives. Another is the new One World Trade Center in New York City, which holds LEED Gold certification.

More are planned. The Pertamina Tower, under construction in Indonesia (523m expected height, planned completion: 2020), is expected to become the world’s first skyscraper that generates as much energy as it produces (a “net zero energy building” in the lexicon).

And here’s another reason to watch Wuhan. China is not just going for the gold with the next world’s tallest building – they are going for the green (though the towers themselves will be pink). The building’s developers are planning an impressive suite of environmentally good building technologies for the Wuhan Phoenix Towers. The larger tower will feed the smaller tower renewable energy (solar power, wind turbines and hydrogen fuel cells) and contribute energy to the areas around it. They plan to recycle waste using biomass boilers, and hang gardens in the air.

While these are only plans so far, it’s heartening that the developers are priding themselves on putting green technology at the core of their work.

Informing Future Societies

Last week was a big week for climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Manhattan and similar numbers expressed support all over the world. Extensive climate change discussions at the United Nations meeting in New York overflowed into global news feeds and peoples’ brain cells. Though no overarching climate agreement has yet been reached, last week made a difference.

Climate change is real and urbanization is real. And with more urbanization will come more buildings. And buildings are like the Force – they can be built for good or for evil.

With that, I come back to the George Lucas inspirer about whom I wrote in Part 1 – Joseph Campbell. What will inform societies in 70 years? It is conceivable that they will be mixed-use skyscrapers, the tallest of which will likely be in Asia (China?) or the Middle East.

I hope that they are environmentally sustainable things, whatever they are. If we’re going bigger, we’d better be going better, too – not just in speech, but in action.

* CTBUH. Completed buildings as measured by architectural height. Records start in 1885. Minimum of 100 meters.

Allianz had an analysis comparing top 100 buildings in 1930 to 2014, citing Emporis as their source, but I wasn’t convinced. I couldn’t find the 1930 figures. I couldn’t get a historical list of top 100 buildings in 1930 from the public Emporis website, at least. I’m also more inclined to go with CTBUH as an impartial source; the CTBUH database only shows 45 buildings completed by 1930 that are 100 meters or more. Nonetheless, directionally, our analyses are the same. Shift East over the last 70 to 84 years = real.

Architectural height: Height measured from the lowest part of the building that intersects with the ground level (so no basements) to the highest thing on the building that is part of its structure (it could be sculpture or a spire, but not an antenna, though there has been some debate about antennas).

There has also been a big to-do about vanity height – the height from the base to the floor of the top-most usable floor. Dubai might have the tallest buildings in the world by architectural height, but if they are measured by height to the highest occupied floor, then Dubai falls behind.

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