Skyscraper Economics

I loved Jason Barr’s Building the Skyline a history of New York from the point of view of the economics of skyscrapers. Where else will you learn so much of interest about elevators?

Elevators create a particular problem. On one hand, adding more floors to the building will produce more space from which the developer can collect more money. But at some point, a new shaft and set of elevators need to be added to handle the additional traffic. This then eats into the rentable space….Do the additional floors on top generate enough rents to cover the loss of new space from the elevators?

…skyscrapers must devote about 30% of the total space to elevators, including their shafts, hallways and machine rooms.

And then you have to get the people where they want to go quickly:

The new One World Trade Center will have the fastest cars in the Western Hemisphere, operating at a top speed of 2,000 feet a minute, though a relative snail compared with the Burj Khalifa, which delivers its tenants to any of its 164 floors at a rate of 3,543 feet per minute.

…Maximum [elevator] speed has increased at an average annual rate of 1.7% since 1913.

Barr loves skyscrapers and he writes about them beautifully. Building the skyline also has excellent photos and illustrations. It’s not for everyone but if the statistics, economics, and history of New York’s skyscrapers appeals, then this is the book to get.

Hat tip: Michael Hendrix.


Because an elevator shaft takes up space on all the floors beneath it, once the building reaches a certain height, the added elevator shaft will take up more space than the new floors will add.

of course, elevators are but one of many physical constraints on the practical size of skyscrapers. Consider HVAC, fire protection, initial construction requirement and long term building maintenance/repair needs

a point of diminishing returns exists on many supposed bigger & better things

and as the building gets taller, the pillers at the bottom and the foundation have to get thicker to carry the weight.

I have two rules about riding in elevators. The first rule: stay out of the darn things. The second rule: if you have no choice but to ride in an elevator, don't say anything. It never ceases to amaze me the things people say on elevators: it's as if the other passengers are invisible. I can only imagine the kinds of things Donald Trump has said on elevators.

What amazing thing could Trump have ever said on an elevator? That he respects women and just finished reading The Second Sex for the third time?

My 2nd rule before "don't say anything" would be "don't drop your ass on the elevator".

"""@GSElevator Things heard in the Goldman Sachs elevators (Wall Street) do not stay in the elevators. """

And if you live or work in a place with an elevator, you should condition yourself, at a minimum, to be able to walk down from your normal floor. And if you live in a place with an elevator, you should also ensure you can walk up to your floor or have a cash reserve for a hotel should the power go out.

I learned that when they power went out on Oahu. Many residents in my condo couldn't return home for the 8 hours of the outage because they couldn't climb that many stairs.

2000 feet per minute .. that is a lot of trust in engineering. Hardware and software. A sudden stop, from 33 feet per second ..

How would an elevator suddenly stop from 20 mph?

A jam, a siezed motor, a software glitch. Maybe not likely but definitely painful.

I was just thinking that "safety" for every safety elevator in the last hundred years was to just stop. On any error, just stop. That's easy because you can do it with least functioning systems.

At 20mph you need to figure out what still works and brake to a controlled stop. That can work, but it is a harder problem. It implies control logic that works through any failure.

There is active development of elevators which have more than one car per shaft. Depending on the solution, stopping might not be the safe option.

I've been in one, in the Aon Building in Chicago, which is about 40 years old. So it's more than "in development."

I'm not sure about this one, but elevators have an automatic trip stop if they go above a set speed. So this one would trip at 35 fps or so. A safety feature.

Yeah, elevators did use to just stop by design.

Here's an electrician discussing a vintage elevator controller mounted on slate, he salvaged. When it reached the floor, it just cut power to the motor.

Can we discuss the Trump Inauguration more? This is a great day in our nation's history going overlooked by MR.

You are a day behind - try to keep up with the carnage, OK?

Former President Slick Willie Gangster and his wife Crooked Hillary Clinton were a joy to watch. It looked as if they expected to lunch on larks' vomit.

Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?

@ust Another MR Commentor, King of the Komments

....well, your flippant moniker here suggests you should not be taken seriously

also, there are tens of thousands other blogs for you to engage... or start your own

You should be more respectful towards the crown

Comically, completely overlooked by MR.

The video of Bill watching Ivanka was terrific. The random destruction by the left was pleasant to watch, but sadly, and strangely, quite unreported. So strange.

Remember the violence at the inauguration of Obama? Me either. Ah, the left. Turns out that there were protests during Obama's inauguration, but they were by the left to heckle Bush. Always classy.

my momma told me: "never feed a troll, son"

How about creating parking garage as part of the building? Then let the parking garage traffic deal with it instead of elevators?

You mean like surround the 400 story building with a 400 story parking garage? Get to work late and you have to drive all the way up in a circle....

You mean build a 100+-story parking garage as part of the building? That would be an even less efficient use of space unless you could charge a fortune for parking and you would also create traffic jams on the surrounding streets.

We need more 3D Cities. Flat 2D cities is not so space efficient.

There are 2D elevators under development. You could save a lot of space if you don't have hallways -- the elevator takes you right to your office or hotel room. Of course, evacuation during a fire would be a problem.

the Ministry of Magic had 2D elevators in Harry Potter. just saying.

As has the Chocolate Factory in Roald Dahl's famous book.

2D is a euphemism for one story buildings.

And one story streets. Yeah, build multistory roadways would be needed; of course, ramps to change levels are necessary.

I think this problem could be solved by leveling. Let's say you have a building 400 stories high. There simply will be no single elevator that takes you from the ground floor to the 400th floor. Instead you take an elevator from the ground to the 100th floor. There you essentially have a new 'ground' floor where you can find elevators from 100 to 200. To get to the top you'd have to change elevators 3 times. Essentially you're stacking 4 100 story buildings on top of each other.

This doesn't make sense for a novelty building like the Empire State Building or One World Trade Center where you have lots of tourists who want to go to the observation deck at the top but imagine a future city with multiple 400+ story buildings next to each other. You could connect them with bridges, even streets at the 100, 200, 300 and 400th floor levels to create a multi-layered city. Going from the ground to floor 400 would be a bit of a commute but maybe not a common one.

Also in such a case you could develop some type of 'heli-elevator' that would ferry groups from the ground to the top outside the building thereby taking up no real estate internally except some type of landing pad.

This "new ground floor" idea exists already under the name "sky lobby".

Wiilis Tower in Chicago has sky lobbies on 33 and 66.

Yes, it's been done for a long time. See:

The original WTC buildings were among the pioneers of the concept. The main difference being it's generally designed as express and local elvators, rather than simply stacking locals which would lead to an impractical number of stops to be endured by those going to the highest floors.

I worked in the WTC the first few years after it opened, and used to take the jumbo elevators, which I'd pick up on the lowest lobby level. While you were waiting for the elevators, you'd hear all sorts of sound from inside the shaft. Most notable of these was an eerie kind of whooshing. It was a mournful, almost choral effect. It sounded to me (back in 1972) like the wails of the "lost souls" in an old recording I had of Basil Rathbone reading "A Christmas Carol". Funnily enough, the only other place I've heard this sound is on the Oberlin College Conservatory building, which is also the only remaining building standing that was built by the architect of the WTC. I heard it a few years ago, in the hallway outside the main auditorium of that building, and it gave me chills.

Really brilliant

I'm thinking some kind of slide that wraps around the outside of the building that runs the entire length of the skyscraper. Maybe a pool at the bottom, but maybe not.

Complimentary parachutes.

Skyscrapers are an economic anachronism. Because of advances in communication and transportation it's no longer necessary to pile offices on top of one another except as a demonstration of corporate egomania. From a cost-benefit standpoint they don't make any sense. The Chinese look at them as a component of joining the advanced world business community, just as they wear the suit and tie ensemble favored by western moguls. What they're really doing is building the battleships of the 21st century.

What advances in transportation and communication?

Has to be the automobile. No city that built up after the auto has an effective grand central train station and a surround of skyscrapers.

There's no set of new skyscrapers in Asian cities other than ones that were already well established as built up cities back in, say, 1910 or so?

That relates to my idea. Did any go to car culture cities? Japan had a huge rail investment and pattern of use. China is interesting. They may or may not become a car cul.

Oh no, the poor bastards wear ties. Have their rulers no compassion?

I agree. Campuses are the new efficiency. Of course they do reinforce the automobile.

Not sure they are. They are more efficient in a specific context. A suburban population in an economy that used to be more manufacturing centered and is becoming service centered. A huge campus can take over a space that was or would have been a warehouse or factory and since many workers drive you can have access to a large labor force.

But all things being equal how is a campus more efficient than a 400 story skyscraper? Geographically as a worker you are limited in how many people you can intimately collaborate with in either case. If you need to work with someone on the other side of campus or 100 floors away from you, you are either going to be taking extra time or you will be using communication technology that would work equally as well if the was on the other side of the world.

A related HBR feature:

"The demands of the vertically integrated corporation required tight coordination in both space and time, what Duffy calls “synchrony” and “co-location.” The solution was the skyscraper, and later the suburban campus."

At least in NYC the higher the floor the more valuable the floor space. Even if an additional floor is a net negative in terms of floor space it may still well be a positive in dollar terms.

I think there is some work to overcome shaft space limitations with self-powered elevator cars so you'd have no cables and multiple cars per shaft.

I have a sudden urge to play Sim Tower.

One recent innovation is "destination dispatch", a scheme in which passengers declare the floor they're going to before they get into the elevator, at which time the elevator tells them which car to get into. That lets the elevator software group passengers going to the same area in the building. . .

That lets fewer elevators serve the needs of a given height building, or conversely lets the same number of elevators serve a taller building.


Recently we went to Amazon's "Take your parents to work" day. The elevators had this feature.

Could we stick one of these hyperloops inside (or on the outside of) a skyscraper?

Why not go many stories DOWN? A 70 story basement would be easier to cool and heat and would be impervious to terrorist air attacks or even atomic blasts. Hurricanes wouldn't be a problem, either.

Hurricanes wouldn’t be a problem, either.

Except many hurricane deaths are from drowning.

Best to drill mountains.

Well, cave explorers, alone in the dark, are a different mentality than mountain climbers, who are visible from valley observation points.

But mostly it is because the poor live in the basement and it's easier to move air than rock when building.

The Hubris Towers (One World Trade) should be cut loose from government support and save commuters from bankruptcy.

Comments for this post are closed