As Nate Berg noted in his recent story in The Atlantic, “Is There a Limit to How Tall Buildings Can Get?”, skyscraper construction has long been a competition, a way for cities to flaunt their economic might and sophistication over others. Berg explores the limits of this race, concluding that even today’s tallest buildings, such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which soars to 828 meters (and which is now most famous for having Tom Cruise jump off of it), don’t come close to the technical limits of what is possible. In fact, William Baker, the head structural engineer at architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, argues that “We could easily do a kilometer. We could easily do a mile. We could do at least a mile and probably quite a bit more.”
So why haven’t we even hit the 1-kilometer mark yet? There are a few challenges, such as the elevator system, funding, allowing for natural daylight, and a simple lack of demand for super skyscrapers in real estate markets. Many of these factors are notably the same as the challenges in the green building market. However, as total green building space swells to 53 billion square feet by 2020, as Pike Research forecasts in its report, “Green Building Certification Programs,” the challenge of reconciling the drive to go higher with the drive to go green will gain urgency.
Cumulative Certified Green Building Space, 2012-2020
(Source: Pike Research)
The certification of the Empire State Building as LEED Gold last year was hailed as a milestone not only because of that building’s fame but also because it became the world’s tallest LEED-certified building (it was the world’s tallest building, period, from 1934 until 1972 when the World Trade Center’s North Tower was completed). That achievement dispelled any myths that tall buildings couldn’t be green as well. As green building has virtually become a standard feature in Class A office building construction, developers of tall buildings will inevitably need to consider going green in order to ensure a building’s value in increasingly competitive real estate markets.
The stipulations of green building certification programs harmonize well with tall building construction, given the complexity of such megaprojects. For example, many of the design processes typically conducted in green construction, such as building commissioning and building information modeling (BIM), are also required for tall building projects like the Burj Khalifa. Although that building didn’t receive a LEED certification, these quasi-green measures helped it meet design specifications with minimal delay and reduced financial risk.
However, a number of major challenges lie ahead for green skyscrapers. As construction markets shift toward zero energy building, for example, all new construction in Europe is expected to be by 2021, integrating on-site renewable energy may be difficult when a building is so high that only limited roof space is available for solar panels or other renewable sources. Most zero energy buildings today, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Research Support Facility in Colorado, have low-lying designs that allow for enough roof space to power the buildings underneath. Technologies such as solar building skins will help address this challenge in the long term but are simply not commercially available today.
Tallness and greenness can and have coexisted nicely over the last few years, and it likely won’t be long until a building that breaks the height record also breaks the record for tallest green building. Until then, we anticipate that most green building construction will be a bit more down to Earth.