2013-11-15

Co.Exist

When Size Matters: The Men Who Measure The World's Tallest Buildings

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat just crowned New York City as the home of the country's tallest building. Who is this shadowy group of height enthusiasts?

The proverbial question: Does size matter? If we’re talking about skyscrapers and a city’s fragile pride, it matters quite a lot, judging by Chicago Mayor Rahm “Not that I’m competitive” Emanuel’s reaction to his city being dethroned this week as the home of the nation’s tallest building.

Yes, New York has won back the skyscraper crown with the Freedom Tower, which I can see rising just outside the window here at Fast Company’s offices. Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) was the holder of the nation’s top spot for 40 years.

The decision, announced on Tuesday, was quite controversial, to say the least. It centered on, what else?, the 408-foot phallus that crowns the top of the One World Trade Center. Was the “spire” part of the basic architecture of the building? Or was it just a flimsy antenna, set up to serve its purpose and subject to the whims of time and property managers?

This question was up for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat to decide.

Who is this council that holds the power to arbitrate an age-old New York/Chicago rivalry about which city has the best skyscrapers?

“Our job at the council is basically to keep a list. Of course, once you have a list, you have to have some ground rules on how you bring things on the list. Unfortunately, it’s not black and white,” says Peter Weismantle, who chairs the council’s Height Committee and is Director of Supertall Building Technology at the architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill.

He jokes about the special meeting last week to decide the fate of the WTC vs. Willis Tower standoff: “It was a bunch of geeks getting together talking about how many angels dance on the head of the pin.”

Unsurprisingly, in a contest of measuring up, all but one of this geeky bunch are men, according to a list of 25 members of the Height Committee the council provided to Co.Exist (Weismantle says the council is actively working on increasing diversity, and the stats in part reflects the broader industry demographics).

CTBUH founder Lynn Beedle.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, keeper of the list, was formed in Pennsylvania by Lehigh University structural engineer Lynn Beedle back when, in the late 1960s, there were fewer skyscrapers to be counted. The stronger steel coming out of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, steel mills at that time was one reason why cities could begin building higher and higher. For years, the “list," full of technical specs that Beedle kept in his file drawer, was not much more than a hobby.

Today, the Global Tall Building Database contains 12,596 entries from all around the world, from the world’s tallest, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 2,716 feet tall, to the handful of meager 20-floor specimens whose owners submitted forms (for them, it does not list the height--maybe too embarrassing?). To look at the full list is to see the ambition of mankind to keep building taller, whatever the cost, for it also contains not-yet-built “visions,” such as the X Seed 4000 in Japan, a 800-floor monstrosity that would rise up more than two miles.

The database, which is online here, isn’t guaranteed to be comprehensive, (“We’re not like a government, where we can insist that people send us their information,” says Weismantle), but it does a pretty good job, because these days the Council is a larger organization with a paid staff. Because it is the only massive, searchable, freely-available database that exists and because it is a nonprofit, the Council has by default become not only the national adjudicator of tallness, but the authority worldwide.

This was illustrated by the last scandal to shake the Height Committee in 1996, which prompted the Council, based in Chicago, to establish the categories that it used to judge this week’s standoff. The scandal centered on whether the new Petronas Tower in Malaysia would be declared the world’s tallest building, even though the Sears Tower antenna stretched higher. It marked the Council’s first-ever onslaught of media attention, complete with plaintive letters from elementary school kids. It now refers to the whole episode as the Sears/Petronas Saga (spoiler: Petronas won).

The New Second Tallest Building In The World Is An Urban Green Space Wonderland.

Weismantle says it's still unusual for the group to receive this much media attention: “Oh yeah, it’s very strange. It sounds like we’re a high-falutin' or real powerful organization. We’re just a group of professionals with an interest in tall buildings, and it’s not just the biggest ones.”

The episode prompted the Council to create new categories that came into play last week when the committee and trustees met in Chicago. There’s the “height to the structural top”--which would official decide the nation’s tallest building; the highest occupied floor; and the highest roof. They heard a 15-minute presentation from Freedom Tower architect David Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, making the case that, even though the original plans to “clad” the spire had been nixed, the spire was still part of the tower’s inherent design and structure. Weismantle says that the council, as far as he knows, hadn’t been lobbied directly by either city government or property owner.

In the end, the decision was easy. After about two hours of discussion, everyone present agreed that the spire counted (except for one abstention), and thus One World Trade Center, at a symbolic 1,766 feet, will officially be the nation’s tallest structure, despite the fact that the Willis Tower, at 1,450 feet, still has the highest occupied floor (a fact Mayor Emanuel used to taunt New York: with “the Willis Tower you will have a view that's unprecedented in its beauty, its landscape, and its capacity to capture something. Something you can't do from an antenna.")

But all of this is like children squabbling when viewed on the world’s stage.

Years ago, tall buildings used to be functional--they advertised for large companies, like Sears, and maximized the use of expensive real estate in urban downtowns. Today, the tallest structures are built by government authorities far from the Western World--in places like Malaysia and Dubai--and mostly, they are the domain of emerging economies striving for status symbols and a place on the world stage.

“People will always build taller,” says Weismantle, who is working on what will be the next world’s largest building--the Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia--when it is complete. (The Council recently created a new category beyond “supertall," at 300 meters, to accommodate such height: “mega-tall,” at greater than 600 meters, or 1,968 feet.) “These are not economically driven anymore. These are being driven by something else, and it’s largely national pride and national prestige.”

Is there a limit to how high we can go? Aside from cost, Weismantle says that, oddly enough, elevator technology and the need for lighter-weight cables has become one difficult factor. That’s nothing that a nice, tall antenna (ahem, spire) couldn’t fix.

[Image: Flickr user CBP Photography]

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4 Comments

  • skylabcity

    "a symbolic 1,766 feet"? I believe the height is actually a symbolic 1,776 feet, rather than a number of feet equal to ten years before the nation's independence.

  • r/ally

    Maybe the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat should just tighten up their definition once and for all?

  • DB

    And still shorter than the REALl tallest tower/building in North America for almost 40 years - CN Tower, Toronto.