It’s no secret that, in the 21st century, we take a lot for granted. We’ve come to rely on technologies and services that even a decade ago didn’t exist. Smartphones and internet-based apps are obvious examples here, but I want to draw your attention to another service that is often less considered. It’s an innovation that has literally transformed the world as we know it, and most of us use one every single day. In fact, there are more than 12 million in operation around the world. I’m talking, of course, about the hero of our cities: the humble elevator.
When many of us enter an elevator, it’s like we enter a mode of non-thinking. We let the floors pass us by, until we reach our own destination. Either that, or we spend the time actively avoiding eye contact with our co-riders! But while we all have these experiences, we rarely stop to consider exactly how important elevators have been – not just as a mode of transport, but as a key facilitator of the skyscraper movement. According to Office Museum, before the dawn of the elevator 160 years ago six storeys was the typical maximum height anyone would consider building to, as residents were unwilling to climb stairs any further. But when elevators entered our lives, that height limitation disappeared, and in time skyscrapers were born. If you think in this way, then the technology that began as an unassuming box is actually responsible for the impressive city skylines that are admired around the world.
In recent decades, cities have grown rapidly, and building heights have skyrocketed. The Burj Khalifa stands at 648m tall (830m to the very tip), but the ‘height race’ is alive and kicking. Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah tower, set to be completed in 2020, will be 1008m tall, and the first building to break the kilometre barrier. The challenge now is developing the right elevator services to keep up with this pace of growth and take people to these ever-lofty heights.
Current elevator models can only reach heights of around 500m max, as after that point the cables become too heavy to support their own weight, let alone the weight of cabins. This is why some buildings have ‘sky lobbies’, where you’re forced to leave one elevator, transfer to a new shaft, and then take another elevator for the rest of your ascent. It’s all about resetting the height/weight limitation.
Another issue is that tall buildings need much more robust elevator equipment and loading mechanics, which take up more space. Even in a building that is 300m tall (a relatively short height in our modern cities), elevators and their shafts occupy more than 40% of the floor space! When you think about how expensive property rents are now, this is a huge amount of wasted space.
But all is not lost. I said at the beginning of this post that the elevator is the hero of our cities, and modern developments in the elevator field are reinforcing this once again. Advanced technology and innovation is enhancing elevator services beyond their current capabilities, and finding new ways to get us to the very top floors of the skyscrapers around us – and all in one journey, without having to change!
The key, is removing the rope. Rope-less elevators, use magnets in place of cables, and enable us to have elevator shafts of unrestricted length. They also free up space to install multiple cabins in a loop. It sounds like one of Willy Wonka’s wacky inventions, but this new breed of elevators can move upwards, downwards and side to side – making transport around a building so much smoother and simpler than ever before. For people in the elevator industry like me, this is really exciting because it allows us to transport people to heights well beyond the kilometre mark. But for the general public it’s also major news: in time, you could technically step into an elevator and step out in the clouds. And just think how nice an apartment in the clouds would be!
These horizontal/vertical elevators are also providing fresh hope and inspiration for ever-complex building designs, which while often considered ‘quite cool’, are often wholly impractical in terms of people moving around them. The horseshoe-shaped building proposed for the New York skyline by design studio Oiio is one example. Envisioned as the world’s ‘longest’ building at 4,000ft, the task for the elevator isn’t reaching a great height – it is being able to navigate the bent loop structure. The conventional elevator would struggle with such a task, but rope-less elevators are able to navigate buildings in different ways. The Petronas Towers in Malaysia could also make use of a rope-less elevator, to move people vertically up the buildings but also across the interconnected bridge too.
Around 160 years ago the elevator changed how we think about building design. But despite all it’s done for us, we’ve begun to take it for granted. Now is the time for us to reignite our love and appreciation for our humble elevators, which are opening up new levels and parts of our cities that were simply inaccessible before. They’re expanding our world, and the possibilities for where they may take us are limitless. So here’s a toast to the elevator – one of the greatest innovations of our time and a key cog in the future of our built environment.
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