The challenge: Tall and super-tall buildings

High-rise buildings aren’t just big—for engineers, they present big challenges. Multi-story structures can contain a broad range of uses, different-sized units, and a host of complex systems to tackle.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 28, 2014



Jason Heffelmire, PE Gulf Coast operations director, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Tampa, Fla.

Mehdi Jalayerian, Executive vice president, Environmental Systems Design, Chicago, Ill.

Jim Quiter, PE, FSFPE, LEED AP, Principal, Arup, San Francisco, Calif.

CSE: Please describe a recent tall/super-high-rise project you’ve worked on—share details about the project, including building location, size, etc.

Jason Heffelmire: Signature Place is a mixed-use, 36-story, high-rise tower located in central Florida. It is the tallest residential tower along Florida’s west coast and boasts the tallest water feature at 60 ft. The project consisted of 217 apartments with five levels of covered parking. All residential units had water views. An amenities deck was provided above the parking structure. The tower building functions from an engineering perspective and is architecturally inspirational. There are three floors of office space located above ground-level retail spaces in two linear buildings. There is also an on-site management office in the tower. The project is operated under the condominium form of ownership. There were 13 different residential unit types that included simplex, duplex, and triplex layouts. Many of the various unit types did not stack up with the identical unit types below. The project was completed with two club rooms and a state-of-the-art fitness center. There were 165 mechanical and electrical drawings required for the project.

Mehdi Jalayerian: In Saudi Arabia, Jeddah’s Kingdom Tower will stand more than 1,000 m tall and contain more than 400 km of piping when completed. It will be the centerpiece of Kingdom City, a new urban development of more than 23 million sq m, and will feature a luxury hotel, office space, serviced apartments, condominiums, and an observation deck.

Jim Quiter: I have worked on several very tall buildings, including some quite unusual ones. Several years ago, I worked on the Stratosphere Tower, Las Vegas, one of the first buildings to use elevators as part of the egress plan. More recently I worked on the just-opened Las Vegas High Roller, the world’s tallest Ferris wheel. And I have worked on many of the world’s largest and tallest casino/hotel properties.

CSE: How have the characteristics of such projects changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the next 2 to 3 years?

Quiter: In fire protection, we are still adapting to changes that were instigated by the World Trade Center. New criteria are still being added to the codes, particularly for very tall buildings.

Jalayerian: Mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection systems designers can only work within the limits of the infrastructure components available in the market. As buildings continue to reach for heights previously unimagined by designers, the need for innovative solutions to the increasing system pressures increases. The current MEP systems design approach for super-tall buildings must consider smaller vertical zones to manage the imposed system pressures and efficiently adapt to occupancy requirements. Smaller zones distribute and isolate the pressure. At some future date, new technologies or innovations will need to be developed to support the construction of the next super-tall building.

Heffelmire: Engineers may expect to see more mixed-use projects in the years ahead where you can live, work, and dine within walking distance of your home and save the expenses of commuting. With environmental awareness growing across the globe, more developers are also choosing to build green and demanding more sustainable construction. Although rapacious consumers of energy, high-rise buildings offer compact, high-density alternatives to urban sprawl and limit our carbon footprint by limiting the use of automobiles. 

CSE: What are some challenges you have faced in coordinating structural systems with mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), or fire protection (FP) systems?

Jalayerian: The best super-tall building designs result from the early integration of MEP/FP design with the structural and architectural plans as the development, configuration, and organization of the building can influence the building loads and the overall efficiency of the building. 

Heffelmire: High-rise buildings require that special attention be paid to the working pressure limitations of all equipment, coils, piping systems, and supports. Pipe expansion control techniques are also more critical. Decoupling working pressures more than once in a 70-story tower is not uncommon. Designing for proper air balancing of the tower toilet and clothes dryer exhaust risers to minimize short-circuiting air at the upper floors is also necessary. This attention is not as critical in low-rise buildings. Smoke evacuation systems are code required for buildings more than 75 ft high. With a high-rise tower, this is a more critical task that requires commissioning. Architects will say that managing wind loads is also just as important as aesthetic considerations. Safety and life safety concerns also remain a paramount concern as do security and communication systems. 

CSE: What trends are you seeing for this building type? Is there a specific area of the world in which tall/super-high-rise buildings are more popular? 

Quiter: One issue being addressed more than ever before is the actual need for fire-resistance, balancing the feasible fire size with the amount and location of structural protection. This may lead to increased protection in some areas and decreased in others. This type of analysis takes knowledge in both fire protection and structural engineering, as well as computer modeling capability that was not available 10 years ago.

Heffelmire: Once uniquely American in cities like Chicago and New York, high-rise buildings have been exported around the world. High-rise towers have now become a symbol of rising power and influence around the world of the emerging economies and make the statement. We will see more of them, and they will be greener.