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The Rise of the Smart Skyscraper

Brief notes on smart architecture perspective for your morning commute.

Never mind the Nest

Investment in smart building technology is expected to hit the 17 billion dollar mark within this decade. That’s more than double current spending on smart architecture, which is on track to surpass 7 billion in 2015.

And while discussion of the “Internet of Things” and Nest thermostats tends to saturate the social web, smart architecture’s roaring pace can be attributed to commercial investment rather than home consumer demand (to the consternation of at least a few Silicon Valley marketers).

Call it the rise of the smart skyscraper—and hospital, arena and airport.

According to a recent report by IDC, new smart building investment will be most aggressive in Asia, with North American development still focused on efficiency (think LEED) and European spending likely dictated by regulation.

What smart architecture is

But first things first: What is smart architecture? Definitions abound, of course. We like Triple Pundit’s sturdy, if not exactly sexy, take: “A smart building is one that achieves significant energy savings by taking advantage of improved technology and materials in terms of structure, appliances, electrical systems, plumbing, and HVACR. Some elements of smart buildings are tried and true, weatherization being one familiar example. Others involve new lighting technologies and other systems that are just beginning to break into the market. Still others can depend on access to renewable energy, and on top of that, the habits and behaviors of the people who use any particular building can have a great influence on efficiency. To round out the picture, a smart building could also incorporate landscaping elements including green roofs and green walls. Ideally, a smart building also includes advanced control systems that connect some of these elements to optimize savings.”

Climate change

Historically, mainstream adoption of smart (or at least smarter) architecture has been stymied by high costs and unconvincing assurances of future savings. But new technologies like wireless automation and cloud computing mean businesses are realizing meaningful gains beyond the usual green suspects. Data, as in nearly every industry, is a powerful addition to traditional value propositions like energy savings and structural safety. In short, we’re seeing the case for smart architecture shape up to be a formidably robust one.

(For more on making the cost benefit argument, see Green Tech Media’s excellent and still-relevant piece, as well as a report from Jones Lang LaSalle.)

There’s also the increasingly important quality of life element in commercial architecture. Technology now affords us the ability to enhance even mental health. Daylighting is one so-old-it’s-new example of smart building with a happy side effect: Increased worker productivity and measurable wellness benefits.

About those skyscrapers


111 West 57th Street in Manhattan. via Curbed

It seems a day can’t pass without another mega-tall or otherwise innovative skyscraper popping up in the press. By 2020 there will be ten such structures. That’s according to “The Technology of Tall,” by Sheila Moorcroft. (A mega-tall skyscraper is one that is 600 meters or more.)

“We may soon be able to open windows on the 25th floor and live in wooden skyscrapers,” said Moorcroft.

Heady stuff, literally. (And yes, “plyscrapers” are a thing.)

Moorcroft explains:

“A combination of factors is driving the rush for the skies. Economic growth, increased land prices, prestige and rapidly growing urban populations. A host of new designs, technologies and materials is making these various towers feasible and super-efficient. Now the aim is to make them more sustainable and [sic] livable.”

Then there’s the smart technology of dizzying structural feats. You needn’t travel very far. To wit: The rapidly rising skyline of Manhattan, with breathtaking projects like the one at 111 West 57th, which will be the “slenderest tower in the world.” (And one of the tallest, as well, at 1,428 feet.)

If high-rise architecture saw a wave of design innovation in the 1970s, with breakthroughs including stepped design, incorporation of retail and nature spaces, and plenty of rebellious postmodernism, the great tragedy of 9/11 renewed a focus on advances in structural integrity, especially concrete. (See this video from PBS for additional insight into this topic.)

Tall. Really tall.


The Burj Khalifa. (source)

Smarter concrete not only makes buildings safer; it makes them huge. The Burj Khalifa, built in 2010, is yet the tallest skyscraper in the world at 2,717 feet, though it has competition.

The Wilshire Grand Tower currently being erected in downtown Los Angeles, with its massive concrete core, will shrink in comparison at just 1,100 feet (technically just a “supertall”). Still, when it opens in 2017, it will be the tallest building in Los Angeles, a global megacity not exactly known for mega structures, and the tallest building west of the Mississippi. What it lacks in height it makes up for in personality: The structure will be L.A.’s only skyscraper without a flat roof. And with that, we’re back to the 1970s. Flat roofs were required from 1974 onward to accommodate helipads.


A rendering of the Wilshire Grand Tower via Architect Magazine.

On predictions

Will starchitecture “dim,” as Steve McConnell of NBBJ predicts in Fast Co Design?

Any discussion of architecture is bound to surface the human hankering for predictions. Which is why we like Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski’s reminder that predictions have a way of looking awfully silly in retrospect. He closes his utterly sensible piece about architecture predictions with a salient charge: “The real question about new buildings should never be ‘Are they cutting edge?’ but ‘Are they good?’”

Still, we can’t help but admire Daniel Libeskind’s abundant comfort with discomfort when asked about his predictions for architecture. (He just had to say Paris!)

Main image source: GlobalUSS

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