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.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.