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Anatomy of a Supertall Skyscraper

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The era of the "supertall" is upon us. It stretched back to at least 1931 and the Empire State Building, clocking in at 381 meters, or 1250 feet. Then came the World Trade Center, and the Sears Tower. In the mid-'90s, the skyscraper spread to China with Shun Hing Square and CITIC Plaza. It wasn't long before Asia and the Middle East took up the torch, leaving the US in their wake. So what is with this obsession of building so tall? What purpose does it serve? And why is the US no longer king? With the help of Jason Gabel, a media associate with a background in urban planning for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, we took a closer look at the supertall craze.

"It's definitely symbolic," Gabel says of these buildings that stand 1000 feet or taller. “In the same way that companies use skyscrapers like Trump International Hotel & Tower to denote there prominence, and show that they are worthy of investment, cities worldwide are using supertalls to announce themselves to the world, and draw investors.” One example is Dubai, which is transitioning into a tourism mecca and building supertall towers as a form of branding.

But supertall skyscrapers are more than just a city's version of a Ferrari. These status symbols can actually come with a lot of community benefits, even if it is just a side effect rather than the main purpose. "We’re urbanizing [worldwide] at a rate of 200,000 people a day, or about 1 million a week," Gabel says. "That growth has to be directed somewhere, and the only options are to build up or out." With so little geographical space left in cities, building up is a way to house people without taking up valuable green space and land. There are also benefits that come with the agreements developers make with the city, like making improvements to the area or including affordable housing, which is clearly needed as thousands of applicants routinely vie for a limited number of affordable units.

That's not to say it has been a complete love affair. In New York, for instance, the influx of supertalls along so-called Billionaires’ Row on 57th Street has met criticism because of the long shadows they'll cast on Central Park. Meanwhile, LA has struggled with the logistics of designing a skyscraper that can withstand earthquakes.

So what is so appealing about these towers to tenants? Part of it is the wave towards urban living, Gabel says. “People are drawn to the convenience, the walkability, which is why so many towers are becoming ‘vertical cities’, with accessibility to everything you need.” Not to mention, supertalls are usually equipped with all the showstopping luxuries that appeal to high-income tenants. “You’re looking at a certain level of wealth living in these towers, so there’s a certain standard of amenities. These spaces have everything from private terraces to gyms and spas to pet care facilities.” The same standard applies to businesses looking to work out of supertall skyscrapers. “They’re more efficient, with a faster digital infrastructure, which allows for more control and better productivity,” Gabel says. Another interesting draw to office tenants is the variety of space. Because so many buildings taper towards the top, each floor offers different shapes and sizes that appeal to a diverse clientele, a clientele that stretches across the globe because of strong investment potential. In fact, many supertalls are like beautiful piggy banks, Gabel says, because so many foreign investors purchase them and never move in, choosing to sit back and flip it for a profit. (This phenomenon also has its share of detractors, who point to luxury neighborhoods full of  pied-à-terres but otherwise deserted.)

This demand for space makes the supertall skyscraper worth building, even if it is more expensive and more challenging to construct. “It’s basically high risk, high reward,” says Gabel, referring to the chance that a change in the market could have dire consequences on a skyscraper. But he points out that Americans take a smart approach by leasing before ground is even broken. This allows developers to gauge the market better, where as in other places like Asia, they don’t start marketing until after the tower is built, so a crash could leave a developer up a creek. That’s part of the reason the US has fallen behind, according to Gabel. "We’re more demand-based," he says, adding that we also have a lot of red tape to go through to get a building approved and built. "Other countries have more of a 'build it and they will come' mentality."

With so many supertall skyscrapers changing the landscape and reshaping skylines across the nation, which one is the most impressive? Gabel’s response may surprise you. “I know it sounds cliché but the Empire State Building is still the most impressive,” he says, “and not because it’s the first and most prominent.” Rather, he says it’s because the tower was completely retrofitted in 2009 to make it more energy efficient and bring it into the 21st century. This is an important model for others to follow simply because to date, there is no way to demo a building over 500 feet. In fact, only four buildings over 500 feet--the Singer Building and Deutsche Bank HQ in New York City and the Morrison Hotel and One Meridian Plaza in Chicago--have been intentionally demolished. (Apparently Japan has been working on a method that involves disassembling the buildings from the inside out, but the tallest building demolished with that method was 423 feet, so the jury is still out.) The bottom line: the supertall towers of today are probably here to stay, and we need to be thinking about them as long-term staples, not just for the next hundred years, but forever.