Issue 11                                                                                                                                      
November 2016
"When they go low, we go high!" says Michelle Obama, assuredly not referring to Trump Tower. Nonethless, for others the remarkable acceleration of the vertical growth of cities since the turn of the millennium is the subject of much comment and analysis.

Just days after the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) announced its 2016 award winners, this issue of engineering-timelines pauses to reflect on how low engineers started and how high they're prepared to go.
Chicago's Home Insurance Building marked the beginning of an inexorable rise
Demolition of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1931 revealed its revolutionary structural steel grid. This "world's first skyscraper" was designed by engineer William LeBaron Jenney in 1884. Chicago remains a world centre of tall building expertise to this day.

photo : copyright Chicago Tribune archive
Nowhere does the determination to reach new heights come stronger than in the city where the rise of the load-bearing steel frame began. Theories vary as to the origins of Chicago's nick-name - "the Windy City" - but as early as 1892, commentators were pointing out that uncomfortably high winds at street level was an effect created by its many tall buildings. A rather more recent article in BBC news discusses the problem as it pertains to the increasingly tall buildings proliferating in today's cities.

In Britain, the early influence of Chicago expertise can be seen in the construction of Selfridge's East Wing (1908). For Britain's "first skyscraper", however, the engineering gong goes to the French, with L. G. Mouchel's reinforced concrete design for the Liver Building, Liverpool, in 1911. A Wikipedia note that William LeBaron Jenney, engineer of the Home Insurance Building, completed his architecture and engineering studies in Paris (in 1856) just one year behind Gustav Eiffel is a reminder - if one were needed - of the international nature of the engineering progress.

Today, Chicago is home to the aforementioned Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the body that (among other things) adjudicates on the true height of the world's tallest buildings. It also awards for quality of design, and on 3rd November this year, the Shanghai Tower - currently the world's second tallest building - was declared overall winner for 2016.

For Chicago's central significance in construction's journey upwards, credit is due to the engineers and architects of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which originated and still maintains an office there. The company has been responsible for the design of numerous tall and record-breaking projects over several decades.

SOM was home to both architect Adrian Smith (also, incidentally, architect of Chicago's Trump Tower, as well as many more high-profile projects) and engineer William F. Baker at the time of their collaboration on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai - currently the world's tallest building. This will be surpassed by Smith's more recent project for his own firm: the 1km+ high Jeddah Tower, Kingdom City, Saudi Arabia, with Thornton Tomasetti (engineers of the Shanghai Tower) responsible for structural design.

The links in the above paragraph will take you to sources of more, official information about these giant projects, but the thrill of tall buildings isn't only (or even primarily) about the facts. If you'd like to just sit back and watch the Jeddah Tower grow, you've got to thank the amateur enthusiasts who post on YouTube.
Jeddah Tower going up... Where will it end?  At 1,008m above ground, apparently - although it will be worth stopping half way up for the view from the Observation Deck.

Photograph: copyright Thornton Tomasetti
In fact, if marking the progress of tall buildings is your thing, you can also have fun with the app produced by New York's Skyscraper Museum, which enables users to track the development of the super-skinny towers for which Manhattan is becoming reknowned (or notorious, depending on your point of view). The design of towers that emphasize slenderness over height gives rise to a whole different engineering sub-specialism. To read more about current projects, the Skyscraper Museum's own website is a good place to start.

One of the very frequent arguments made for the development of vertical living and working is simple necessity. Human civilization is becoming more urban at a rate that is even more dramatic than population growth overall, so how are cities to grow productively without indefinite sprawl?

In a series of articles titled, "Super Tall, Super Smart", the New Civil Engineer examines the rapid proliferation of tall buildings, focusing on some of the engineering innovations that are enabling development. In his August article for the series, Living the High Life, NCE features editor Robert Henson describes the major potential for internal space-saving, innovative core design and safe building evacuation represented by new cable-free lift technology.

This tip-off led engineering timelines to take a look at ThyssenKrupp's promotional video about the innovation, and we suggest you do, too: but be warned. The technology looks so exciting that in just two minutes and twenty seconds you may well be ready to buy one yourself - and they don't look cheap.
ThyssenKrupp announced its cable-free lift in 2014 before unveiling this 1:3 scale model in Spain last year.

photo : copyright ThyssenKrupp
US firm Magnemotion was the first to patent a cablefree elevator technology, which by 2013 was already in use by the US Navy.

ThyssenKrupp, meanwhile, is investing in a 236m high test tower to put its new and future elevator technology through its paces in preparation for what it calls the "metropolitan century" ahead.
The design of Oakwood Tower for a site at London's Barbican is the result of ground-breaking (and sky-scraping) research by Cambridge University, Smith & Wallwork engineers and PLP Architecture. The team has won a RIBA President's Award for Technical Design Research and the project is on the shortlist for the President's Medal for Research.

rendering : copyright plparchitecture
Timber construction is one of the fastest-growing areas of innovation in structural engineering, and nowhere is researchers' focus keener than on the potential of sky-high timber towers. October's UK Construction Week at NEC Birmingham devoted daily seminars to timber construction and the heights it can reach, with presenters including the award-winning research team for Oakwood Tower (pictured above). Take a look at for a handy round-up of timber towers already in planning and/ or construction around the world.

If all this growth is making you dizzy, a recent article in Science Magazine examines the pros and cons from a potential inhabitant's point of view.

And finally, A short history of tall wood buildings on Arup's blogging site, Doggerel, is definitely worth a read - including the short video it contains about London's Stadthaus (aka Murray Grove). Built in 2009 and just 10 storeys tall, it was the UK's first modern timber tower block. How fast we grow.
Plans for a 72 storey "pole" in London's Paddington area, designed by Shard architect Renzo Piano with engineers WSP, were dropped in February this year after vociferous protest. An 18-storey "cube" is now proposed.

Rendering: sourced from
Debate about the proliferation of tall buildings takes many forms: aesthetics and heritage; the practical consideration of a burgeoning population on a finite planet; the thrill of design innovation and technological progress; and of course, cost and benefit - fiscal, environmental, societal and to the individual.

Advocates impatient with criticism might be tempted to point out that one era's eyesore is often the beloved heritage of the next: even Highpoint I, the UK's first residential tower was subject to local protest when first planned.

Following February's withdrawal of plans for a slim, 72-storey tower in London's Paddington area, and similar protests over the number of towers planned in Manhattan, an article in Building Design online (you have to register, but it's free) provides a nice overview of how capital cities around the world seek to strike a balance (or not) between protecting skylines and enabling growth.
The Clash: what floor are they on? Would Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation (below) or Renzo Piano's unbuilt Paddington Pole (above) have suited them any better?

Photo :
The heritage debate about skyline and the scale of modern, mixed-use high-rise developments is distinctly different from older arguments about the brutalizing experience of living in the residential tower blocks of post-war Britain. In the UK at least the long shadow of those experiments continues to fall over current and future proposals for development - witness the impact of such advocacy groups as Create Streets.

Few in Britain above a certain age could misunderstand what guitarist Mick Jones of punk band, The Clash, meant to imply when he declared, "I ain't never lived below the 14th Floor." (Clue: he didn't mean a penthouse in the ShardRead Architecture and Urban Design Bureau's blog about changing attitudes to residential towers.)

Funny thing, though, memory.  Fan site details Jones' upbringing with loving thoroughness, including exterior photographs of all his childhood homes.  That's how engineering timelines was able to ascertain that it was not until 1975, the year he turned 20, that Jones lived in a building which HAD a 14th floor...
The original tower block, Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, Marseille, is still a wildly popular dwelling more than 70 years after it was built. It is now a UNESCO listed site, along with 16 other Le Corbusier buildings.

Photo : Paul Kozlowski © FLC/ADAGP
As a new generation of towers grows all around us, many welcomed the news in July this year that 17 of Le Corbusier's works have been given UNESCO World Heritage status - including his original "machine for living in", the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille (above).

Engineering timelines recommends the 2014 article in Architecture Daily, which tells the story of Le Corbusier's designs through his love affair with concrete. It also includes the story in his own words about how the term "brutalism" came to be. Most importantly for our purposes, Le Corbusier's teacher and engineering mentor, Max Dubois, gets a rare mention.

For more on Dubois's involvement, readers may need to turn from the internet to published works. If you've got a spare £60 or so, H. Allen Brooks's 1997 Pulitzer-prize nominated biography, Le Corbusier's Formative Years: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret at La Chaux-de-Fonds, is a good place to start.
In the future, we will layer our trees so we can fit more in. WestonWilliamson+Partners' proposed Arcology skyscraper in Hong Kong elevates parks and even agriculture to levels that have yet to be attempted. To make these cities in the skies function better than the tower blocks of the past, designers dream of incorporating ever more functions of human life within the structure of the high rise.

Rendering: copyright WestonWilliamson+Partners
Even leaving the sophistication of the engineering aside, the current generation of super towers is, if anything, even more conceptually ambitious than Le Corbusier's schemes for modern living. WestonWilliamson+Partners' Arcology skyscraper (above), with its gardens and its dedicated storeys for food farming, is a dream-scheme, not currently scheduled for construction.

But Shanghai Tower, this year's Best Tall Building Worldwide 2016 as awarded by the CTBUD, is very real. The second tallest building in the world was completed last year and is billed by its creators as a "city within a city". While the level of marketing-speak may not stand up to scrutiny (where are the schools and hospitals?), the scheme does incorporate more of such features as green space and energy self-generation than any other completed high-rise currently in the world.

If the global height race is anything to go by, it won't be long before designers are vying to top that.
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