Rising Velocity—High-rise Elevators to Take us Into the Future

LAS VEGAS, NV - (January 2009) - Happy New Year! I find myself anticipating the freshness of a new year—the clean slate that it is, and all that it will hold for us. I wonder, will the economy recover quicker than anyone expects? Will the Dow Jones Industrial Average go back above 10,000? Will qualified buyers again be able to easily obtain a loan for a home? These are all questions that require a crystal ball—and a really powerful antenna! What I know is that in markets is that what goes up has a tendency to come back down. Right now, however, the most apropos adage—and one for which most news reporters have selective amnesia—is: “Things that go down have a tendency to go back up!” In fact, I was on a conference call where a veteran financial planner of 30 years, Jim Hansberger, suggested that based on historical data, bear markets are far shorter in duration than bull markets. Additionally, he added that he would not be surprised if, based on his research, we experience what he termed a “super-bull” market in the next several years. Just the thought of that lifts my spirit. And “uplifting” is momentum in the right direction.

For a high-rise, the basic up-and-down movement is essential to the viability of a building. In fact, it is a truism that high-rises would frankly not exist without elevators. Elevators are literally at the core of designing any new high-rise structure. However, one of the developer’s challenges in design is that each elevator bank takes up so much valuable space. This is potentially saleable square footage that is simply lost every time an elevator bank is added. But it doesn’t do anyone much good if they have amazing square footage with a phenomenal view and no way to access it. As you can well imagine, the elevator industry is attempting to adjust and adapt to this and all the other challenges in tall buildings. They are busy coming up with more and more efficiencies to assist developers, and ways of adding value to the passenger’s experience.

As populations of cities continue to get larger and buildings grow taller, how do we design a system that moves passengers comfortably to the top of a 180-story building in a reasonable amount of time, without changing elevators five times? Several changes have occurred that have made a difference. One is the double-deck elevator, a virtually two-story elevator that moves as one car. These are generally used as express elevators from ground floor to the top. For example, one car would be identified as an odd floor destination and the other an even floor destination. As you may have guessed, you must load these passengers simultaneously on two different floors or allow for two separate loading times. As in the case of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, one level of the double-decker car goes to the Top of the World restaurant on floor 106 and the other goes to the observation area on floor 107.

Another solution being tested by elevator manufacturers is flexible cars using the same elevator bank, maneuvered by a complex computer program. The application is such that a local elevator could actually “side step” out of the way horizontally to let an express elevator car pass. After the express car swooshes by, the local car resumes its course in the same bank as the express elevator. This preserves the developer’s saleable square footage with one less dedicated elevator bank. To my knowledge, this is still in the research stage and has not yet been installed in an actual building.

Elevator manufacturers have studied elevator traffic patterns for years in high-density urban cities. The main issues for passengers are wait times, ease of use, and actual time in the elevator—especially during peak times or high-traffic times. Sky lobbies are of some assistance. For example, the Jin Mao tower in Shanghai is mixed-use office space on lower levels and Grand Hyatt Hotel on the higher floors. A sky lobby was placed on floor 53 for the hotel. A hotel guest takes an elevator directly to floor 53, not having to wait on anyone getting off on the various office-level floors. Once a guest has checked in, he or she takes a local elevator to the floor above the sky lobby where they will be staying.

Elevator modifications have also occurred to accommodate the super-tall structures; mainly by increasing speed. Currently, Taipei 101 is the tallest building in the world at 1,670 feet and has the fastest elevators the world—that is, until Burj Dubai comes on line later this year. Taipei 101’s elevators move at a rate of 17 meters per second. Elevator cars moving at this rate must be pressurized to prevent ear damage. Burj Dubai will have 58 elevators, two of which are express-to-the-top, double-decker cars that will move at a rate of 18 meters per second (40 miles per hour), exceeding the current record. Burj Dubai tops out at 160+ floors and 2,600+ ft. (The exact height will not be announced until the building is complete.)

As an added benefit, Burj Dubai will be the first mega high-rise in the world where certain elevators can be programmed to permit controlled evacuation in case of fire or security threat. Until now, elevators were off-limits to residents exiting a building in case of emergency; pressurized stairwells were the mandated evacuation route of any high-rise. As buildings have gotten substantially taller, the developers had to adopt more expeditious evacuation methods such as this.

It will be exciting to see what elevator manufacturers come up over the next few years and beyond. As always, humans will adjust to each new advance or invention, just as we have adjusted to the Internet. In a relatively short amount of time, we are at a point where we can’t imagine not having the Internet at our beck and call. Nothing about the future of elevators would surprise me. I read an article in the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Fall 2007 Journal about the many advantages of using the technology of “maglevs” or bullet trains as elevator solutions for taller and taller buildings—only these train tracks would run vertically. Who knows? Maybe one day we will even enter an elevator cab of sorts, identify the desired floor and simply be molecularly transported. Just as in the television show, “Star Trek,” one would simply give the infamous voice command, “Energize.”

Until next time, here’s wishing you “elevated” sales!