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The return of the supertall

Atkins | 02 Feb 2015 | Comments

A new build is always a positive sign, especially as many of the world’s economies make the slow but steady climb back into growth. But does a resurgence in “supertall” building projects around the world signal the start of something new?

The Home Insurance Building in Chicago, Illinois, is widely regarded as the world’s first skyscraper. It was completed in 1885 and, at 10 storeys and 138 feet, it was certainly tall for its time. And yet height was just one of its defining features. It was the first time architects and engineers had moved away from what were considered to be traditional weight bearing materials – the building was supported almost entirely by a metal frame. This technique for building higher yet lighter structures set the standard for the industry to follow and sparked a wave of innovation.

Today, 130 years later, we look down at the buildings that were once seen as landmarks and the construction industry continues to push the boundaries of possibility. One hotel, office and residential complex reaches more than 800 metres high. A one-kilometre tall tower is not far off.

“We’ll continue to see supertall and even mega-tall buildings defining city skylines around the world,” says Richard Smith, director at Atkins. “But the higher you go, the more complex – and less economically viable – the structure becomes. For every supertall building that’s constructed, there’ll be another 50 that we’ll just describe as tall.”

Smith believes the ongoing efforts to reduce carbon emissions will have a definite impact on the future of our built environment, especially when it comes to larger buildings. In the UK, for example, the government has set a target to deliver “zero carbon” new homes and non-domestic buildings from 2016 and 2019 respectively. And that includes tall buildings.

“We believe we can do it,” Smith adds. “But it has not been proved for the mass market, yet.”

According to a report by insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, 59 of the world’s 100 tallest buildings have been built in the past four years and 90 per cent of those are in China, South East Asia or the Middle East.

Research organisations and industry leaders are not waiting for the deadline, they’re seizing the opportunity to set new standards in pursuit of the zero carbon goal.

“Achieving it in the top five per cent of buildings is always possible,” he says. “It’s the other 95 per cent where the industry faces the big challenge and where it becomes a business-as-usual solution. In reality, it takes time – and it has to be affordable.”

According to Smith, one of the challenges in meeting the target in high rise developments is reducing the amount of energy needed to operate elevators. It’s one of the most important components so, to create greener buildings, engineers are relying on technology to help them make carbon savings. Fortunately, the technology is improving constantly.

Tall building: 50m 0r 14 stories, Supertall building: 3000m or 75 stories, Megatall building: 600m or 150 stories

Similarly, significant progress is being made integrating renewable energy sources into tall towers, but there is still work to be done. In this respect, Atkins is learning lessons from its work on more than 100 tall buildings in the Middle East. For example, three large, 29m diameter wind turbines sit within the Atkins-designed Bahrain World Trade Centre. The company won a Holcim Foundation award for the sustainable design of the 400-metre, 53-storey Lighthouse Tower in Dubai, where it incorporated many low carbon strategies including wind turbines and photovoltaic units into the architecture. Together with other initiatives, such as a high performance facade and natural ventilation, the design demonstrated that a 58 per cent (excluding the wind turbines) reduction in carbon emissions and a 50 per cent cut in water consumption may be achievable. The building did not proceed to construction but Atkins was awarded LEED Platinum design certification.

This is an increasingly important area of work. Cities are expanding at a rate never seen before and there is more pressure on our resources. In some urban centres, a rising population, the high cost of land and housing shortages mean that authorities are faced with two options: build up or extend the urban sprawl. According to Smith, the former is often preferable.

“One part of sustainability is about people not having to use their cars,” he says. “Clusters of tall buildings can provide a range of services and facilities within walking distance, which can create benefits. I think the future will be about interconnecting people at higher levels as well, so people can move horizontally through the clusters and not just at ground level. There is also a social aspect; if we get the public realm and the common facilities right then we’ll create societies where people know their neighbours. Some would even argue that’s how you judge sustainability.”

Supertall infographics

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