The Sustainability of Tall Building Developments:
A Conceptual Framework
Department of Urban Planning and Policy, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs,
University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60612, USA; email@example.com
Received: 26 November 2017; Accepted: 3 January 2018; Published: 5 January 2018
As cities cope with rapid population growth—adding 2.5 billion dwellers by 2050—and
grapple with expansive sprawl, politicians, planners, and architects have become increasingly
interested in the vertical city paradigm. This paper reviews and examines shortfalls of tall buildings
found in the literature to inform future developments. The paper gathers a vast amount of fragmented
criticism and concerns, and organizes them around the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic,
and environmental. Mapping out the “unsustainable” aspects forms the foundation for addressing
them in future research and tall building developments.
sustainability; high-rise developments; economic shortfalls; social failure; environmental
1.1. What Is a Tall Building?
There is no universally accepted deﬁnition of a “tall building”. Governments around the world
differ in how they deﬁne “tall buildings”. For example, German regulations deﬁne “tall buildings”
as buildings higher than 22 m (72 ft) with room for the permanent accommodation of people [
City ofﬁcials derived this limit from the length of ladders used by the ﬁreﬁghters. Leicester City Council
in the UK deﬁnes a tall building as any structure over 20 m/66 ft in height, and/or a building of any
height that is substantially higher than the predominant height of the buildings in the surrounding area,
and/or a building that would make a signiﬁcant impact on the city’s skyline [
]. In Ireland, Cork City
deﬁnes tall buildings as buildings of 10 stories and higher [
]. The ASHRAE (American Society of
Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers) Technical Committee for Tall Buildings deﬁnes
them as buildings higher than 91 m/300 ft .
A similar deﬁnition problem is found when we search for deﬁnitions of a high-rise building,
a tower, or a skyscraper. However, in most cases, differences in deﬁnitions are insigniﬁcant for this
research. For the sake of simplicity, brevity, and based on research by the Council on Tall Buildings and
Urban Habitat (CTBUH), the Emporis, and others [
], this paper embraces the following deﬁnitions:
•A tall building, a high-rise, or a tower is a 50 m+ (164 ft+) building.
•A skyscraper is a 150 m+ (328 ft+) building.
•A supertall or ultra-tall is a 300 m+ (984 ft+) building.
•A megatall is a 600 m+ (1967 ft+) building.
1.2. The Tall Building Construction Boom
Since 1990, most cities have seen a steady increase in urban dwellers. In 1990, 43 percent of
the world’s population (2.3 b/5.4 b) lived in urban areas, and by 2015, this had grown to 54 percent
(4.0 b/7.4 b). By 2030, the United Nations expects that 60 percent of the world’s population (5.1 b/8.5 b)
Buildings 2018,8, 7; doi:10.3390/buildings8010007 www.mdpi.com/journal/buildings
Buildings 2018,8, 7 2 of 31
will live in urban areas; and in 2050, 80 percent of the world’s population (7.7 b/9.7 b) will live in
urban areas. At the time of this writing (2017), the urban population constitutes about 55 percent of the
world’s population (4.1 b/7.5 b). Therefore, by 2050, urban population will increase about 2.5 billion
people. That is, the projected urban population increase is 80 million people a year. This is equivalent
to about 1.5 million new urban dwellers a week or 220 thousand a day. Geographically, this would
be the equivalent of building eight mega cities (deﬁned as cities with 10 million people and greater)
a year. By 2050, in addition to having a greater number of mega cities, currently existing mega cities
of the world, particularly those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will house greater populations,
ranging from 30 to 50 million people or more .
Although tall buildings are not the only way to accommodate the increasing urban population—it is
possible to do so with mid-rise buildings—cities are constructing tall buildings across the globe rapidly
(p. 9 [
]). Indeed, since 2000, cities have constructed more tall buildings than it did in the previous
115 years—Year 1885 is considered the birth date of skyscrapers [
]. These new buildings are also
reaching record-breaking heights. For example, before the year 2000, we constructed only 24 supertalls.
Since that time, over 84 supertalls have been completed. Further, from 1930 to 2001, the world has
completed 282 200 m+ buildings (an average of about four buildings per year), while from 2002 to 2015,
that number was 679 (an average of 52 buildings per year). In the past decade, a new height category
was created for skyscrapers known as “megatalls” that are over 600 m (1979 ft) tall. Three megatalls
have already been constructed, and several more are currently under construction. In recent years,
the “super mega-tall”, category has arrived as buildings such as the 1000 m+ Jeddah Tower in Saudi
Arabia are built [
]. The driving forces for building tall include massive migration from rural to urban
areas, rapid urban renewal, skyrocketing land prices, active agglomeration, globalization and global
competition, human aspiration, symbolism, and ego .
Certainly, cities around the globe are experiencing a tall building boom. Asia is clearly leading
the way in this regard, with unprecedented tall building construction occurring in cities such as
Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Dalian, Wuxi, Hong Kong and Taipei (Greater
China); Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya (Japan); Bangkok, Pattaya and Nonthaburi (Thailand); Seoul,
Busan and Incheon (South Korea); Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia); Jakarta (Indonesia); Makati, Quezon
and Manila (Philippines); Mumbai (India) and Singapore, among others. Middle Eastern cities
such as Dubai, Jeddah, Doha, Mecca, Tel Aviv, and Beirut also have been vigorously building tall.
For example, Dubai has built the world’s tallest building, and Jeddah is building the next tallest.
North American cities such as New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto,
and Calgary are experiencing a renewed interest in building skyscrapers. South American cities
(e.g., Santiago, Cartagena, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo) and Central American cities (e.g., Panama
City, Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara) also are building more tall buildings. Even African
cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Sandton, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, and Lagos are increasingly
embracing the tall building typology [12,13].
1.3. Critiques of Tall Building Developments
Numerous scholars have pointed out serious concerns about tall buildings. For example,
Ken Yeang, a leading ﬁgure on sustainable tall building developments, stated that, “At the outset,
we should be clear that the skyscraper is not an ecological building type. In fact, it is one of the
most un-ecological of all building types” (p. 84 [
]). He illustrates the notion of “unecologicalness”
by arguing that tall buildings require excessive materials and sophisticated structural systems to build
so that they are able to withstand greater wind forces that prevail at higher altitudes. They also demand
greater energy to construct, operate, and maintain. Many of these problems stem from the vertical
orientation of this building typology.
Earlier, Christopher Alexander and colleagues in their seminal book A Pattern Language rejected
the high-rise city altogether as a viable human habitat. They passionately explained their reasons
(p. 114 ).
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Pattern 21: FOUR-STORY LIMIT. There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make
people crazy. Therefore, in any urban area, no matter how dense, keep the majority of buildings four
stories high or less. It is possible that certain buildings should exceed this limit, but they should never
be buildings for human habitation.
Similarly, Léon Krier, a prominent proponent of the New Urbanism movement, explains in
his book The Architecture of Community that buildings should have no more than ﬁve ﬂoors [
James Howard Kunstler, a widely respected ﬁgure in urban geography, argues that skyscrapers
generate urban pathologies. They also demand lots of energy and are expensive to retroﬁt. Ergo,
when oil peak and climate change prevail, skyscrapers will become irreparable relics .
Likewise, the Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl in Life Between Buildings (1971) [
and Cities for People (2010) [
] critiqued high-rise cities and praised low-rise ones in various parts of
the world for they emphasize the value of human scale and provide abundant opportunities for healthy
social interaction. The well-known Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1963)
praised human scale environments that foster an active pedestrian life [
]. Also, Hans Blumenfeld in
his inﬂuential work The Modern Metropolis (1971) denounced tall buildings because they damage the
historic fabric of cities .
1.4. Purpose of the Study
Indeed, upon scanning the social science, architecture, and planning literatures we ﬁnd a plethora
of scholars who critique tall buildings. However, these views are scattered and do not follow any
particular order or a conceptual framework. This paper intends to identify, collate, and consolidate
fragmented concerns and critiques of tall building developments and presents them in an accessible
manner. It aims to help architects and planners to attain higher levels of sustainable tall building
developments by avoiding and addressing common “unsustainable” aspects. As such, this paper
forms a knowledge base that is essential to learn and examine unsustainable practices in tall buildings.
It offers a detailed “check list” of topics and issues that are important to the sustainability of tall
building development. It alerts about critical and unexamined issues or just simply offers a reminder
of pitfalls and ill practices. The paper employs sustainability as a framework to consolidate critiques
and pitfalls of tall building developments and uses sustainability’s three pillars (social, economic,
and environmental) to guide the discussion.
The promise of the “sustainable tall” research is that given the large-scale problems of conventional
skyscrapers, any improvements in their design, construction and contextual relationships with their
cities will be signiﬁcant. Since tall buildings serve a great number of people and place a great demand
on the environment at large and the immediate infrastructure of transportation, sewer, and electrical
grid, “sustainable” design may better serve tenants, mitigate environmental impacts and enhance
integration with the city infrastructure. Ergo, as architects design taller buildings that serve more
people and demand more from the environment and infrastructure, any improvement in their design
and construction will beneﬁt cities and denizens. The long life cycle of a skyscraper justiﬁes careful and
informed design, whether we apply for new buildings or in retroﬁtting aging ones. These accumulated
factors have engendered a substantial demand for sustainable tall buildings.
1.5. Sustainability as a Framework
The concept of sustainability continues to be of paramount importance to our cities [
Planners, architects, economists, environmentalists, and politicians continue to use the term in their
conversations and writings. The term “sustainability” frequently appears in academic literature,
professional conferences and organizations, and in practice. For example, the American Planning
Association (APA) continues to use this term in its discussions, publication, and programs. The APA’s
Sustaining Places Initiative, a program dedicated to promoting sustainability in human settlements,
has recently released several important reports that center on sustainability. Remarkably, Sustaining
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Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans (2015) by David R. Godschalk and David C. Rouse offers
planners a detailed guide to creating comprehensive sustainable plans .
Similarly, the United Nations’ World Urban Forum (WUF), the world’s premier conference on
urban issues, uses “sustainability” as a guiding theme to its myriad activities. Since its ﬁrst meeting
in Nairobi, Kenya in 2002, through the latest in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the WUF uses the concept of
“sustainability” as central to their agenda.
Importantly, WUF uses the term “sustainable” in each of its objectives as follows: :
Raise awareness of sustainable urbanization among stakeholders and constituencies, including the
Improve the collective knowledge of sustainable urban development through inclusive,
open debates, sharing of lessons learned and the exchange of best practices and commendable
Increase coordination and cooperation between different stakeholders and constituencies for the
advancement and implementation of sustainable urbanization.
The comprehensiveness of the sustainability concept is apparent in one of the earliest and
most frequently used deﬁnitions created by the United Nations’ Bruntland Commission in 1987.
The commission deﬁned sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising
the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [
]. Concisely, this deﬁnition resonates
the root meaning of the word “sustain”, which is to “provide with nourishment” or to “keep going”,
as deﬁned by Merriam-Webster Dictionary [
]. Therefore, in line with the urban planning profession,
sustainability emphasizes the long-term implications of all human activities. It also presumes that
resources are ﬁnite and that we should use them conservatively and wisely according to long-term
priorities and consequences of the ways we use them.
Over the past three decades, sustainability has evolved and become even more comprehensive
and complex. Planners, architects, and politicians have been applying expanded and diversiﬁed
deﬁnitions of sustainability to almost all human activities, such as :
A sustainable future is one in which a healthy environment, economic prosperity, and social
justice are pursued simultaneously to ensure the well-being and quality of life of present and
future generations. Education is crucial to attaining that future.
In essence, sustainable development is about ﬁve key principles: quality of life; fairness and
equity; participation and partnership; care for our environment and respect for ecological
constraints—recognizing there are ‘environmental limits’; and thought for the future and the
Therefore, sustainability addresses a wide-spectrum of planning and design issues (e.g., housing,
economic growth, water, land, energy, waste recycling, transportation, tourism, parks, open spaces)
and illustrates their interconnectedness. It helps us to adapt our activities to the constraints and
opportunities of the natural systems we need to support our lives. It also assists in planning for
“balanced community where urban centers prosper, natural landscapes ﬂourish, and farming is
strengthened as an integral component of our diverse economy and cultural heritage”, as Rick Pruetz
explains (p. 34 [
]). Notably, in his book The Architecture of Community, Léon Krier presents sustainable
urbanism as “an ethical and civilizing vision of universal stature” (p. 101 ).
Sustainability offers an inclusive framework represented in its three conceptual pillars (the social,
the economic, and the environmental) or the “3Ps” of people, proﬁt, and the planet, where:
•“people” represents community well-being and equity;
•“proﬁt” represents economic vitality; and
•“planet” represents conservation of the environment.
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These pillars or dimensions are also expressed by the “3Es” of equality, economics, and ecology
or what is known as the triple bottom line (TBL or 3BL). Sustainability seeks to balance these three
dimensions across geographic scales—from individual habitats to neighborhood, community, city,
region, country, continent, and the planet at large—and according to both short and long-term goals.
Therefore, the centrality and comprehensiveness of sustainability suggest using it as an “umbrella”
term that captures a wide-spectrum of practical projects under different agendas—“ecological”,
“environmental”, “green”, “social” and “economic”—which all share the common thread of reducing
harmful impact on the environment while delivering economically viable, healthy, and comfortable
human habitats (Figure 1).
Buildings 2018, 8, 7 5 of 30
harmful impact on the environment while delivering economically viable, healthy, and comfortable
human habitats (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Using “Sustainability” as a guiding framework to organize the many issues related to tall
2. Social Dimension
Largely, social science literature reveals that people have multiple concerns about high-rise
living including suitability for family living and raising children, neighborly relationships and
helpfulness, personal behavior and comfort, perception of safety, tenants’ relation to outdoor spaces
and connection to street life [29–38]. High-rises’ tenants often feel that they are cooped up in finite
spaces of an encapsulated world that fosters loneliness. These environments may make inhabitants
also feel claustrophobic, creating a rat-cage mentality. Further, high-rise living could promote poor
interpersonal relationships and weak neighborly relationships that may result in a psychological
depression. In some cases, the “isolated” nature of high-rise buildings could promote crime. Further,
scholars argue that low-rise living is closer to nature and facilitates a stronger community-oriented
social life . As structures grow taller and taller, tenants may perceive that they become increasingly
out of touch with the city life.
2.1. Family and Community Living
For children, tall buildings could be “vertical prisons” . Children may feel in these buildings
that they are confined and treated like “a pet on a short leash”. These buildings may offer day care
centers and playgrounds “in the sky”; however, children lack spontaneous play and exploration that
help them to thrive. Urban psychologists explain that high-rise living can hinder a toddler’s
psychological growth. They suggest that one of the best ways for children (ages between 2 and 7) to
become independent is by allowing them to gradually go out on their own to experience the real world
(e.g., neighborhood, corner store, streetscape, playgrounds, friends and neighbors) and then return home,
their haven. Such approach, however, is only attainable in a low-rise environment where parents can see
(and may hear) their children from their homes’ windows. This interplay between dependence and
autonomy that earns a child a sense of competence is missing in high-rise environments .
The presence or absence of recreational and social outdoor spaces in tall building developments
significantly affects the overall residential satisfaction more than that in low-rise environments .
That is, tall buildings’ residents lack front-yards, courtyards, and backyards, and hence public
outdoor spaces are critically important for them. When these spaces are absent, residents are “forced”
to spend more time indoors, where they may then experience overcrowding or being “imprisoned in
the sky” [31,32]. Further, when vertical transportation is inadequate or frequently malfunctions,
Using “Sustainability” as a guiding framework to organize the many issues related to tall
2. Social Dimension
Largely, social science literature reveals that people have multiple concerns about high-rise living
including suitability for family living and raising children, neighborly relationships and helpfulness,
personal behavior and comfort, perception of safety, tenants’ relation to outdoor spaces and connection
to street life [
]. High-rises’ tenants often feel that they are cooped up in ﬁnite spaces of an
encapsulated world that fosters loneliness. These environments may make inhabitants also feel
claustrophobic, creating a rat-cage mentality. Further, high-rise living could promote poor interpersonal
relationships and weak neighborly relationships that may result in a psychological depression. In some
cases, the “isolated” nature of high-rise buildings could promote crime. Further, scholars argue
that low-rise living is closer to nature and facilitates a stronger community-oriented social life [
As structures grow taller and taller, tenants may perceive that they become increasingly out of touch
with the city life.
2.1. Family and Community Living
For children, tall buildings could be “vertical prisons” [
]. Children may feel in these buildings
that they are conﬁned and treated like “a pet on a short leash”. These buildings may offer day care
centers and playgrounds “in the sky”; however, children lack spontaneous play and exploration
that help them to thrive. Urban psychologists explain that high-rise living can hinder a toddler’s
psychological growth. They suggest that one of the best ways for children (ages between 2 and 7) to
become independent is by allowing them to gradually go out on their own to experience the real world
(e.g., neighborhood, corner store, streetscape, playgrounds, friends and neighbors) and then return
home, their haven. Such approach, however, is only attainable in a low-rise environment where parents
Buildings 2018,8, 7 6 of 31
can see (and may hear) their children from their homes’ windows. This interplay between dependence
and autonomy that earns a child a sense of competence is missing in high-rise environments .
The presence or absence of recreational and social outdoor spaces in tall building developments
signiﬁcantly affects the overall residential satisfaction more than that in low-rise environments [
That is, tall buildings’ residents lack front-yards, courtyards, and backyards, and hence public outdoor
spaces are critically important for them. When these spaces are absent, residents are “forced” to
spend more time indoors, where they may then experience overcrowding or being “imprisoned in the
]. Further, when vertical transportation is inadequate or frequently malfunctions, residents
will feel discouraged to travel back and forth to amenities provided on the ground ﬂoor. Consequently,
these amenities will be underused and residents may not reap the full beneﬁts.
High-rises often create disjointed neighborhoods [
]. They are individualistic, introverted structures
that make people feel they are living in “vertical silos”, physically, socially, and psychologically.
These buildings appear to be monolithic structures mushrooming in cities without respecting the
socio-spatial order of their neighborhoods. When tall buildings are juxtapositioned next to low-rise
buildings, residents worry about the loss of privacy since windows and balconies loom over their
backyards and shadow their gardens. In his article “The Consequences of Living in High-Rise
Buildings”, in the Architectural Science Review journal (2007), Robert Gifford details six types of fears
found in high-rise living as follows :
1. Residents fear that a family member or a loved child jumps from a window,
2. Residents may fear masses of “strangers” that share the same building or ﬂoor,
3. Residents fear a ﬁre that may trap them in the building,
4. Residents fear a devastating earthquake that will topple the building over them,
Residents may fear becoming ill from communicable diseases generated by the masses who live
6. Post 9/11, high-rise residents fear that their buildings become terrorist targets
Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis, a reputable planner and architect, summed up these
observations in his writing:
High-rise buildings work against man himself because they isolate him from others, and this
isolation is an important factor in the rising crime rate. Children suffer even more because they lose
their direct contact with nature and other children. High-rise buildings work against society because
they prevent the units of social importance—the family, the neighborhood, etc., from functioning as
naturally and as normally as in low-rise environments (p. 82, ).
Skyscrapers substantiate income and racial segregations by creating “vertical gated communities”
(VGCs), which limit social interaction and promotion of social capital across socioeconomic groups.
As is the case with “horizontal” gated communities, VGCs internalize residents’ social activities that
might otherwise invigorate the public realm and enliven street life. Further, high-rises are often the
habitats of smaller household size (referring to the number of individuals living in a household)
with fewer children. However, research indicates that the presence of a greater number of tenants
and particularly children is critical to promote sense of community. Consequently, the chances
of having lower sense of community in high-rise developments are greater than that in low-rise
2.2. Disparity in Quality of Life
Tall building may server a wide-range of tenants of various classes and incomes, including
upper, middle, and lower classes. However, critiques have focused on tall buildings that cater
to either the poor or the rich population. At one end of the spectrum, “vertical slums” have
prevailed in poor neighborhoods, for example in the U.S public housing projects. Unfortunately,
due to mismanagement, inadequate maintenance, and mediocre architectural design, these buildings
suffered from difﬁcult living conditions. They fell into disuse, and eventually, authorities demolished
Buildings 2018,8, 7 7 of 31
these housing projects. Archetypal projects include the Pruitt–Igoe in Saint Louis, MO, and Cabrini
Green in Chicago, IL. Built in the years between 1952 and 1956 and consisted of 33 buildings of
11 story each (totaling about 3000 residential units), the Pruitt–Igoe project suffered immensely
from social problems; and consequently, authorities demolished it in the years between 1972 and
1976. Importantly, research indicates that architectural design was not solely responsible for these
developments’ failure. Urban policies that “favored” and supported suburban living in the form of
offering better educational systems and ﬁnancial incentives for obtaining mortgages, have exacerbated
these problems. Researchers observe these urban policies particularly in the American urban and
suburban contexts [
]. Further, poor design, whether in a low-rise or a high-rise development,
often results with lower residents’ satisfaction. However, dissatisfaction in poorly designed high-rise
environments could be greater because of their vertical orientation that conveys greater sense of
conﬁnement and distancing from the social life on the street [31,32].
At the other end of the spectrum, tall buildings have created private, luxury enclaves, or “mansions
in the sky” for super wealthy people. These developments offer privacy, top security, restricted
access, 24-h closed circuit camera system (CCTV) as well as a wide-range of services—analogous
to those provided by luxury hotels. These towers often enjoy the closeness to urban amenities and
services such as cinemas, theaters, markets, shopping malls, cafeterias, restaurants, pharmacies,
public parks, and mass transit. In short, developers promote luxury high-rise living to enjoy the
best of both worlds (urban and suburban) in one place. Nevertheless, these buildings often exclude
The “mansions in the sky” phenomenon manifests differently in suburbia, where tall buildings
are located on spacious land and function as autonomous neighborhoods with their guarded gates,
exclusive services, and outdoor amenities, such as golf courses, parks, swimming pools, tennis courts,
and marina. For example, Aventura, Florida, contains scattered clusters of “mansions in the sky”,
where amenities, services, and facilities are exclusive to tenants and their guests. Unfortunately, in both
urban and suburban settings, these communities contribute to social and spatial fragmentations,
thereby weakening the bonds of a civic society, and promoting fear and tension among socioeconomic
Recent developments of ultra-luxury residential supertalls in New York City have reinforced
the “mansions in the sky” phenomenon. New supertalls (e.g., One57 tower and 432 Park Avenue)
are vividly exposing the new “social ladder” of the city by placing the richest people “physically”
on the highest altitudes. This new socio-spatial polarization (vertical slums versus mansions in the sky)
reinforces social and racial segregations, echoing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “symbolic capital” [
Indeed, the “mansions in the sky” phenomenon symbolizes prestige, recognition, wealth,
competition, and social class. Steven Holl, a leading U.S. architect [
], has denounced these
developments because they create physical silos and isolate afﬂuent residents from the rest of the city.
In this regard, Jenna McKnight cites Aaron Betsky explaining, “Manhattan is being transformed into a
Capitalist holy land with no space for the poor” [
]. He indicated that these tallest luxury residential
towers epitomize the skyline’s transformation from a symbol of collective economic prosperity to a
symbol of greed, income inequality, and growth of individual wealth.
Indeed, New York City (NYC)’s ultra-luxury towers have drawn extensive criticism from the
experts and the public alike. In her article titled “The Logic of Luxury: New York’s New Super-Slender
Towers”, Carol Willis  explains that these towers create the following problems:
•Skew the housing market by raising price and decreasing affordability to the average residents,
•Strain the existing infrastructure,
•Cast undesirable shadows on street and public spaces,
Absentee tenants of these buildings fail to support the local economy of businesses and social life
of the neighborhood, and
•Tax avoidance by non-resident foreigners raises issues of fairness.
Buildings 2018,8, 7 8 of 31
Opponents also voiced concerns that numerous purchasers of these residential units have paid
from shadowy sources and have taken steps to hide their identities. In particular, overseas investors
have been using illicit wealth to purchase properties secretly in luxury residential tall buildings located
in “global” cities such as New York, London, and Hong Kong. In their article titled “Stream of
Foreign Wealth Flows to Elite New York Real Estate” in The New York Times, Louis Story and Stephanie
] elucidated that hidden ownership of expensive, luxury residences in Manhattan has
become a commonplace. In 2008, building owners sold these units for $5 million or more and shell
companies that hid the buyers’ identities bought 39% of those residences. By 2014, the share of hidden
buyers for luxury properties rose to 54%. On the Upper East Side, sales to shell companies have
reached 42%. In 2014, 54% of sales over $5 million in Manhattan were to shell companies. In uptown
neighborhoods that have new construction, the share exceeds 60%, and in downtown Manhattan,
building owners sold 63% of luxury residences to hidden buyers. Story and Saulfeb also bring several
alarming stories highlighting these problems by explaining :
On the 74th ﬂoor of the Time Warner Center, Condominium 74B was purchased in 2010 for
$15.65 million by a secretive entity called 25CC ST74B L.L.C. It traces to the family of Vitaly Malkin,
a former Russian senator, and banker who was barred from entering Canada because of suspected
connections to organized crime. . . Last fall, another shell company bought a condo down the hall
for $21.4 million from a Greek businessman named Dimitrios Contominas, who was arrested a year
ago as part of a corruption sweep in Greece.. . A few ﬂoors down are three condos owned by another
shell company, Columbus Skyline L.L.C., which belongs to the family of a Chinese businessman
and contractor named Wang Wenliang. His construction company was found housing workers in
New Jersey in hazardous, unsanitary conditions.
Completed in 2004, the Time Warner Center was New York’s trial run of the super luxury,
super expensive condominiums. Located in a prestige spot, right at Columbus Circle and privileged
with splendid views of the Central park, it is well suited to spark a global phenomenon that spilled
over to Hong Kong (e.g., the Cullinan I & II (2008) and the Opus (2012) by Gehry Partners) and London
(One Hyde Park (2009) by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners). More vividly, towers in the 57th street
and its vicinity will likely gain a global status that rivals towers in other cities regarding height and
price. For the sake of comparison, the heights of these towers are as follows :
Cullinan I & II, Hong Kong 68 stories, 270 m/886 ft
Opus, Hong Kong 13 stories, 60 m/197 ft
One Hyde Park, London 14 stories, 50 m/162 ft
432 Park Avenue, NYC 85 stories, 426 m/1396 ft
111 West 57th, NYC 82 stories, 435 m/1428 ft
Central Park Tower, NYC 95 stories, 472 m/1550 ft
Towers in the “Billionaires’ Row” (referring to an area along 57th street and its vicinity) will
certainly reinforce the view that New York is a global, cosmopolitan city, where its residents come
from all over the world, and its “global” purchasers are not necessarily full-time residents. However,
these factors may hurt the social sustainability of the neighborhoods. “Part-time residents” are likely
to neither engage in the social life of the neighborhood nor economically beneﬁt its retail, commercial,
and grocery stores. In addition, learning that some neighbors purchase their ﬂats using “unlawful”
sources is likely to create mistrust and build social barriers among neighbors .
2.3. Human Scale
Humankind is the measure of all things, as Protagoras, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher,
]. Observing human scale in the design of the built environment is essential for
providing comfort to users. Because of their great heights, tall buildings, by default, violate human
scale. Large cities with a conglomeration of soaring buildings face the challenge of providing a
comfortable environment for pedestrians. They are likely to exhibit what Jacobs and Appleyard
call “giantism” [
]. Developments of massive tall buildings cause passersby to feel small, dwarfed,
Buildings 2018,8, 7 9 of 31
and irrelevant. These negative effects could be of less concern in tall structures such as the Eiffel Tower
or Statue of Liberty because their “tallness” is less imposing. That is, these structure are often located
in spacious areas (parks, water body, etc.) and hence viewers do not need to bend their heads or “break
their necks” to see them. In addition, unlike ordinary tall buildings, these structures are exceptional
because they serve symbolic purposes. They are emblematic objects rather than human habitats.
Jan Gehl has written extensively arguing that wonderful places feature three- to six-story buildings.
He advocated low- to mid-rise environments as ideal places that can promote walkable and less
car-dependent neighborhoods, and asserted that neighborhoods with shorter buildings are more
successful urban places than those with taller buildings. He lamented that new skyscrapers, reaching
unprecedented heights, are “eyesores” or at least less appealing than the low-slung Parisian urban
design model. Overall, Gehl criticized steel-and-glass vertical urbanism for creating unpleasant,
soulless, crowded, and inhumanly scaled environments [18,19].
Indeed, skyscrapers often shatter the urban scale by dwarﬁng nearby buildings, people, and public
spaces. Pedestrians at the street level are often unable to connect visually with high-rise tenants,
architecture, ornamentation, decorative art, and personalized details. For example, pedestrians cannot
see the ﬂowerpots in the upper-story windows, which bring a touch of humanity. Pedestrians also
cannot completely see the high-rise building; instead, they see “urban canyons” that make them feel
visually disoriented. Jane Jacobs argued in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American
] that traditional low-rise neighborhoods with front porches and stoops facilitate the “eyes on
the street” natural surveillance, and hence promote security and community spirit .
Similarly, Land H. Kendig and Bret C. Keast write in their book Community Character: Principles
for Design and Planning (2010) (pp. 85–86 [
]): “At sixty feet (four to ﬁve stories), a building is ten
times the height of a human; when a building reaches twenty stories, it is more than forty-four times
human height. At this level, it is necessary to tilt one’s head back to see the skyline across the street”.
Likewise, Jan Gehl elucidates that our “vertical” ﬁeld of vision does not allow seeing upward unless
we raise our heads. We also tend to bow our heads about 10 degrees when we walk, which makes it
more difﬁcult to perceive the high-rise environment. Horizontally, our cone of vision widens as we
move away from tall buildings allowing us to see more of the skyline. Further, tall buildings not only
dwarf human scale but also deprive streets of natural light, making them unattractive. Overall, a 1:1
ratio of street width to building height is desirable, and once we introduce tall buildings, they often
alter this ratio drastically, creating urban canyon .
2.4. Placelessness and the Public Realm
Similarly, because of their massive size and great height, tall buildings have often contributed
to the problems of placelessness. In central business districts (CBDs), tall buildings frequently evoke
the image of a nerve-racking, workaholic business environment. In addition, in residential areas
they convey the perception of living in crowded apartments that are more akin to cages than living
spaces. Inhumanely high towers often shatter the human scale by dwarﬁng nearby public spaces and
buildings, particularly those of a historic character [
]. People at the street level are unable to visually
connect with them because they cannot see the whole building [
]. People often become disoriented
and feel lost in their midst, as if they were engulfed by canyons of skyscrapers. Also, the tenants of
high-rises tend to lose sight of the pedestrian and social life of the street. Conversely, pedestrians often
cannot see the decorative art and personalizing details, such as ﬂowerpots in the upper-story windows,
which bring a touch of humanity to these types of living structures .
Speaking about Manhattan, Robert Freedman [
] contrasts high-rise with low-rise neighborhoods
in the same island. He explains that in walk-up apartment neighborhoods in Manhattan, a resident or
a passerby would immediately feel a warm welcome not found in the towering, elevator-skyscrapers
neighborhoods that proliferate through most of Manhattan. Freedman argues that vernacular brick,
wood, and stone low-rise neighborhoods are more humane than glittering, steel-and-glass high-rise
neighborhoods. He proliﬁcally explains [
]: “While walking, you have the sense that you ‘ﬁt’. It’s not
Buildings 2018,8, 7 10 of 31
unlike retrieving your jacket after having mistakenly slipped into someone else’s that was several sizes
too large. It just feels right”.
Moshe Safdie has also commented that tall building developments often hurt the public realm.
He explained that at the street level, tall buildings have replaced small mom-and-pop shops, commonly
found in traditional neighborhoods, with large, blank-walled facades [
]. There are numerous tall
building examples that support this view, including Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, CA,
Hyatt Regency Hotel, Indianapolis, IN, the General Motors Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI, among
others. Interestingly, it is not only tall building developments alter the feel and look of vernacular and
traditional environments. New developments of shorter buildings could result with similar effects.
However, the problem could be greater in tall buildings when they employ mega bases characterized
by large and blank facades as well as lofty shafts as seen in the aforementioned examples.
According to Safdie, avant-garde architects strive to give new architectural forms or “object”
buildings that pay little attention to human and social dimensions. These buildings disturb the urban
social life. Towers function as singular, autonomous structures—some are experienced as lonely
sculptural objects in the cityscape. They often do not contribute to the public realm because they
are self-contained, introverted, and privatized. Planning, zoning, and urban design guidelines have
neither observed nor regulated the great socio-economic interdependence of towers and the city.
Overall, architects and planners have failed to deploy a tall building as an effective building block
of cities. “Only powerful concepts for how earth meets tower can begin to bring about an urbanism
in which the public realm is continuous, truly public, and possesses the appropriate environmental
Often, tall buildings require signiﬁcant parking structures. Since it is costly to accommodate them
underground, architects place them above ground, thereby taking away from the street social life and
unstimulating the public realm. Their design is often insensible and damages the urban character.
Parking garages above ground are a “street kill” because they disconnect social life of urban space,
engender spatial disorders, and create “eyesores” in the city. Although this problem is not exclusive
to tall buildings, it is most pronounced in this building typology because it requires greater parking
spaces and larger parking garages.
Aesthetically, tall buildings often create contextual problems when placed near historic structures.
As cities become denser and land values skyrocket, older historic structures are pressured to be
demolished to make room for new taller buildings [
]. In their paper titled “Tall Versus Old? The Role
of Historic Preservation in the Context of Rapid Urban Growth”, Kate Ascher and Sabina Uffer
illustrate this problem in three cities: New York City, Berlin, and Beijing. These cities face a challenge
of accommodating new demand on space while preserving precious built heritage simultaneously.
While Beijing has been engaged in razing large areas of its built heritage, New York City faces real
estate pressure to make room for supertalls, and Berlin continues to debate which history is worth
In particular, New York City has been witnessing an increasing pace in building tall and supertalls.
Most of these buildings have been replacing low-rise 19th-century structures, despite preservationists’
objections, arguing that Midtown will soon reach “a tipping point in which the architectural mix of
old and new is lost to a wash of sparkly glassy” (p. 108 [
]). This problem accelerates as demand
on space increases, and developable lots are progressively scarce in Manhattan Island. Overall,
historic preservation issues are often contentious and require an interdisciplinary team to make
At the larger scale, tall buildings have contributed to the problem of placelessness by creating
spatial chaos. Their massive size and great height make it difﬁcult to blend into neighborhoods.
In central business districts (CBDs), tall buildings evoke the image of a nerve-racking, workaholic
business environment. Also, in residential areas, they convey the perception of living in crowded
apartments that are more akin to cages than living spaces [
]. The absence of an urban design vision
that guides neighborhood and city developments have led to haphazard mushrooming of high-rises,
Buildings 2018,8, 7 11 of 31
evoking visual disorder. What makes the problem worse is that individual architects have been using
high-rises as an opportunity to display their artistic talents at a mega scale, contributing to conﬂicting
architectural styles in the same neighborhood.
Importantly, current practices of tall buildings are making cities around the world look alike.
For example, downtown Melbourne looks similar to that of Pudong, Shanghai, Miami, or Dubai.
The common shortfall of these skyscrapers is that design has not paid attention to local tradition,
geography, and climate. In particular, the steel-and-glass tower, which invaded cities, has made them
look homogeneous and similar, ignoring local identity and culture. “High-rise buildings and modern
architecture generally are homogenizing our cities in the same way that Starbucks and McDonald’s are
homogenizing the dining culture. . . I think this is something we need to ﬁght against. .. so many of
the buildings are about a sculpted form. They could almost be a perfume bottle or a vase. That has
become an international style” .
Recently, Richard Meier, one of America’s most respected architects, commented that New York
is losing its character due to new disrespectful skyscrapers. He explained [
], “There’s a scale to
New York as there is a scale to London, and that’s what makes the city great
. . .
. New York has a
quality to it and you have to respect the context”. Particularly, when planners plant a tall building
in an isolated manner, it has the potential to exert a negative omnipresent visual impact citywide.
For example, the 209-m (686-ft) tall, 58-story Tour de Montparnasse in Paris has negatively affected the
urban character of the city to the extent that the city banned tall buildings for years.
Adam Caruso echoes a similar concern by explaining that cities suffer from haphazard
developments of tall buildings. The lack of effective urban design regulations and architectural
guidelines has turned cities into a “free for all”, according to Caruso [
]. The key problem stems
from the fact that the ﬁnal say is for the one who pays for the project, the developer. Few countries,
nevertheless, offer planners greater authorities and control over urban developments. For example,
Germany gives the appointed city planners greater power to accept or reject a proposed building based
on contextual ﬁt, thereby preventing the emergence of chaotic urban design in the city .
2.5. Fire Incidences
Tall buildings are prone to massive losses of lives and valuable properties caused by ﬁre. High-rise
buildings present several unique challenges not found in traditional low-rise buildings, including
greater difﬁculties for a ﬁreﬁghter to access a smoldering high-rise building, longer egress times and
distances, complex evacuation strategies, and smoke movement and ﬁre control. Typical dangers at a
ﬁre incidence involve ﬂame, smoke, heat, toxic gases, ﬂashover, and backdraft explosions. However,
the multiple ﬂoors of a high-rise building create the cumulative effect of needing greater numbers of
ﬁreﬁghters to travel great vertical distances on stairs to evacuate the building.
Therefore, it takes much longer time for ﬁghters to rescue tenants of high-rises than that of
low-rises. An extended time of burning ﬁre increases chances that ﬂame and smoke reach tenants,
thereby causing greater death to people and damage to the building. A prolonged rescue time also
makes ﬁreﬁghters exhausted, whom bodies get exceedingly hot due to closeness to ﬁre and heavy
protective gears and masks they wear. Further, in disastrous ﬁres, sprinkler systems and ﬁre elevators
can malfunction .
Despite advances in ﬁre codes, numerous high-rise buildings continue to be ill equipped.
High-rises, particularly in the developing world, lack effective ﬁre safety standards, ﬁre prevention,
and emergency action plans. In 2009, a ﬁerce blaze engulfed the 31-story hotel and cultural center,
which is part of the China Central Television’s headquarters (CCTV) in Beijing [
]. Designed by the
renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the ﬁre happened few months before completion. It was
difﬁcult for ﬁreﬁghters to control ﬁre because their equipment was incapable of ﬁghting ﬁre above
the 20th ﬂoor. Luckily, the building was unoccupied; therefore, there were no casualties. However,
a ﬁre that burned an apartment building in Shanghai resulted in killing 48 and injuring 90 residents in
]. In the same year, a ﬁre hit Carlton Towers in Bangalore, a neighborhood in Delhi, India, which
Buildings 2018,8, 7 12 of 31
led to the death of nine and the injury of 70 residents [
]. After the incidence, authorities investigated
ﬁre safety in the city and found that most high-rise buildings did not meet ﬁre safety standards.
On the New Year’s Eve of 2016, an intense ﬁre engulfed the 63-story Address Hotel in Dubai,
]. An electrical short circuit caused a spark that triggered the blaze. Likewise, in 2015,
the 86-story Torch building also in Dubai experienced a ﬁre in its upper ﬂoors [
]. It took considerable
time to evacuate this residential tower due to its exceptional height. In response to these ﬁre incidences,
Dubai has enacted new buildings’ regulations requiring less ﬂammable exterior cladding, as well as
speciﬁc procedures for installation and maintenance. It also debuted jetpack-equipped ﬁreﬁghters in a
bid to tackle skyscraper ﬁres swiftly by avoiding trafﬁc jams on the ground.
When construction completed, The Torch was the world’s tallest residential tower. However,
other residential supertalls completed recently have snatched that title. For example, global developers
have built several new taller residential towers in Dubai, including the:
•413-m (1356-ft), 101-story Princess Tower,
•392-m (1287-ft), 88-story 23 Marina, and
•380-m (1248-ft), 87-story Elite Residence.
In 2015, the New York City, however, snatched the world’s tallest residential tower title from
Dubai by building the 426 m (1396 ft), 85-story 432 Park Avenue, designed by Rafael Viñoly.
Most recently, in June 2017, a devastating ﬁre hit the 24-story Grenfell Tower causing the death of
nearly 80 and injury of additional dozens of its 600 residents as well as the destruction of the entire
building, despite of the deployment of 40 ﬁre engines and 200 ﬁreﬁghters—ﬁre-ﬁghting equipment
did not reach beyond the 11th ﬂoor. Importantly, the building’s owner has ﬁtted combustible
insulation boards (Celotex RS500 polyisocyanurate foam core (PIR)) behind the cladding during
a recent refurbishment, which accelerated ﬁre spread. Moreover, these boards have released cyanide
gas that contributed to the deaths of some of the victims. Richard Hull, a leading professor of chemistry
and ﬁre science, commented, “Unlike ships, trains, or aircraft, where ﬁre toxicity is regulated because
it is accepted that escape may not be possible, the UK and most of Europe have no regulations on
the toxicity of ﬁre smoke from construction products, even though escape from a high-rise building
may be equally impossible” [
]. As such, faulty materials as well as bribery have exacerbated the ﬁre
problem in this building.
Furthermore, building regulations when the tower was built in the 1970s did not require the
installation of sprinkler systems (internal and external), which could have minimized ﬁre damage.
Until today, most cities do not require buildings with combustible cladding to integrate external
sprinklers. Additionally, London’s ﬁre regulations require tower blocks to have merely one staircase.
Certainly, a second staircase could have eased tenants’ escape from the building.
Fires in high-rises threaten the lives of residents and ﬁreﬁghters alike. For example, high-rises
incorporate tall shafts such as elevator shafts, smoke shafts, utility wire and plumbing shafts as well
as package and mail and garbage chutes. Usually, safeguards such as railings, gypsum block walls,
self-closing doors, and trap doors prevent occupants from falling into these vertical elements.
Nevertheless, a ﬁre can destroy these safeguards, and in a dark or smoke-ﬁlled environment,
ﬁreﬁghters can fall to their deaths in these shafts. Research has documented cases where ﬁre has killed
and injured ﬁreﬁghters in high-rise buildings such as the Empire State Building and 1 New York Plaza
in New York City and One Meridian Plaza ﬁre in Philadelphia. Further, during the ﬁre, chunks of glass
and metal of tall buildings may rain down on pedestrians on the ground .
Overall, security and safety systems are costly, and some are less effective. For example, helipads
are costly and often helpless because helicopters take a considerable time to land, load people, and take
off. They take a small number of a skyscraper’s occupants at a time. Further, helicopter pilots are often
extremely hesitant to land on a burning building, fearing that the helicopter may catch ﬁre as blazes
and smoke swiftly ascend.
Buildings 2018,8, 7 13 of 31
Even if a pilot decides to take a risk and land on the rooftop, the rising heat and smoke from the
ﬁre may jostle and destabilize the helicopter, thereby complicating the landing process and preventing
people from boarding the helicopter. Research revealed that if the World Trade Center rooftops had
been accessible (the helipad fell into disuse), helicopters could not have landed because of the heat
and smoke. Consequently, rarely used helipads may enhance the perception of safety; however, they
have a limited role to play .
The helipad’s integration in tall buildings limits skyline design. For example, the skyline of the
City of Los Angeles, CA, has suffered from “ﬂatness” dictated by local zoning codes that required that
all buildings 75 ft (22 m) and taller integrate helipads in their roofs. The city enacted the law in 1974
after two deadly skyscraper ﬁres in Brazil. However, authorities have canceled this law recently after
discerning that helipads had been of little use.
Also, the helipad’s problem in limiting design for rooftops was apparent in the one-kilometer-tall
(3280-foot-tall) Jeddah Tower, currently under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The architects
proposed a protruding helipad near the top of the pointy tower. Nonetheless, helicopter pilots pointed
out that they would not feel comfortable landing there because they feared tight space and potentially
high winds could cause them to hit the tower. Consequently, the architects converted the proposed
7500-square-foot (697-square-meter) helipad to an outdoor terrace instead, known as the “sky terrace”
that will overlook the Red Sea .
2.6. Terrorist Attacks
Large concentrations of people in conﬁned spaces are increasingly considered targets for terrorist
attacks. Tall buildings, by default, house large number of people as well as valuable assets, making
them a potential target for terrorist acts. That is, tall buildings could be vulnerable to unanticipated
tragic events. For example, no one predicted that Boeing 767 aircrafts would smash the World Trade
Center (WTC) towers in New York City in 2001. In 1970, structural engineers designed the WTC towers
to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707 plane—the largest commercial plane at that time. However,
the Boeing 767 planes used in the September 11 attack were larger and carried 20,000 gallons of jet fuel.
Another example that illustrates how tall buildings could be a target for a criminal act is the
Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK, where a bomb in a rented truck exploded
outside the building, causing considerable damage in 1995. Earlier, in 1945, B-25 two-engine bomber
crashed into the Empire State Building as the pilot lost track during a heavy fog. Flaming gasoline
from the 1400-gallon tanks burned to death 14 and injured 26 tenants .
2.7. Window Cleaning, Repair, and Maintenance
Daily activities carried out to repair tall buildings and to clean their windows threatens the lives of
workers. People often take the issue of window cleaning of skyscrapers lightly; however, it continues
to be a frequent cause of the death of workers. Cleaning crews perform tasks manually by descending
the height of the building from the roof to the ground ﬂoor while hanging on ropes and carrying water
buckets and cleaning tools. Workers go down ﬂoor-by-ﬂoor, but some get dizzy and fall off while
others bounce into walls and windows because of forceful wind.
Cleaning mechanical systems may fail. For example, two cleaning workers were stranded in their
scaffold as one of its two ropes slacked while cleaning the exterior windows of the recently completed
One World Trade Center. The scaffold ﬂipped over almost vertically, and workers waited in place for
nearly two hours for rescue [
]. By using a diamond saw, the Fire Department of the City of New York
(FDNY) cut through the glass panel from inside the building and rescued them. Though successful,
the process was risky since cutting a hole in the window at a higher altitude could have created a
powerful wind tunnel.
Nevertheless, cleaning skyscrapers’ windows is a daunting task, particularly for larger buildings.
For example, it takes 36 window cleaners four months to clean the 26,000 windows of Burj Khalifa [
Importantly, there are issues of labor abuse since most of these workers are immigrants and employers
Buildings 2018,8, 7 14 of 31
deprive them of their social rights, safety, security, and health benefits. For example, most of the window
cleaners in Hong Kong are immigrants from countries of Philippines and Indonesia. In New York City,
the majority of window cleaners are immigrants from South America .
Unfortunately, we are technologically far from having robots replacing cleaning workers.
Machines cannot clean windows as well as cleaning workers do. Unmanned cleaning machines tend to
leave dirt, stances, spots, and gray areas around the rim of the window, for example. These machines
also cannot reach building corners well, and they have difﬁculties to work with facades that feature
treatments and articulations, recessed windows, metallic decorations, and cantilevered elements.
We tend to underestimate the importance of having a clean and clear glass. Nevertheless, buildings’
tenants who pay a high price for views do value clean windows.
What makes the problem worse is that architects increasingly design complex shapes for
skyscrapers, making it harder for a machine to do the job. A robot will not be able to maneuver
complex shapes to reach each facet of the building. Also, buildings’ owners are clinging on traditional
rope-and-scaffold systems because they need them for purposes other than cleaning windows,
including maintenance and repair, for example for repairing facades, balconies, and broken windows.
Regardless, it is pathetic that we can develop technology to put a man or women on the moon,
but we are incapable or unwilling to develop technology that saves workers’ lives, window cleaners,
and construction crews. It is sad that skyscraper design does not pay adequate attention to these
problems. Architects continue to focus on inventing new forms and shapes, not on saving lives.
The window-washing problem should be the ﬁrst not the last to address.
Further, window cracking and breaking are common problems in supertall buildings. Indeed,
glass ages and weakens over time and any deﬁciencies in manufacturing or installation could lead
to cracks or breakups under wind pressure. For example, Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)
in Chicago has experienced several incidences where under forceful wind some windows in the upper
ﬂoors were shattered. On 22 February 1998, winds gusting to 56 miles an hour broke and cracked
90 panes of the Willis Tower [
]. Debris fell on sidewalks, damaged properties, and hurt pedestrians.
For safety considerations, police blocked streets and rerouted trafﬁc, causing inconveniences and trafﬁc
congestion in adjacent neighborhoods.
2.8. Construction Workers
Constructing tall buildings, particularly supertall, may entail the death and injury of construction
workers. Unfortunately, construction activities continue to rely on labors who perform tasks manually.
For example, façade assembly and exterior cladding rely on labors so that they manually grab panels
from cranes and ﬁxate them in assigned places. Construction workers repeat this process for each
panel individually until the façade is complete. The process is tedious as panels are in thousands;
for example, Burj Khalifa contains 26,000 glass panels [
]. The assemblage task is most challenging in
upper ﬂoors where the wind becomes more powerful and in the process, some workers fall and die.
Tragic cases also happen during similar tasks, for example assembling structural systems.
Construction workers bear a risk in building skyscrapers. A recent online article by the
For Construction Pros reports the following incidences in constructing skyscrapers [
]: ﬁve deaths for
the Empire State Building, 60 deaths for the 1970s World Trade Center, ﬁve deaths for the Sears Tower;
and six deaths for the Las Vegas’s CityCenter project. Also, in 2016, a construction worker fell to his
death from the 53rd ﬂoor of the Wilshire Grand tower in downtown Los Angeles [
], and in 2017,
in Manhattan, two workers fell about 35 feet from an external elevator shaft, killing one and injuring
the other. Further in Manhattan and in the same year, a construction worker fell from the 29th ﬂoor to
his death .
Buildings 2018,8, 7 15 of 31
Regrettably, automating the entire construction process of skyscrapers is still far from reality.
Overall, specialized labors and high precision work are essential in all construction activities of
]. As architects design more complex forms and shapes of buildings (including tall
ones), construction workers face greater risks. However, it is interesting to note that the greater death
of construction workers occur in constructing canals, tunnels, and railroads not buildings .
2.9. People’s Choice
Recent massive high-rise developments in China teach us new sustainability lessons. The Chinese
government has enormously promoted constructing high-rise cities to house new massive urban
population ﬂocking from rural areas. However, Chinese people have largely shunned these
developments because they disliked the design, layout, architectural styles, schools, and amenities.
Certainly, these cities were developed in a rushed manner, attempting to house hundreds of thousands
of people in a few years, and consequently, city planners disengaged residents from the design
process and deprived them from voicing their preferences. The design process did not take into
considerations that many of the intended inhabitants were villagers who were accustomed to low-rise
living, not high-rise living .
Ordos Kangbashi in China is one of several new high-rise cities sitting almost vacant because of these
reasons. Although Ordos Kangbashi offers beautiful architecture, attractive plazas, and state-of-the-art
recreational spaces, this stillborn city lacks the essential ingredients of success including affordability,
socio-economic vitality, and employment opportunities [
]. Further, Ordos Kangbashi’s location is
detrimental for being remote from any settlements. It is located in the Inner Mongolia
s vast steppe
that features a harsh climate and lacks basic life essentials such as water and vegetation. Consequently,
while planners have designed this new city to house over a million of inhabitants, barely a few thousands
Chinese people have nicknamed these cities “modern ghost cities” because they evoke an eerie
sensation promoted by silent streets, vacant high-rises, empty parks, and dead public spaces. In turn,
this prevailing negative image has further discouraged people from considering moving into these
new high-rise cities [
]. This local phenomenon has promoted global consciousness and a negative
image about high-rise developments.
2.10. Health and Well-Being
Many studies found that tall buildings’ tenants experience emotional stress and other negative
psychological conditions. Research indicates that undesirable social interaction among tenants because
of sharing ﬂoors and amenities tends to create stress and tensions [
]. In addition, the greater degree
of sharing space and utilities exists, the greater level of stress was developed. Further, high density of a
building population, poor design and layout, high trafﬁc of people in and out, and the lack of outdoor
recreational and social spaces are likely to exacerbate these problems. In particular, tall buildings of
poor neighborhoods suffer from high concentration of population, overcrowding, little outdoor and
social spaces, and feature a high degree of space and utility sharing. In contrast, tenants of high-end
high-rises may suffer from isolation and loneliness .
3. Economic Dimension
Skyscrapers are costly buildings (Table 1). Their costs are greater than that of low-rise buildings
holding the same square footage because they need stronger foundation and structural systems to
withstand natural forces of wind, gravity, and earthquakes, and to resist severe weather conditions
such as hurricanes, tornados, and typhoons [
] (Table 2). As such, tall buildings demand enormous
amounts of steel and concrete—for example, the construction of One World Trade Center required
50 thousand tons of steel and 182 thousand cubic yards of concrete .
Buildings 2018,8, 7 16 of 31
Table 1. Skyscrapers are costly buildings .
# Skyscraper Billions
1 Abraj Al Bait $15.49
2 Marina Bay Sands $5.98
3 One World Trade Center $3.92
4 Taipei 101 $2.26
5 Princess Tower $2.24
6 Antilia $2.17
7 Trump Taj Mahal $2.00
8 Bank of China Tower $1.81
9 Petronas Twin Towers $1.65
10 Burj Khalifa $1.63
Table 2. Super-tall buildings’ embedded foundation depth .
Project H (m) D (m) H/D
Burj Khalifa 828 15 55.2
Shanghai WFC 492 21.35 23.0
Tianjin Goldin Finance117 587 25.85 22.7
Guangzhou West Tower 432 20 21.6
Taipei 101 448 22.3 20.1
Hong Kong lFC 484 25.5 19.0
Shanghai Tower 580 31.4 18.4
H: Structure height, D: Embedded depth of foundation.
Skyscrapers also require expensive vertical transportation such as elevators and escalators,
as well as enormous energy to pump water to upper ﬂoors. They suffer from diseconomies of
vertical construction systems (e.g., taller cranes, jumping cranes, “kangaroo cranes”, jumping boards,
and hydraulic pistols). Pumping concrete to higher ﬂoors demands powerful pumps and special
concrete that can travel long distances without stiffening too soon, resulting otherwise in clogging
hoses. Skyscrapers also feature a lower “net-to-gross” ratio, referring to the net usable space in the
building—about 70% for high-rise buildings comparing to more than 80% for low-rise buildings .
Furthermore, they consume substantial energy, often generated from fossil fuel sources. Alternatively,
renewable energy means, such as photovoltaic cells, continue to be largely inefﬁcient.
3.1. Premium for Height
When a building becomes taller, the “premium for height” principle applies due to increased
lateral wind and gravity forces. Consequently, demands on the structural system dramatically rise,
increasing total material consumption. To ensure structural stability, tall buildings use dampers,
(i.e., sophisticated, gigantic pendulum-like counterweights—weighing anywhere from 300 to 800 tons)
and other movement-tempering devices. Structural engineers employ dampers to mitigate vibration
impacts, caused by wind, storms, and earthquakes, by pulling a building’s mass in the opposite
direction of the prevailing forces. Tall buildings face greater structural-stability risks than low-rise
buildings caused by “relatively long fundamental vibration period, signiﬁcant mass participation,
and lateral response in higher modes of vibration, and a relatively slender proﬁle” (p. v [
the sway problem becomes greater as we build taller. For example, for a 300-m (984-ft) tall tower:
1. A 10-mile-per-hour wind may move the tower two inches.
2. A 50-mile-per-hour wind (which occurs about once a year) could move the tower about half a foot.
3. A 100-mile-per-hour wind (which happens about once every 50 years) could move the tower as
much as two feet .
Buildings 2018,8, 7 17 of 31
Overcoming sway problem in slender towers is acute, and therefore, an engineering solution
is exceedingly costly. For example, the 426-m (1396-ft), 85-story 432 Park Avenue in New York City
integrates two tuned mass dampers. A typical system can take up thousands of square feet of space
and use a double-height ceiling.
Further, skyscrapers require costly mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems to cool
and heat interior spaces and to supply water. Skyscrapers feature glass envelopes to allow in greatest
natural light. However, heating and cooling interior spaces of these buildings are costly particularly in
places that experience extreme weather conditions, for example, hot summer in Dubai and cold winter
in Moscow. MPE systems also occupy considerable valuable space. Typically, a dedicated MPE ﬂoor is
required for every 20–30 ﬂoors .
3.2. Vertical Transportation
Skyscrapers need a great number of elevators simply because they are the prime mode of
transportation—people usually are unwilling to walk up more than a few ﬂoors (Table 3). Second,
people do not tolerate long waits. Therefore, engineers compute the needed number of elevators so that
tenants do not wait for elevators more than a certain number of seconds—about 30 s for commercial
ofﬁce buildings and 45 s for residential ones .
Table 3. Number of elevators in major tall buildings .
# Building Name # of Elevators
1 Shanghai Tower 106
2 Willis Tower 104
3 Makkah Clock Royal Tower 94
4 Shanghai World Financial Center 91
5 Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre 86
6 Wuhan Greenland Center 84
7 International Commerce Centre 83
8 Ping An Finance Center 80
9 Petronas Towers 78
10 Taipei 101 61
However, if one of the elevators malfunctions, overcrowding develops quickly at the lobby.
As such, it is important to consider this issue early on in the design process. Further, “With the
introduction of cloud technology and external data storage, some ofﬁce occupiers no longer require
extensive cabinet storage space or even bulky server rooms, creating ever more space for occupiers
themselves. This puts pressure on an elevator system that may have been designed for lower capacities”
(p. 30 ).
Skyscrapers also need multiple types of elevators (e.g., local, express, service, freight, ﬁreﬁghters).
As skyscrapers increasingly host multiple functions (e.g., residential, ofﬁce, hotel), architects need
to incorporate more elevators. Therefore, elevators add not only signiﬁcant costs to the building but
also consume signiﬁcant useable space. Further, elevators’ shafts need special construction techniques
to ensure their perfect vertical alignment. Also, vertical circulation systems such as stairways and
escalators take up additional usable spaces.
Post construction, elevators require close monitoring and maintenance. As such, building
managers need to hire resident engineers who should be experienced in mechanical and electrical
systems, IT networks, software, and programing languages (p. 30 [
]). Furthermore, elevators may
cause ear trauma (called “barotrauma” or “perilymph ﬁstula”) due to the pressure difference arising
from the change in altitude as passengers ascend and descend a great number of ﬂoors with high speed.
Buildings 2018,8, 7 18 of 31
Post 9/11, authorities have placed more stringent requirements on all vertical transportations.
For example, new codes require stairways to be wider so that they can accommodate two ﬂows of
people—a ﬂow of tenants going down escaping the building and a ﬂow of ﬁreﬁghters going up to
rescue tenants. Overall, as we are building higher, architects need to incorporate advanced elevator
systems to allow tenants reach their destinations swiftly while ensuring their comfort and safety [
3.3. Vanity Height
In addition to “wasting” spaces to house elevators, mechanical, structural, and damping systems,
skyscrapers may “waste” additional spaces for merely boosting height. The CTBUH has coined
“vanity height” term to refer to the wasted space between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable ﬂoor and
its architectural top [
]. As such, “vanity ratio” equals to “vanity height” divided by the architectural
height of the building.
A CTBUH’s study reveals that skyscrapers increasingly feature a greater vanity ratio. The average
vanity ratio in the UAE is 19%, making it the nation with “vainest” tall buildings. The Burj Khalifa’s
vanity height is 244 m (800 ft), which qualiﬁes to be a skyscraper on its own. Burj Al Arab in Dubai,
UAE, has a 39% ratio (124 m: 321 m), (407 ft: 1053 ft)—the greatest “vanity ratio” among completed
supertalls (Table 4).
Table 4. World’s tallest vanity height as of July 2013 .
#Building Name Architectural Top Vanity Height Vanity Ratio
Meters Feet Meters Feet
1 Burj Khalifa 828 2717 244 801 29%
2 Zifeng Tower 450 1476 133 436 30%
3 Bank of America Tower 366 1201 131 430 36%
4 Burj Al Arab 321 1053 124 407 39%
5 Emirates Tower One 355 1165 113 371 32%
6 New York Times Tower 319 1047 99 325 31%
7 Emirates Tower Two 309 1014 97 318 31%
8 Rose Rayhaan by Rotana 333 1093 96 315 29%
9 The Pinnacle 360 1181 95 312 27%
10 Minsheng 331 1086 94 308 28%
3.4. Speculative Investment
Financially, tall building developments could be a risky investment where developers bet
on economic growth and overlook economic recession that results in massive vacancies in these
buildings. Often, the market experiences a housing bubble when extortionate proﬁt potential triggers
a construction boom that exceeds demand and affordability; and when the economy slows down,
the housing bubble burst.
A similar situation happens in the ofﬁce space sector. Ofﬁce buildings suffer from vacancies
simply because of the cost of running the building or because of an outdated look and functionality.
Further, the ﬂuctuating nature of ﬁnancial and lending systems may result in delaying, discontinuing,
or canceling the construction of tall buildings. For example, because of the recent ﬁnancial crisis,
the developer of the Spire Tower in Chicago canceled the project after working on the foundation.
Consequently, the site remains disserted, creating an eyesore in the community.
Further, demographic changes and shifts in lifestyles could challenge the sustainability promise
of tall buildings. For example, recent ultra-luxury tall building developments in the U.S. have been
betting on the exceedingly wealthy people who form a small proportion of the world population.
Owners of these buildings sell housing units for tens of millions of dollars. However, developers are
bearing the risk of overshooting the mark. Other residential tall building developments have been
betting on the millennials and downsizing retirees. Nevertheless, these developments may face high
vacancies when the millennials ﬂock to suburbs to start families and retirees’ population declines [
Buildings 2018,8, 7 19 of 31
3.5. Building Construction
Further, design and construction mistakes could have a rippling effect that would result in prolonging
the period of construction, thereby incurring additional costs. For example, the John Hancock Center
in Chicago faced construction problems. After building the foundation, which consisted of 57 caissons
(8-foot-thick (2.4-m-thick) concrete columns), workers discovered that one of the caissons had shifted 0.9
in (2.3 cm). Specialized workers had to perform sonic tests to detect weak spots. They found that the
contractors, to save time and money, removed machinery while the concrete was still settling. Chicago’s
fragile soil had seeped into concrete, causing the shift. Correcting this problem set the project back several
months and increased construction costs .
While under construction, the 10,344 windows of the 60-story 200 Clarendon (alternative names
include John Hancock Tower and Hancock Place) in Boston, MA, were cracked and replaced with
temporary sheets of plywood and later with permanent thick glass—a process that delayed opening
the building for 4–5 years [
]. The original façade consisted of double-layered reﬂective glass with a
thin strip of lead sandwiched between the two layers. The lead layer had begun to develop fatigue
and to crack. Further, because the lead layer glues so tightly to the glass, it transferred cracks into the
reﬂective chrome coating on the glass, eventually causing the glass to crack.
Further, this slab tower had a wind-sway problem resulting from its exceedingly narrow proﬁle.
Structural engineers failed to see this problem during the design process and had to retroﬁt the tower
post construction by adding 1650 tons of steel beams to stiffen the vulnerable narrow side at the cost of
$5 million [
]. To provide greater stability to the building, structural engineers also integrated two
300-ton weights tuned mass dampers onto the 58th ﬂoor. Moreover, the excavation for the tower’s
foundation caused stability problems for the nearby buildings including the Trinity Church and the
Copley Plaza Hotel .
Severe weather conditions and natural hazard events also impact and delay construction process
of tall buildings, adding substantial costs. For example, on 29 October 2012, when One World Trade
Center was under construction, Hurricane Sandy made a landfall on the East Coast and hit the
New York City including the Ground Zero Site (the site of the One World Trade Center). Rainwater has
soaked the unﬁnished structure and ﬁlled the 16-acre site with water with varying depth of 10–140 feet,
totaling about 125 million gallons of water. Construction workers had to drain water from the entire
building as well as the site [
]. Similarly, when Shanghai Tower was under construction, a typhoon
hit the tower, causing damage and delay .
3.6. Unﬁnished Tall Buildings
Noticeably, there are incidences where the construction of tall buildings started but was not
completed due to ﬁnancial hurdles, political pressure, and cultural opposition. Indeed, ﬁnancing a
skyscraper is not a simple task. Many ambitious tall projects start during economic booms, and when
economic busts occur, these buildings suffer. A recent CTBUH research mapped out 50 projects of
150-m or taller buildings that were not completed. Table 5lists the unﬁnished 20 tallest buildings
worldwide and displays the time of starting and halting construction.
Buildings 2018,8, 7 20 of 31
Table 5. Tallest unﬁnished buildings, based on CTBUH data, 2014 .
General Information Construction Status
# Building Heights City Date
# of Floors
1Nakheel Tower 1000+ m 3280+ ft Dubai 2008 2009 X
2India Tower 700 m 2296 ft Mumbai 2010 2011 X
3Russia Tower 612 m 2008 ft Moscow 2008 2008 X
4Chicago Spire 610 m 2000 ft Chicago 2007 2008 X
5Doha Convention Center Tower 551 m 1808 ft Doha 2007 2012 X
6Burj Al Alam 510 m 1673 ft Dubai 2009 2009 X
7Palace of Soviets 495 m 1624 ft Moscow 1937 1941 X
8Lam Tara Tower I 454 m 1490 ft Dubai 2008 2010 X
9Lighthouse Tower 402 m 1319 ft Dubai 2009 2009 X
10 Fairwell International 397 m 1302 ft Xiamen 1997 1997 X
11 Metropolitan Life North Annex * 390 m 1280 ft New York City 1931 1933 31
12 Lam Tara Tower 384 m 1260 ft Dubai 2008 2010 X
13 Post and Telecom Building 364 m 1193ft Xiamen 1996 1997 X
14 Sino Steel International Plaza T2 358 m 1175 ft Tianjin 2009 2010 X
15 Faros de Panama Torre Centra I 346 m 1135 ft Panama City 2008 2008 X
16 Torre Planetarium I 343 m 1125 ft Panama City 2008 2008 X
17 Skycity 335 m 1099 ft Mandaluyong 1997 1997 X
18 Waterview Tower ** 319 m 1047 ft Chicago 2006 2008 26
19 City Hall and Duma 308 m 1012 ft Moscow 2006 2008 X
20 Torre Planetarium II 305 m 1001 ft Panama City 2008 2008 X
* Originally planned to be a 100-story building. However, in 1933 construction was halted at the 29th ﬂoor, and then resume in 1933, resulting in the existing 31-story Metropolitan
Life North Building; ** Waterview Tower (renamed One Eleven) was completed in 2014. CTBUH included it in the 20-unﬁnished list because researchers gathered the data prior to
Buildings 2018,8, 7 21 of 31
4. Environmental Dimension
Skyscrapers suffer from a large carbon footprint observed in their construction, operation,
maintenance, and demolition at the end of their life cycles. They exert signiﬁcant demand on
infrastructure and transportation systems, creating overcrowding and trafﬁc congestions. In some
projects, for example, Brickell City Center in Miami, FL, the developer had to relocate existing
infrastructure (e.g., water, sewer, and drainage utilities) to accommodate buildings’ footprints,
deep foundations, basements, and parking garages. Tall buildings also could negatively affect the
neighborhood character and the city skyline.
Further, tall buildings exert an adverse effect on the microclimate due to wind funneling and
turbulence around their bases, causing discomfort to pedestrians. They cast a shadow on nearby
buildings, streets, parks, and open spaces, and they may obstruct views, reduce access to natural light,
and prevent natural ventilation. Further, we have little experience in demolishing skyscrapers. “It is
an interesting fact that, apart from World Trade Center in 2001, no building over 200 meters has ever
been demolished” (p. 28 [
]). We will need to develop the technical expertise to enable deconstructing
skyscrapers at the end of their life cycles with minimal environmental impact.
4.1. Energy and Carbon Emission
Skyscrapers’ construction and operation require great energy and generate signiﬁcant amounts of
carbon emission and air pollution that contribute to global warming. High-rises consume lots of steel
and cement—manufacturing these materials requires lots of energy and generates large amounts of
carbon dioxide. Also, tall buildings’ construction requires great energy and generates considerable
carbon dioxide because of operating heavy machinery and equipment such as powerful cranes and
pumps (e.g., pumping water and concrete to upper ﬂoors) and dump trucks. Transporting building
materials from far distances (sometimes across the globe) also consumes energy and produces immense
carbon dioxide [71,72].
Alternative eco-friendly materials (e.g., local wood, earth, clay, or gravel that have smaller
ecological footprint than steel and concrete) are not suitable for constructing skyscrapers. However,
recently, architects and structural engineers have been experimenting with using compressed wood
for constructing tall buildings. Further, skyscrapers consume great energy and generate signiﬁcant
greenhouse emission resulting from running mega electrical, mechanical, lighting, and security systems.
Architects have built skyscrapers with poor thermal performance and without natural ventilation,
meaning that buildings’ owners need to continuously heat and cool indoor spaces (in the winter and
summer respectively) to make sure that tenants have comfortable indoor environments. As such,
the energy needed to heat and cool these skyscrapers is not only costly but also hurts the environment
by generating massive carbon dioxide [73–75].
Further, in many cases, tall building developments are located away from mass transit systems.
As a result, tenants drive automobiles to commute between home and work, which results in using
greater energy and generating greater carbon emission. That is, once skyscraper’s tenants and visitors
use the private automobile exclusively, whatever we do to make a vertical development “sustainable”
is “like putting lipstick on a pig”, according to Donald Elliott (p. 39 [
]). This regionally “detached”
skyscraper does nothing to reduce carbon emissions, energy consumption and the time wasted in long
commutes, undoing any gains made by “green” features such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.
4.2. Urban Heat Island Effect
The urban heat island (UHI) effect refers to an increase in temperature in dense inner city locations
over the fringe of the same city. The concentration of heat in urban areas or UHI could increase temperature
by 10–12 Fahrenheit degrees, according to Rudi Scheuermann (p. 106 ). The temperature increase is a
result of the massive concentration of urban areas—made up of heat-retaining materials, such as asphalt,
concrete, steel, bricks, and impervious ground and roof surfaces, which collectively act as a huge thermal
Buildings 2018,8, 7 22 of 31
mass that absorbs solar radiation during the day and discharges it in the form of long-wave heat radiation
during the night.
Therefore, dark surfaces that absorb heat from the sun, a lack of greenery, and waste heat from
industry and vehicles lead to higher temperatures in cities than that in the rural areas around them.
Motorized trafﬁc in particular “contributes up to a third of the anthropogenic heat produced in urban
areas” (p. 530 [
]). In the context of high-rise buildings, “The height of the heat island is three to ﬁve
times of the average building height” (p. 305 [
]). As such, a concentration of tall buildings increases
the city’s thermal mass; and consequently, it increases the UHI effect. In a nutshell, as cities grow denser
and accommodate taller buildings and greater auto trafﬁc, UHI intensity will increase signiﬁcantly.
Overall, when extreme heat occurs, high-rise cities have more trouble cooling off than other places
do, creating a greater demand for energy to cool spaces. Also, heat waves aggravate both indoor
and outdoor thermal discomfort and negatively affect people’s health when the human body cannot
cool off at night. UHI also decreases air and water quality by increasing the production of pollutants.
Recent research indicates, “
. . .
both nocturnal and diurnal urban effects have an important impact on
the primary and secondary regional pollutants, more speciﬁcally the ozone and the nitrogen oxide
)” (p. 1743 [
]). Warmer polluted air can increase people’s risk to vector-borne and infectious
diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Collectively, scholars have indicated that UHI
contributes to climate change and global warming .
Urbanization weakens natural ventilation because buildings block breezes coming from nearby
natural ﬁelds such as ocean, sea, lakes, forests, farms, and mountains [
]. Given their greater heights
and larger masses, tall buildings impact natural wind directions and patterns by increasing the
distance of wind shadow and minimizing the air ﬂow in the leeward direction, i.e., behind buildings.
Therefore, in polluted urban environments, decreased airﬂow augments stagnation and accumulation
of air pollution.
At the street level, tall buildings create a wind tunnel effect that increases wind speed and
turbulence, which discomforts pedestrians. Strong airﬂow that occurs around tall buildings creates
eddies, loops of dust and air pollution, thereby disturbing and discomforting street activities.
Wind acceleration manifests in open areas, including plazas, passages, entrances, corners, and spaces
between buildings .
4.4. Sea-Level Rise
Geographically, numerous high-rise cities stand along shorelines (e.g., Hong Kong, Guangzhou,
Shanghai, Tokyo, New York City, Miami, San Francisco, Sydney, Melbourne, etc.) and are—to a greater
or lesser degree—threatened by rising seas. Sea levels could rise three, ﬁve, or six feet by the end of the
twenty-ﬁrst century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States
Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, respectively.
Some geologists consider these estimates to be lower than what will happen, contemplating the
possibility of a ten- to thirty-foot rise .
High-rise cities concentrate a larger number of people, asset, and infrastructure that make ﬂooding
more destructive and costly. Implementing physical measures to mitigate ﬂood in dense cities—such
as building walls—is challenging and could interfere with existing infrastructure and weaken the
connectivity between sidewalks and buildings’ ground ﬂoors, thereby creating pedestrian-unfriendly
4.5. Geological Considerations
The geological structure of a place poses several implications for constructing tall. For example,
when tall buildings stand on a ﬂimsy soil, their collective weight may result in a gradual sinking
of the place. Shanghai offers an illustrative example. The city has inherently soft soil because of
Buildings 2018,8, 7 23 of 31
its geographical position at the mouth of the Yangtze River basin, and groundwater accounts for
nearly 70% of land subsidence. Unfortunately, the heavy weight of new colossal skyscrapers coupled
with massive depletion of groundwater has caused large areas to sink. The sinking problem will be
worse when the sea-level rise occurs—the sea level close to Shanghai is expected to increase by ﬁve
centimeters (two inches) by 2050 .
While it is safest to anchor a skyscraper’s foundation over a bedrock (a geological layer of solid
rock), it is not always easily accessible. In some cities, the bedrock is so deep that it would be too
expensive to reach it. Other cities have a combination of swampy soil and deep bedrock. Steadying
skyscrapers in these places is costly because they require a staggering feat of structural engineering.
Otherwise, skyscrapers could collapse.
Chicago, the birthplace of skyscrapers, offers a prime example of a swampy place with a bedrock
(called dolomite) as deep as 85 feet. The 1889 Auditorium Building (now Roosevelt University)
provides an early example where Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan invented a foundation system
that consisted of isolated, giant pyramidal piers—measuring more than 12 feet tall and comprising
layers of wood, steel, concrete, and stone—to distribute the structural load at several points across the
Auditorium Building’s base. Unfortunately, the building faced a “differential settlement” problem
where heavier parts of the building settled deeper than the lighter parts .
Later, Burnham and Root’s 1891 Monadnock Building used a ‘grillage’ foundation, a raft system
with pyramid-shaped feet that make the building ﬂoat on the clay. A few years later, engineering used
the caisson system that consists of steel pipes ﬁlled with concrete that reach the bedrock. Structural
engineers applied this system for Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building. Since then, engineers
have reﬁned the caisson system, and they use it today for skyscrapers in swampy places .
As mentioned earlier, Shanghai has challenging soil and seismic conditions deﬁned in the
China Building Code as type IV, which approaches the Class F classiﬁcation in the IBC code [
As such, engineers have to devise special design for towers’ foundations. For example, for Shanghai
World Financial Center (SWFC) engineers employed a foundation made of more than two hundred
concrete-ﬁlled steel pipe friction piles and a thick reinforced-concrete mat that transfers loads of
building’s column to the piles. Construction workers had to drive friction piles to a depth of 78 m
(256 ft) from the ground surface. Similarly, engineers designed a special foundation system for
Shanghai Tower. Its foundation consists of 947 bore piles (52–56 m long (171–184 ft)) of one-meter
diameter and a six-meter-deep mat. Undoubtedly, transporting long pipe piles and bore piles to
construction sites is a daunting task .
Another remarkable example is the original World Trade Center complex in New York City,
which needed constructing a sizable underground slurry wall (known as the “bathtub”) that
surrounded the entire 16-acre site to protect it from ﬂoods caused by the adjacent Hudson River.
Built in the 1960s, the nearly one-meter-thick wall was made of reinforced concrete. Although survived
post the collapse of the towers because of 9/11 terrorist attacks, the slurry wall became weak. In the
process of redeveloping the site, engineers reinforced the existing 20-m-deep (57 ft) slurry wall by
adding a linear wall that ties with the new buildings’ foundations .
Similarly, given Miami’s high water table, building basements have been structurally difﬁcult,
even prohibited in the city. Recently, the recent Brickell City Center development had to use innovative
engineering solutions to accommodate a 1600-space underground parking garage. “To build the
garage, teams used a newly developed deep-soil mixing technique to place a temporary cement soil
mix plug and perimeter permanent sheet piling, creating a dry hole for construction. Deep Soil Mixing
technology consists of an in-ground blending of native soils with an injected cement grout mixture,
which serves to stabilize the soil to facilitate excavation during construction activities” (p. 95 ).
Other skyscrapers stand on sandy soil. For example, the 1000-m Jeddah Tower in Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia (under construction) faced challenging sandy soil conditions that required innovative
solutions, full-scale foundation testing, and sophisticated computer modeling. The tower ’s foundation
consists of 226 1.5-m-diameter and 44 1.8-m-diameter cast-in-place piles (with a spacing 2.5 times pile
Buildings 2018,8, 7 24 of 31
diameter) connected to a reinforced concrete raft. Corresponding with transferred loads, the raft’s
thickness varies: thickness at the wings is 4.5 m, which it increases to 5 m at the center. Similarly,
the pile’s depth varies: it is 45 m deep in the wings, 105 m at the center of the tower, and 65 m and
85 m in between .
Certainly, fragile soil worsens the issue of buildings’ settlement. The 197-m (645-ft)-tall, 58-story
Millennium Tower in San Francisco, CA has recently faced this problem. This residential tower has
sunk 16 in (40 cm) since its completion in 2009. Also, the tower had already sunk more than eight inches
(20 cm) by the time its construction was completed, totaling 24 in (60 cm).
Upon examining the problem, the building’s owner blamed structural engineers for a deﬁcient
foundation. However, engineers argued that the sinking problem was caused by the construction
activities of a new massive transport hub taking place next door. Dangerously, the tower is leaning
six inches toward a neighboring skyscraper. Overall, buildings’ foundations in the Bay Area do not
reach the bedrock [
]. What makes the problem worse is that the city lies within an earthquake-prone
zone and faces landslides issue.
4.6. Bird Collision
Bird-glass collisions are an unfortunate side effect of tall building developments throughout
the world. Billions of birds perish from collisions with glass yearly, making it the second largest
human-made hazard to birds after habitat loss. The U.S. alone is responsible for up to a billion
birds yearly [
]. To make matters worse, countless victim birds belong to already declining
population species, including Canada Warbler (Cardellina Canadensis), Golden-winged Warbler
(Vermivora chrysoptera), Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis Formosa), Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris),
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) and Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) [88,89].
Clear and reﬂective glass result in killing birds because birds perceive clear glass as an
unobstructed passageway; and consequently, they attempt to ﬂy through. On the other hand, reﬂective
glass reﬂects the sky, clouds, and nearby vegetation reproducing a perceived habitat familiar and
attractive to birds. Since the majority of modern tall buildings are clad in glass, tall buildings become
a prime killer. Approximately 98% of ﬂying vertebrates (birds and bats) migrate at heights below
500 m (1640 ft), and today, tallest buildings in the world reach or come close to the upper limits of bird
migration paths. Although bird migration happens in fall and spring seasons, their collision into tall
buildings occurs year-round .
At night, skyscrapers’ lights lure birds in search of navigational cues. Birds usually use stars
and the moon, and illuminated windows often divert them from their original ﬂight paths. As such,
birds can be attracted to artiﬁcially lit tall buildings resulting in collisions. This problem manifests
on evenings of inclement weather, when the cloud’s altitude is low, which forces birds to ﬂy at
lower heights. Attracted by the artiﬁcial light rays, some birds collide into the buildings’ facades.
Ironically, “building green” promotes incorporating bird habitats in cities (e.g., parks, gardens, roofs,
and water surfaces) and demands incorporating plenty of glass to ensure the provision of daylight in
buildings—a deadly combination for birds .
4.7. Waste Management
Tall buildings generate large volumes of waste because they house large population. On average,
the disposal rate of an apartment unit is about one ton per year. While this amount of waste is
not different from a low-rise residential unit, the method of waste collection in high-rises is more
complicated than that in low-rises. One popular disposal method for tall buildings is the chute system,
which consists of vertical shafts that transfer waste to a central location bin in a lower level of the
building via gravity. Nevertheless, the large amount of waste accumulated on the ground ﬂoor poses
a challenge to management systems. That is, massive waste can pile up quickly, and if the building
management does not take care of the disposal rooms, a large amount of daily disposed waste can
lead to overﬂowing collection bins that can cause odor and rodent problems. As such, collecting waste
Buildings 2018,8, 7 25 of 31
by haulers must occur more than once a week, which is the norm with single-family residential trash
In other cases, residents of tall buildings haul their household trash by themselves to a central
location usually in the basement of the building where waste management collects in roll-off or
standard refuse containers. Overall, this method is the most labor intensive for residents, and most
high-rise cities continue to apply this method. Further, because tall buildings have different layouts,
forms, and shapes, disposal and collection systems vary from one building to another .
While increasingly cities enact recycling goals, high-rise apartments have remained largely
immune to recycling. The complex methods of collecting waste coupled with conﬁned spaces in
high-rises make it harder to implement recycling systems. Also, loading docks have limited space for
containers, and service-parking areas are small, thereby making it harder for trucks to maneuver, load
waste, and leave the site. Further, research illustrates that apartment residents are less committed to
recycling than other types of housings because they lack a sense of ownership. Additionally, buildings’
owners do not hire companies to conduct recycling to avoid raising rent .
Overall, because of rapid urbanization, the issue of waste management is increasingly signiﬁcant.
Cities often lack waste-recycling facilities, regulations on the disposal of construction waste,
and management of dumping sites. Furthermore, numerous cities face problems of illegal dumping
and are short of landﬁll sites .
Tall buildings are becoming increasingly an integral response to massive urbanization. However,
this building typology has unique challenges and issues, and therefore, planners, architects, community
leaders, politicians, and the public at large bear the responsibility of ﬁnding effective ways to integrate
them in cities in a sustainable manner. In this regard, Wim Bakens explains, “Tall buildings represent
the most challenging building typology from many points of view, and they will inﬂuence, for better or
worse, the future of cities worldwide. It is in our possibilities to turn tall buildings into nice, affordable
and sustainable places to live in, and academic and industry research is the way forward” [
Sustainability is a topic that applies to all levels of tall buildings development, design, and planning,
from the choices of structural systems and ﬁnishing materials to the relationships of indoor and
outdoor spaces to integration with the larger urban context.
This paper has reviewed and examined a wide-range of concerns about tall building developments,
and organized critiques by using the concept of sustainability as a framework. The purpose is to raise
awareness about problems with this building typology. In some incidences, social failure and isolation
in high-rise development, due to lack of healthy neighborhood relations and poor design, have led
to depression and discomfort. There have been examples in which tall buildings were aimed for the
top of the social scale for economic reasons, and as a result, these newly introduced buildings were
socially segregated from the rest of the neighborhood. Rather than blending into the neighborhood,
they created social enclaves or “vertical gated communities”. Skyscrapers could not be “sustainable”
if they were placed away from public transit, amenities, schools, stores, hospitals, and other important
services. A disintegrating spatial arrangement may provide a new form of “vertical sprawl” that
promotes an inefﬁcient use of land and results in the generation of more greenhouse gas emissions.
Economically, tall building construction requires an extra premium because of their need
for sophisticated foundations, structural systems, and high-tech mechanical, electrical, elevator,
and ﬁre-resistant systems. Also, a large core area is needed to accommodate elevators and building
services systems. While 70% of a skyscraper’s space is usable (the remainder being the building’s
elevator core, stairwells, and columns), more than 80% of low-rise spaces are typically useable.
Tall buildings also suffer from higher operation costs, such as elevator maintenance and emergency
response preparedness. Also, in difﬁcult economic times, towers simply may not generate enough
sales or rental value to support the high quality of design, materials, and detailing. This situation risks
producing low-quality towers that maximize ﬂoor area at the expense of sound design.
Buildings 2018,8, 7 26 of 31
An important design consideration is the impact of tall buildings on the urban microclimate
and the shadows that they might cast during daytime over the pedestrian realm, including parks,
plazas, and streets [
]. Urban design studies require a greater analysis of shadow patterns, such as
seasonal and regional effects. In cities that experience an extended period of cool autumn and spring
seasons, and a cold winter season, the availability of direct sunlight to areas of pedestrian activity
plays an important role in supporting the use of pedestrian areas. Frequently, during these seasons,
the availability of the sun’s warmth makes walking on a street, or sitting in a park or plaza tolerable
and often inviting, whereas these areas in the shade may be quite uncomfortable.
This paper, however, does not conclude that all tall building developments are unsustainable.
That is, not all the reviewed critiques apply to every tall building. These critiques vary largely based
on place, culture, climate, location, and quality of design and construction. For example, in a mild
climate, tall buildings that embrace natural lighting and ventilation do not necessarily consume more
energy than other building typologies. In some countries, such as Singapore, excellent design coupled
with cultural practices has resulted in socially successful high-rise developments [92–94].
In fact, a new crop of “sustainable” skyscrapers is on the rise. That is, an increasing number of
architects believe that the prevailing sustainability trend is directing us to generate a new generation
of skyscrapers, named the “ﬁfth generation”, that aims for energy saving and a carbon-neutral
footprint. In his recent article (2016) titled “Why Efﬁcient Skyscrapers Will be Essential to Cope
with Growing Urban Populations” David Nicholson-Cole demonstrates this trend by explaining,
“These exceptional new towers include a variety of eco-friendly innovations, such as renewable energy
generation, solar shading and double-skin facades with natural ventilation. They will also feature
greater thermal mass, landscaped atriums, underground heat storage, water catchment, recycling,
linear induction elevators, as well as vertical urban farms, green planting, and facades and roofs that
generate electricity” [
]. For example, the recently completed Tower at PNC Plaza, Pittsburgh sets
a new benchmark in sustainability by employing features such as natural ventilation, optimal solar
orientation, water recycling, and waste diversion, among others. Earlier, the Hearst Tower in NYC
employed a diagrid structure that saved 2000 tons of steel and used 26% less energy than a building
constructed to normal code. Ninety percent of utilized steel was made from recycled material. Further,
developers imported merely 10% of all its materials, reducing cost and carbon emissions .
Overall, the path to creating a sustainable vertical city is not easily attainable; there are certain
challenges that need to be addressed, as this paper attempted to outline. Architects and planners
will face obstacles, difﬁculties, and challenges that are likely not found in low-rise developments.
Hopefully, when tall buildings are well designed and integrated into their cities, they will be able to
efﬁciently house a large number of inhabitants, while increasing city’s vibrancy, synergy, and economic
activities. Simple, elegant, and logical design, coupled with the exploration and experimentation
of new forms, likely will offer suitable, contemporary habitats. Ultimately, by embracing modern
technology, local culture, local context, the natural environment, and cost effective solutions, we can
collectively set humanity on the path of creating sustainable cities.
6. Future Research
Researchers need to conduct signiﬁcant work at the planning, architectural, and engineering levels
in the design, construction, and integration of the skyscraper into cities. While this paper attempted to
identify the “unsustainable” aspects of tall building developments, a follow-up paper could attempt
to provide the remedies and solutions to these problems. Further, at the design and planning level,
this paper has provided an umbrella approach that did not differentiate among the different types of
tall buildings. As such, future research may focus exclusively on residential, or ofﬁce, or mixed-use
tall buildings. It may also differentiate between government-sponsored versus private developments.
Management of the building, evaluation of its performance and assessment of tenant satisfaction
are also essential components to achieving more sustainable skyscrapers [
or “bogus sustainability” is becoming mainstream criticisms of sustainable tall buildings. We continue
Buildings 2018,8, 7 27 of 31
to lack a solid grasp of the full implications—the physiological, psychological, social, economic and
environmental implications—of vertical living, that entail cramming greater numbers of people into
smaller spaces. This requires additional research that studies the implication of integrating these urban
giants in cities [97,98].
In particular, future research should examine the social sustainability of tall buildings in depth.
There is a need to investigate the impact of high-rise living on social behavior and community and
lifestyle in different places and cultures. Given the world’s aging population, we have to examine the
needs of the elderly and disabled concerning high-rise living. In addition, it would be useful to do
more research on inter-generational living. High-rise design should reﬂect the signiﬁcant differences
in needs of seniors versus young single professionals, or families with children. Finally, research on
the big E (equity) in the triple bottom line is lacking [99,100].
The author would like to sincerely thank anonymous reviewers for providing helpful
comments. In addition, thanks are due to the Buildings Journal’s staff and editor for handling the paper.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The author declares no conﬂict of interest.
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