Guide to Skyscrapers -- Intro

Home | Fire Safety | Skyscrapers

Home Emergencies | Glossary


When it comes to buildings, size matters—more so today than ever before. Look up in the heart of any of the world’s major cities and your eyes will likely alight upon a towering, glass-walled structure— if not literally scraping the sky, then certainly pointing in that direction.

The proliferation of skyscrapers is accelerating rapidly. Prior to the year 2000, fewer than 250 buildings around the world reached higher than 600 feet (180 meters); between 2000 and 2009, that number more than doubled. And it continues to grow faster than ever before: at the beginning of 2010, almost 400 new skyscrapers were under construction around the world. Not only are there more tall buildings, but they are in more places. Once a purely American phenomenon, the construction of skyscrapers is now very much a global one. Of the 38 skyscrapers over 600 feet (180 meters) completed in 2009, 22 of them were in Asia and seven were in the Middle East. The “tallest” metropolis in the world is in Asia: the combined height of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers is roughly three times that of New York City’s.

So prolific are these towers today in the world’s metropolises, and so enthusiastic are their planners, that there are now adjectives that differentiate between them: “tall” is often used to describe skyscrapers between 500 and 1,000 feet (150 to 300 meters); anything above that is considered “supertall.” Even measuring the building is now a science: do you measure it from street level or from the basement? To the highest occupied floor or to the top of its crown?

Some of you may wonder why we should care how tall these towers are or how many of them exist. Are they not just the product of speculation and greed on the part of a handful of wealthy developers? Or the modern incarnation of some age-old form of civic pride? The answer is no—they are much more than that. Thanks to a variety of factors causing people to migrate from rural to urban areas, they are increasingly the way the world’s people live today—and almost certainly the way most of them will live in the future.

A United Nations study found that half of all humanity lived in urban areas in 2008—and that percentage is rising. By 2050, the study estimated a full 70% of the world’s population will be city residents. Just how our cities will be able to accommodate these people physically is thus an increasingly important question—not just to urban planners but also to architects, transportation engineers, and sociologists.

It’s not simply the external configuration of our tall buildings that we should care about. Modern society spends an estimated 90% of its time inside, a far cry from early civilizations whose livelihoods were tied closely to the outdoors. Today we work inside, we sleep inside, and typically we socialize inside as well. Whether we know it or not, the inside workings of our built environment affect our health and well-being—and shape almost every facet of our daily existence.

Modern skyscrapers are effectively small cities, providing infrastructure and services to thousands of inhabitants, often at enormous heights. They may be residents of apartments and hotel rooms, workers in corporate offices, or users of a more transient nature— shoppers, restaurant goers, or observation deck visitors. Regardless of their purpose aloft, these sky dwellers demand the same array of services they would require if they were closer to the ground: shelter, fresh air, clean water, plumbing, electricity, vertical transportation, and communication. Just how these services are provided thousands of feet up in the sky lies at the heart of this guide.

The first section focuses on the building of skyscrapers, and on their component parts. Nowhere more than here, in the design and engineering that goes into these extraordinary structures, does a tall building differ in its needs from a smaller one. The interplay between architecture and engineering informs everything— from the building’s foundations to its structure to the skin that encloses it and to the way it’s constructed.

The second section of the guide looks at the services that must be brought into the skyscraper once its core and shell have been completed. Over the course of history, tall structures—such as pyramids, cathedrals, and bell towers— were generally uninhabited and thus needed little by way of supporting services. In contrast, today’s skyscrapers rely on a vast network of infrastructure to sustain life in the sky—from power, air, and water to telecommunications and elevators.

The third and final section of the guide touches on the more mundane concerns needed to keep tall buildings functioning on a day-to-day basis: maintenance and cleaning, safety, and sustainable technologies. Less sexy perhaps than other topics, these functions touch more immediately and more intimately on the daily lives of skyscraper occupants than almost anything else.

Across all three of the sections the guide draws on examples from around the world to illustrate concepts and ideas. Yet it’s in no way an exhaustive study of the world’s tall buildings; indeed, many interesting and architecturally significant towers receive scarcely a mention on the pages that follow. Instead, the guide is designed to leave the reader with an understanding of—and hopefully a greater appreciation for—the inner workings of this new and potentially highly sustainable urban form: the vertical city.

Previous: (none)
Next: History

top of page | Home