The world’s leading tall building owners, developers, contractors, architects, engineers, planners, policy-makers and others gathered this month to discuss Europe taking its cities skywards. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat held its 2013 conference in London to address the state of tall buildings in Europe and to create a dialogue for advancing future projects. The theme of the conference was “Height and Heritage, The Unique Challenges of Building Tall in Historic Cities.”

Before the conference officially kicked off, vertical transportation company KONE used the occasion of the conference to announce a new technology that could make kilometer-plus towers considerably more economical to build. UltraRope is a new, carbon-fiber based elevator rope that has significantly reduced weight and bending ability as compared to conventional steel rope.

London Shard

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) held its 2013 conference in London to address the unique challenges of building tall in historic cities. Pictured: The Shard

Antony Wood, Architect and Executive Director for the CTBUH commented, “This is finally a breakthrough on one of the ‘holy grail’ limiting factors of tall buildings – that is, the height to which a single elevator could operate before the weight of the steel rope becomes unsupportable over that height. So it is not an exaggeration to say that this is revolutionary. However, it is not just the enablement of greater height that is beneficial – the greater energy and material efficiencies that are of equal value.”

On the conference’s opening day, Peter Wynne Rees, City Planning Officer for the City of London, gave a presentation adressing building tall in London. Rees said that, ironically, a medieval city, densely populated and teeming with transportion networks, could be the ideal place to build skyscrapers, if they don’t disrupt the appealing characteristics of a medieval city.

Later in the day, Carmine Bilardello took the podium. Bilardello is Senior Vice President of Willis Group, the construction insurer responsible for the Willis Building at 51 Lime Street, London and the Willis Tower in Chicago (formerly the Sears Tower). He commented that today’s corporate towers are cathedrals serving an important role in bringing people together and inspiring them.

Bilardello went on to discuss the renaming of the Sears Tower and how it caused some upset. But he noted that the building had become increasingly difficult to rent because the Sears name was seen as dated. Willis took 150,000 square feet in the tower and was able to rent space at an incredibly low $14.50 per square foot.

During a panel regarding sustainability in tall buildings, Dennis Poon, vice chairman, Thornton Tomasetti, talked about embodied energy – the total primary energy consumed from direct and indirect processes associated with a skyscraper throughout its entire lifecycle – and described the role of structure and facades in contributing to or reducing embodied energy. According to Poon, the structure and façade’s initial embodied energy represents 50-percent or more of a building and 20-percent of the total embodied energy during the life of the building.

Among the solutions Poon suggested are development of efficient architectural forms and structural systems, as well as the selection of building materials. “We need to advance the design process to optimize building designs and minimize construction delays and field modifications,” he added.

Other topics covered during the first day of the conference sought to address a building’s interaction with the public, and how tall buildings can reduce the consumption of natural resources and even contribute energy back to the grid.

Day two of the conference began with Irvine Sellar, founder of Sellar Property, recounting the development of the Shard, one of Europe’s tallest buildings. He shared the story of his 14-year battle with planning authorities, 300 meetings with the public and the challenges of buried infrastructure surrounded by ancient ruins. Sellar mentioned that one of the harshest critics of the initial plan was the Shard’s future architect, Renzo Piano, who called the 400-meter scheme, “Cold, arrogant, impenetrable, arrogant, dark and divisive.”

“The vision was always to create a new place,” Sellar said. “A truly mixed-use development to be enjoyed by everybody, not a commercial fortress.”

Topping off the conference was Chairman Zhang Yue, the head of China Broad Group – a turbine and air-conditioning manufacturer turned developer/builder, known for constructing a 30-story high-rise in just two weeks using prefabricated materials. Broad has plans to build a tower called ‘Sky City’ that will consume half as much energy as a conventional building of the same size while containing everything its residents need to live and work.

If built as planned and to schedule, Sky City would be the tallest building in the world, with 220 floors and a total height of 838 meters (2,749 ft). The construction plan calls for it to be built from pre-fabricated units constructed on site in an unprecedentedly short period of 90 days. The building would include a 13-foot-wide continuous pedestrian walk-way from the base to the 170th-floor, punctated by public spaces.

“In the past, people thought of buildings as a closed system,” Yue said. “But there are very few opportunities for residents to interact. But here residents can open their doors and within a few seconds they are on this road. It has immense public space. When people live here, it is the exact same feeling as living in the city.”

CTBUH also used the occasison of the conference to announce a $20,000 research seed funding grant awarded to a team from IUAV University of Venice, Italy. The team, led by Dr. Elena Giacomello, plans to study the ‘Vertical Forest’, a pair of residential towers in Milan hosting more than 900 trees on 96,000 sq ft of terraces. The structure was completed in the first quarter 2012 and the project is currently proceeding with the construction of facades and facilities. The team will conduct monitoring of the Vertical Forest to build a database in support of a new framework for the green design of tall buildings.

To read more about the CTBUH 2013 London Conference, visit: Height and Heritage

Photo credit: EE Paul