Rising to the Occasion

Since the late 19th century, when the first skyscrapers sprouted up in Chicago and New York, those two metropolises have been competing with each other for bragging rights to the world's tallest buildings. Both cities, with their familiar skylines, truly set the tone for what we think of as the epitome of the American central business district.

By Geoff Weisenberger, Production/Web Editor July 1, 2003

Since the late 19th century, when the first skyscrapers sprouted up in Chicago and New York, those two metropolises have been competing with each other for bragging rights to the world’s tallest buildings.

Both cities, with their familiar skylines, truly set the tone for what we think of as the epitome of the American central business district. Today, most of what could be considered major American cities have a cluster of tall buildings in their respective downtown areas.

So what will the skyline of the 21st Century look like? Deferring to science fiction, futuristic films, such as The Fifth Element and Blade Runner, reveal vastly expanded versions of the Manhattan and L.A. skylines, respectively, where the buildings soar not hundreds of feet, but hundreds of stories. Based on current market conditions, however, the Great American Skyline might not progress to the height that the movies envision.

Of the major high-rises currently planned in the United States, almost all are well under 1,000 ft. The twin towers of the mixed-use AOL Time-Warner Center in New York (featured on the cover), as well as the new Seven World Trade Center, will rise to only 750 ft. The New York Times building, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in association with Fox & Fowle Architects, will top out under 800 ft., although a mast will rise above the rooftop terrace to a height of over 1,100 ft.

The exception to what appears to be an under-1,000 ft. rule is Trump Tower Chicago (left), the latest in Donald Trump’s collection of signature buildings, which if and when built, will rise 1,125 ft. This mixed-use tower would be almost the combined height of two of Chicago’s recently completed office towers—the Bank One Corporate Center (580 ft.) and UBS Tower (651 ft.) By comparison, other recently completed U.S. office demi-giants include Seaport Center West in Boston at 225 ft., 222 E. 41st St. in New York at 375 ft., and the JP Morgan Chase Building in San Francisco at 420 ft.

It’s (Mostly) the Economy

While residential towers have come into vogue on many skylines to meet the trend toward more urban living, it is office space that historically has driven the high-rise market. But so far, the 21st century has seen few marquee high-rise office projects planned in the U.S.

So why are major high-rise office projects so few and far between these days? The common answer to this question is September 11, 2001. But David Maola, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), thinks otherwise. “I think it’s important to point out that the issues of high-rise buildings, and particularly office space, have been changing since before 9/11,” he says. “There haven’t been any super-tall buildings built in the U.S. in 25 years or more.”

Maola explains that it’s simply not efficient to construct mega-skyscrapers. Once a building reaches more than 80 floors, he notes, its capacity for efficiency goes down.

Len Joseph, P.E., S.E., senior vice president of Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers, New York, suggests that the height at which a building begins to lose money is even lower. “Typically, the range of 40-60 stories is kind of the sweet spot,” he explains. “You start going higher than that, and you’re spending real money for something other than cost-benefit ratio.”

In other words, the taller the building, the greater the need for elevator space to move people around. Elevator shafts take up rentable floor space. In addition, elevators can only be made so efficient. In theory, an ultra-fast elevator could be constructed to shuttle the maximum number of people up and down a building as quickly as possible, Maola explains. But comfort is a major issue; people can only be transported so fast before they feel like they’re on an amusement park ride.

But while cost-benefit issues are important, the overall economy is the most significant reason for the slowdown in high-rise construction spending and office spending in general. “What really drives office spending is how many people work in offices,” says Jim Haughey, an economist with Reed Business Information, Newton, Mass.

According to Haughey, construction spending on office space fell 25% in 2002, and office vacancy rates reached as high as 17% earlier this year. Construction will fall another 13% this year, he projects, then improve by 7% in 2004. Of course, the vacancy rates vary. New York and Washington, D.C., have slightly lower vacancy rates—New York, in part, due to the loss of millions of sq. ft. on 9/11; and D.C., due to the amount of office space required by the federal government. According to Haughey, other towns, such as Dallas and Detroit, are relatively “sick,” suffering higher-than-average vacancy rates. In the case of Detroit, the problem is due mostly to a major population drop. While the city once claimed a population of 2 million, it has decreased by approximately 50% in recent years, as people have migrated to the suburbs.

Leaving downtown incognito

This suburban migration is yet another reason for a decreasing interest in downtown towers. Shorter, less concentrated buildings away from the center of town are becoming the norm.

Another reason for the urban exodus is that conspicuous downtown towers simply don’t provide the anonymity that many seek after 9/11. “Nobody wants to be the tallest [building] anymore in the U.S., because what does that do to you?” asks Iyad Alsamsam, P.E., S.E., manager of buildings and special structures with the Portland Cement Assn. “It makes you the No. 1 target for some terrorist.”

Despite such feelings, the desire to build iconic structures is not dead. The office market in Asia is certainly burgeoning, with a number of high-rise projects set to break Petronas Towers’ hold on the record books (see “Asia Grows Upward” p. 36). And in the U.S., the proposal for the new World Trade Center complex features a building that soars more than 1,700 ft. “You want to give the people in New York something to recover the loss,” says Alsamsam. “They need their pride back, and New York is the symbol for tall buildings.” That being said, he suggests that the new WTC’s developers need to balance the needs of regaining an icon and renting space.

Joseph agrees, noting that in this shaky market, landing anchor tenants and pre-leasing space is more important than ever, and not just for the WTC. Despite the fact that interest rates are currently very low and real estate developers want to take advantage of this “cheaper money,” banks are adamant about seeing tenant lists and are reluctant to lend money to developers who don’t have them. And often, he says, tenants won’t sign until they see other tenants sign. This “you first” mentality can hold up an owner’s vision for months or years, and many ideas never come to fruition.

Companies have also begun to decentralize on a massive scale. The original intent of the central business district was for companies to be in close proximity to one another. However, trends such as telecommuting, outsourcing and working from home have all contributed to less people in high-rises. Advanced communications capabilities make warm bodies at the office virtually unnecessary.

“If you look at the Sears Tower, where Sears once occupied 50 floors of that building [as its headquarters], you probably won’t see that again because all of these corporate functions don’t necessarily have to be on top of each other,” says Raj Gupta, P.E., president of Environmental Systems Design, Chicago. Gupta notes that security concerns are another reason for companies to want to spread themselves out.

Still, he continues, not all business can be done from a computer, PDA or cell phone. Face time is still important. And so is public transportation, which generally converges downtown. Gupta points out that businesses think about things like this when considering relocation or new office space. In cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, which have well-developed public transportation systems, thousands of commuters from the city and suburbs rely on such transportation to get to and from work. In most cases, suburb-to-suburb travel requires the use of a car, and the idea of letting someone else do the driving is appealing to many. Even in cities like Denver, where mass transit is somewhat of a misnomer, the local government is currently expanding its light rail system to create easier access to its downtown.

Gupta also notes that regardless of a suburban migration trend by businesses, at the very least, downtown areas in many cities will continue to hold their status as social and nightlife centers. This is especially true in cities like Chicago, which has seen a recent influx of residents to the areas surrounding the central business district and the outright conversion of former office space to residential or hotel use.

And then, there’s always the unthinkable—that high-rises might actually start being demolished on a massive scale. While cities like Detroit and Newark, N.J., have torn down multiple buildings in their central business districts, Haughey doesn’t see the same happening in other cities—at least, not for a while. The investment is simply too great. More likely, he suggests, is that if the economic climate ever becomes unable to support centrally located high-rise office space, they will be sold to colleges, governments and social services. However, he does add that growing population centers may begin to look more and more like San Jose, a city of 1 million with virtually no high-rises.

Improving upon the past

While the current state of high-rise and other office space development is stagnant, retrofits to older buildings are a potential engineering goldmine—especially in the realms of telecommunications, electrical infrastructure and automation. Jim Young, CEO of Realcomm, a San Diego-based real estate conference organization, spoke at a recent seminar in Chicago of the proliferation of “intelligent” buildings. “We’ve just turned the corner [in the real estate] industry, and we’re at the start of a new technology paradigm,” he said.

That sea change means a need for broadband width now—even as a utility. It also means a need for wireless capability; building control systems integrated with IT automation systems; and of course, redundant power and telecom feeds that include more diverse routing lines into a building.

Young notes that the majority of these intelligent buildings—mostly retrofits—are 100% occupied. Enough said.

Looking ahead

This idea of constructing a building around a high-tech infrastructure is crucial to new projects, as well, according to Gupta, as flexibility is one of the most important criteria these days (see “High-Rise Success” p. 34). He points to underfloor systems as another trend that will be prevalent in new construction—not only HVAC, but electrical, telecom and IT—as well as building automation systems that use open protocols as opposed to proprietary ones. He uses the analogy of his office PC, whose monitor, keyboard, mouse and CPU are all built by different manufacturers. “That’s where we’re going with our buildings—the point where you can mix and match the best systems and have them communicate,” he says.

Gupta also notes that achieving sustainability, as sanctioned by LEED (the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program), may become more common among new buildings.

And in the wake of 9/11, life-safety measures will continue to evolve. For example, Maola reveals that CTBUH is currently working on a project that is looking at using elevators to evacuate high-rise buildings—something that defies the common practice of using stairs to evacuate a building.

Some of these trends are already being practiced, but we’re not likely to see them implemented in bulk until the office market finds itself on the rise again. But many in the industry believe it’s never too early to start thinking about them. “This is the time that people start thinking about [needing space] again,” Haughey says. “They don’t need the space available tomorrow, but they’re going to need it available in short enough time, and they’ve got to start doing something about it now.”

Will high-rises continue to be built in the U.S.? Yes, say experts, but don’t expect another boom anytime soon. The skyline as we know it will continue to exist and grow, but for the time being, de-centralization, efficiency questions and the quest for anonymity might just keep it from evolving into the stuff of science fiction.

High-Rise Success

What’s a high-performance building? According to P.E. Raj Gupta, president of Environmental Systems Design (ESD), Chicago, there are three main criteria:

Life cycle cost : Initial cost is like a first impression—an unfavorable one can result in a resounding “No.” But in the grand scheme of things, life- cycle cost should be a major consideration. Systems that might cost a bit more upon installation can save money in the long run.

Flexibility : Mechanically and technologically, an office space might go through several conversions or even tenants in the span of 10 years, and the space should be readily adaptable for the next user.

Reliability : Buildings must be made to last, as should M/E/P systems.

The recently completed Bank One Corporate Center in Chicago (above), for which ESD performed the M/E/P, fire protection, life-safety and telecommunications work, is a good example of a high-performance building. “It’s one of the most unique buildings in the city as far as how it’s configured,” says Gupta.

ESD decided to go underfloor for the 38-story building’s HVAC, electrical and telecommunications systems, thus requiring a 14-in. raised floor. Not only does the underfloor system allow for ease of maintenance and customization, it also increases worker comfort, and ultimately, productivity. Each work area has its own controllable, mobile diffuser.

Additionally, the 9-ft. 6-in. ceilings allow for maximum indirect lighting, which saves electricity normally spent on illumination and reduces glare on computer screens.

Asia Grows Upward

While it looks as though the U.S. skyline is forced to scale back its ambition for the time being, Asia can’t seem to hold itself back. Shanghai alone reportedly has approximately 300 high-rises currently under construction or recently completed.

“In Asia, there’s either new class A office space, or whatever’s been there for the last century—not much of an in-between,” says Len Joseph, P.E., S.E., senior vice president of Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers, New York. “So if you want to attract international clients and top rents, you really need to control your environment. You want to put as much as you can on the footprint, so you tend to go high.”

Extremely high. Here are three towers in Asia that, when completed, will be taller than the world’s current tallest buildings, the twin 1,483-ft. Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:

Union Square Phase 7 (also known as Kowloon Station) in Hong Kong will be 1,555 ft. tall, containing office, hotel and retail space, when it’s complete in 2007. Its seven-star hotel will be the highest in the world, surpassing Jin Mao Tower’s in Shanghai, China. It will also replace Two International Finance Center as the tallest building in Hong Kong.

The Shanghai World Financial Center, after some financial setbacks that delayed construction for almost five years, will rise to 1,614 ft. upon its completion in 2007. It is being funded by more than 36 international companies, mostly Japanese banking, insurance and development firms.

Taipei Financial Center in Taipei, Taiwan (left), will reach 1,667 ft., and is scheduled to be completed by next year. Construction was put on hold temporarily last year due to an earthquake that knocked two cranes off the structure. Not only will the building be one of the few in the world that uses double-deck elevators, its elevators will be the world’s fastest, able to travel upward at 60.48 km./hr. and down at 36.6 km./hr. Each elevator costs over $2 million and features an aerodynamic body, pressurization and emergency braking systems and the world’s first triple-stage, anti-overshooting system.