Skyscrapers Whitepaper

Whitepaper: Skyscrapers – A modern wonder or construction challenge?

Skyscrapers have become an iconic part of our modern skylines, as well as symbols of progress and growth. Virtually every major city in the world has its own set of skyscrapers and some, such as New York and Hong Kong, have become defined by these high-rise constructions. There is no doubt that skyscrapers are an integral element in modern construction but they are not without the detractors. So, the key question remains, are skyscrapers a modern wonder or just a construction challenge?

What is a skyscraper?

There’s no official definition for what constitutes a skyscraper but the general theory is that it’s a building that reaches up over 20 floors. However, there are also some who would say that a real skyscraper must be at least 50 floors high. And, you will even find some enthusiasts who won’t consider a building to be a skyscraper unless the number of floors have tipped the 100 mark. Not many buildings would make it into the definition on that basis – but there are some, such as the Empire State Building in New York, which comes in at 102 storeys. For other people, it’s not the specifications of a building that makes it a skyscraper but something else entirely.

According to architect T. J. Gottesdiener a partner at the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (responsible for the Sears Tower in Chicago, among others), what makes a skyscraper is not “how many floors you have. I think it is attitude.” Gottesdiener says that a skyscraper is “anything that makes you stop, stand, crane your neck back, and look up.”

Why do humans love skyscrapers so much?

According to Ada Louise Huxtable, a Pulitzer prize winning architecture critic and writer, “beauty or beast, the modern skyscraper is a major force with a strong magnetic field. It draws into its physical being all of the factors that propel and characterize modern civilization. The skyscraper is the point where art and the city meet.”

This compelling description goes some way towards explaining the fascination in the construction world with the modern skyscraper. It has elements of convenience and can be used to solve some of the most pressing issues of modern construction. However, it’s also a creative statement that brings building and art into the same concept.

When did the first skyscraper appear?

Arguably, the Pyramids of Giza provided the first ever example of a skyscraper. Of course, that depends on which definition of “skyscraper” you use, as they wouldn’t match up to the modern monsters of today. However the pyramids were 146 metres high and that made them the tallest built structures on earth for a long time after they were first made. In the 16th century, the city of Shibam was constructed with residential buildings that reached up to seven storeys – this was a first in the construction world at the time and marked a turning point in terms of what was thought possible with respect to building up, as opposed to out.

What issues did the early skyscrapers face?

Perhaps the main issue was the materials that were available. For thousands of years architects and builders only had brick and stone to work with. As these are very heavy and inflexible that meant that it was difficult to construct anything safely above a certain level. With the industrial revolution, everything changed. New materials provided more options for the design and planning process and construction of taller buildings could be delivered a little more cost effectively.

The Oriel Chambers building in Liverpool in the UK was a great early example of how new materials breathed fresh life into the construction of tall buildings. This building used a frame of iron and glass “curtain” walls, which would soon become a blueprint for many of the skyscrapers that followed.

The revolution of the lift

Perhaps one of the biggest issues for those who were looking to pioneer the early skyscrapers was that of stairs. It was fine to build a towering 10 storeys but would anyone ever really want to walk all the way to the top? So, when the first lifts began to be constructed this was another big moment in the history of the skyscraper.

The first ever elevator shaft was constructed in 1853 in New York by an engineer who didn’t yet have an elevator. He was so confident that the creation of a safe passenger elevator was imminent that he went ahead and built the elevator shaft without one. Four years later the first elevators were up and running and architects and engineers now had new ways to shuttle people between floors – which meant that the number of storeys in use could go up. By 1895 the American Surety Building in New York was the highest skyscraper in the world at 21 storeys.

The use of “tubes”

In the 1960s, skyscraper design took yet another twist thanks to the engineer Fazlur Khan. Khan is considered “the father of tubular design for high rises” and was instrumental in providing better structural stability for buildings that were destined to reach higher and higher. His designs used columns of tubes in the centre that then had beams expanding outward from the middle.

There are many, many famous examples of skyscrapers that use – or used – this kind of technology. New York’s World Trade Center was one of the first to be built with this method and the Burj Khalifa  (currently the tallest building in the world) is also constructed with tubes.

Where can you see skyscrapers today?

London is one of the best locations in Europe to see some pretty impressive examples of modern skyscraper construction. In fact, it has the most skyscrapers in the EU with a grand total of 21. Of course, the construction of these magnificent monuments to modern architecture doesn’t really ever stand still and so that figure is likely to continue to rise, particularly given the large number of projects that received approval during the term of former London Mayor Boris Johnson.

He was so enthusiastic about approving these projects that the ex-Mayor ended up being accused of trying to create a “Dubai on Thames” in London. For anyone who is keen to see skyscrapers on their travels these are currently considered some of the most exciting super high constructions in the world:

  • The Shanghai World Financial Center in Shanghai, China reaches up to a majestic 492 metres.
  • Marina Bay Sands, Singapore – everything is packaged up and provided in one place in this modern lifestyle monument of three skyscrapers with a resort, casino and infinity pool with the best views in the region.
  • One World Trade Center, New York, USA – both a memorial and a statement, this skyscraper is 541 metres high.
  • Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – there is a restriction of 30 floors for construction in Riyadh, which is why the Kingdom Centre has a huge hole at the top.
  • The Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – these iconic towers have become a powerful symbol in KL and reach up to 451.9 metres, making them the tallest twin towers in the world.
  • Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE – it’s the world’s tallest building and stands high at 830 metres.
  • Empire State Building, New York, USA – given that it was built in the 1930s it’s pretty impressive that the Empire State Building remains one of the most iconic skyscrapers in a city that is full of them.

What about the UK?

London is the focal point for the skyscraper boom in the UK today. There are already 627 buildings in the city that stretch up above 12 storeys and some 30% of homes that are currently under construction in the city are located in tall buildings. 2016 was a record year in the British capital and 26 skyscrapers went up in the city. Much of this boom is attributable to former mayor Boris Johnson who was responsible for six new skyscrapers for each of his years in the job, as well as one project a week commencing construction during the last six months that he was London Mayor.

However, London isn’t the only place where you will find tall buildings springing up in the UK – in Manchester the Owen Street-Tower C building reaches up to 47 storeys and in the Midlands there is Birmingham’s 42 storey 2one2 Broad Street.

Where you’ll find UK skyscrapers currently under construction

All over the UK, architects and developers are tuning in to the benefits of the skyscraper, not just as a modern wonder but also a useful planning and construction tool. These are some of the UK’s current skyscraper hotspots, as well as some of the projects that are currently under way there:


  • Trinity Islands-Tower X – a residential and hotel building with 67 floors currently proposed for completion in 2022.
  • Tower on River Street – another proposed construction, the Tower on River Street would deliver 42 floors of serviced apartments.
  • Owen Street-Tower B – part of the Owen Street construction, this skyscraper is proposed for a height of 52 floors, to be completed by 2021.


  • 103 Colmore Row – in Birmingham, the 103 Colmore Row construction will provide 26 storeys of office space, due to be completed in 2019.


  • The Student Apartment Tower – this building was approved in 2016 and with 42 storeys could be the tallest tower in Wales when completed this year.


  • 1 Undershaft – this office building has been proposed to reach up to 73 floors, which would mean that it equals the height of The Shard if it gets the go ahead.
  • 22 Bishopsgate – the 62-storey skyscraper in the heart of the City of London began construction in 2016. It will measure 278.2 metres from ground to tip and is due to be completed in 2019.
  • Olympicopolis – this project is part of the “cultural quarter” on the site of the Olympic Park in East London. Its twin towers were originally planned at 47 storeys but have since been reduced to 20 each.
  • Valiant Tower – this residential building is due to be completed in 2020 with a grand total of 68 floors.
  • Wardian East Tower – this Tower Hamlets construction is currently under way and due to top out with 55 floors when finished.

The future of the modern skyscraper

To a certain extent, the future of the skyscraper depends on how many of the critics can be converted to the high-rise way of thinking. It’s important to note that not everyone likes the construction of skyscrapers. In London, for example, Emily Gee, London planning director for Historic England has urged caution when it comes to high-rise towards – and better use of other types of construction. She has said, “We think towers should not harm cherished views, or ruin the settings of listed buildings and conservation areas. London must grow sustainably but that does not mean just upwards.” So, what issues do skyscrapers face when it comes to potential objections to their construction?

Not everyone likes this kind of skyline. The impact that high-rise construction has on a city has been hotly debated. This is not just with respect to ruining the views from other existing – and often, historic, buildings – but also to those who are occupying the city and looking up. Some find high-rise skylines oppressive and feel that the constructions date quickly.

The effect on innovation. There is a school of thought that believes that skyscrapers suppress innovation in humans. This theory highlights that many of the most innovative parts of the world’s most built up cities are those where you’re more likely to find shorter and more traditional buildings. These are a direct contrast to skyscrapers because they are mid-rise and have open floor plan design – the argument is that this kind of construction is better at fostering innovation and collaboration.

Tackling safety. Often, objections to high-rise construction come from safety. This is not just the safety of the buildings themselves but of the individuals within them and how they would survive in the event of an incident. Skyscrapers are undoubtedly more susceptible to something like an earthquake and can be more difficult to manage where there is an emergency like a fire.

Skyscrapers certainly present construction challenges but there are also many people who firmly believe that they are a modern wonder for reasons such as this:

  • Many people find skyscrapers to be awesome and inspiring structures that are a potent symbol of innovation and strength.
  • Those occupying a skyscraper often benefit from breathtaking views.
  • Helping to create more environmentally friendly cities. Modern skyscraper technology can help to harness more sustainable living.
  • Combating urban sprawl. Building up, instead of out, could mean more green spaces in our towns and cities.
  • Energy efficient construction. Many of the newest skyscrapers are pioneering energy efficient technology.
  • Space creation. The most fundamental function of skyscrapers is that they create space where there is little, whether that’s for offices, shops or homes.
  • Social and economic factors. Skyscrapers could increase the volume of residential living space, reducing the pressure on the housing market, solving the problem of shortages and potentially helping to bring overall property prices down.

Skyscrapers are both modern wonders and a construction challenge that many choose to rise to. It’s unlikely that we will see high-rise construction disappear from our city skylines any time soon – in fact, it could become even more prevalent as the world struggles with issues such as overpopulation and housing shortages. The construction industry will have an important role to play in the next stage of evolution and innovation of the skyscraper.

When it comes to contemporary construction we like to explore all sides of the issue. If you’d like to discuss how we work – and what we can do for you – then please get in touch with The RG Group today.

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