To transform the city we must reengineer the elevator

The elevators in the Chrysler Building, New York City. Image: Getty.

In the 160 or so years since the first skyscrapers were built, technological innovations of many kinds have allowed us to build them to reach astonishing heights. Today there is a 1,000-meter (167-story) building under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Even taller buildings are possible with today’s structural technology.

But people still don’t really live in skyscrapers the way futurists had envisioned, for one reason: elevators go only up and down. In the “Harry Potter” movies, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and others, we see cableless boxes that can travel not just vertically but horizontally and even diagonally.

Today, that future might be closer than ever. A new system invented and being tested by German elevator producer ThyssenKrupp would get rid of cables altogether and build elevators more like magnetic levitation trains, which are common in Japan and China.

Trying out the Great Glass Elevator in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’

Our work at the nonprofit Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat studies how tall buildings can better interact with their urban environments. One aspect is a look at how buildings might work in a world of ropeless elevators. We imagine that people might live, say, on the 50th floor of a tall building and only rarely have to go all the way down to street level. Instead, they might go sideways to the next tower over, or to the bridge between them, for a swim, a trip to the doctor or the grocery store.

This research project, set to conclude in September 2018, will explore as many of the practical implications of ropeless elevator travel as possible. But we already know that thinking of elevators the way ThyssenKrupp suggests could revolutionise the construction and use of tall buildings. Builders could create structures that are both far taller and far wider than current skyscrapers – and people could move though them much more easily than we do in cities today.

It’s hard to get high

Very few buildings are taller than 500 meters because of the limitations of those everyday devices that make high-rise buildings practical in the first place – elevators. Traditional, steel-rope-hung elevators can travel only around 500 meters before the weight of the rope itself makes it inconvenient. That takes more and more energy and space – which all costs developers money.

A wide-angle view of an elevator machine room shows the large spool to wind and unwind the ropes. Image: Dennis van Zuijlekom/creative commons.

Replacing steel ropes with carbon fiber ones can save energy and space. But even so, people who want to go to the uppermost floors from the lowest floors don’t want to wait for the elevator to stop at the dozens of floors in between. That means developers need to make room in their buildings for multiple shafts, for express and local elevators, and for “sky lobbies” where people can switch between them. All of that space devoted to vertical transportation reduces the amount of rentable space on each floor, which makes the economics of the building more difficult the higher it gets.

Traveling in three dimensions

new elevator system uses electric linear induction motors – the same kind of contactless energy transfer that powers magnetic levitation trains – instead of cables to move elevator cars around. This also lets them move independently of each other in a shaft, which in turn means multiple cabins can be working in one shaft at the same time. That reduces the need for parallel shafts serving different floors and frees up more real estate for commercial use. And there’s no inherent limit to how far they can travel.

Even more exciting is that these cabins can travel horizontally, and potentially even diagonally: The motors pivot to follow the powered track, while the floor of the cabin remains level. That opens up a whole world of possibilities. Without the ropes, it is also feasible to reduce the number of shafts a building requires, by allowing more cars to travel in one single shaft. It also becomes feasible to build massive building complexes interconnected by motorized vehicles operating high above the ground.

The difference between an elevator and a car, or even a train, becomes less clear – as does the difference between a building, a bridge and an entire city. Instead of descending from your 50th-floor apartment to the street in an elevator, then taking a taxi or the subway to another building across town, and going back up to the 50th floor, you might instead have a door-to-door ride between buildings, at height, in a single vehicle.


Creating the cities of the future

Is the world actually ready for this? Probably not right away. In the short term, we can expect to see systems like carbon-fiber-roped and ropeless elevators used in some of the very tallest, most high-profile (and expensive) buildings. Many of these structures house spaces used for many different purposes – residences, restaurants, retail stores, offices, cinemas and even sports. The people who live in, work in or visit those buildings have a wide range of destinations – they might want to stop at a shop to pick up something before going to a friend’s apartment for dinner before heading to a movie. And so they need options for traveling within the building.

At the moment, these systems are far more expensive than the conventional alternatives. Building owners won’t use them until they can save – or earn – lots more money by building systems like this. But as we’ve seen with computers and many other forms of technology, the cost goes down rapidly as more people buy the systems, and as research advances improve them.

There are probably physical constraints and efficiency limits on how many elevator cars could share a particular complex of shafts and passageways. And structural engineers might need to analyse what supports and reinforcements are needed to move people and machinery throughout large buildings. But the tall building industry has no standard data or recommendations to guide designers today. That’s what we’re trying to develop.

The ConversationThe technology is arriving – and with them the certainty that the old ways of traveling through a building are about to change more substantially than ever before.

Antony Wood is executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat, and visiting professor of architecture and urban planning at Tongji University Shanghai, as well as research professor of architecture at Illinois Institute of TechnologyDario Trabucco is tenured researcher in building technology at Università Iuav di Venezia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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