By Sang Dae Kim
Monday January 4 was the first day in the office in 2010, and immediately it was a busy one for the staff of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). The opening of Burj Khalifa, triggered massive media attention.
Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa

Many press people from around the world wanted to know our opinions and insights on all sorts of questions, such as what the launch of Burj Khalifa symbolises in terms of advancements, what the main factors are that differentiate Burj Khalifa from other tall buildings, what does the launch of Burj Khalifa mean for Dubai, and what is the most impressive aspect of the building?


To answer some of the questions raised above: like no other building, Burj Khalifa embodies the development of Dubai in becoming a global city.

It’s being used as an iconic image in articles about Dubai, and its opening was a global news item. In a way, the tower is the biggest marketing campaign the city could have thought up.

Because for as long as humanity has erected houses, it has been fascinated by tall building.

Since the oldest myths up until the recent completion of the tallest buildings ever built, tall buildings have symbolised the human desire to climb higher and expressed the wealth and power of those who commissioned them. Tall buildings trigger the fascination of men for challenging the laws of nature, and the fun it is to overview the world from above.


The history of skyscrapers shows many iconic buildings, and all of them come with a special story.

The Empire State Building is a true symbol of New York City, which had been known as the tallest building for a long time, since it was built in 1931.

The 102-storey building, made famous by the fictional character of King Kong, was topped out within 18 months. During construction, 3,500 people, which is the population of a small town, went to work on it every day.

Almost 60,000 tonnes of steel and about 10 million bricks were used during construction. Even today, these are magical numbers.

The United States is the birthplace of the modern skyscraper.

The invention of the elevator and the development of the steel frame structure allowed cities to develop buildings that respond to high land prices, allowed for an effective utilisation of commercial space, and solve urban residential problems.

In the past 25 years, much of the focus on development of tall buildings has shifted to Asia.

Malaysia, China, Taiwan and South Korea have seen some remarkable developments, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei 101, the Jin Mao Building and World Financial Centre in Shanghai and the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong.

These super-skyscrapers are in a league of mega-tall buildings that really cannot be rationalised though economic theories, urban scarcity and steep land prices.

As such, these towers are very much iconic buildings, aiming at those who want an exclusive office or apartment, an iconic address and breathtaking views.

Put your name and that of Burj Khalifa or Empire State Building on an envelope, and no postal service in the world will have problems delivering the mail.

Tall buildings can be economical when it comes to saving space, high land prices, and creating density, but at some point, the height of a building doesn’t have a rational meaning any more, but an emotional one.

One could argue that the difference between a tall building and a skyscraper is vanity height.

But of course, there is nothing wrong with that. Because of their visibility and presence in the urban landscape, skyscrapers have incorporated various messages throughout history.

In the course of the 20th century, the iconic effects of skylines and skyscrapers gradually became another main cause for tall buildings, overtaking the need for density, especially when it comes to super tall buildings. Density became visibility, which is now being used to mimic density and urbanity.

Tallness (and hence visibility) can embody various messages, from an individual expression to values representing a society as a whole or the time of development. Building tall and iconic has been a way to make a presence in this world for centuries.


But as buildings grow taller and architectural styles change, new techniques must be developed.

In the past decades we have seen the rise of the starchitect, which is a contraction of the words star and architect. Starchitects create very iconic and quality buildings, but also designs that can be very recognisable for their portfolio.

When commissioning a starchitect, one can be sure to get an iconic building, but what does it tell you about the city and how does it relate and contribute to its environment? These are important questions to ask.

An important message that is being incorporated in today’s development of tall buildings is that of sustainability.

The ways in which tall buildings can help to create a more sustainable urban habitat has been a vital topic within the CTBUH for many years.

Many new developments are now under way trying to make towers more durable and sensible through green technologies, smart and ecological design, green policies and certification programmes.


Green building certification programmes such as Leed and Breaam are part of the process that makes people aware of the importance of sustainable design and construction.

Being visible objects in dense urban areas, tall buildings are ideal subjects for Leed and Breaam certification, not only because of the size of development, but also for being able to become a present example of sustainable development.

The Commerzbank Tower in the German financial capital of Frankfurt am Main is the first building that created such awareness, and now many tall buildings are pursuing green ambitions. Especially for companies whose business is about intangible services, such as financial companies, a sustainable policy is a good way to express their involvement and responsibility to the outside world.

Leed Gold is being considered a standard certification these days. Obtaining platinum certification is difficult. The recently completed One Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan (occupied by the Bank of America) is the first skyscraper to receive Leed Platinum certification.

Sustainability is an evolutionary process involving many little insights, inventions, initiatives and policies that make buildings gradually more energy friendly, more durable, etc.

Solutions will be aimed towards reducing the use of energy, the creation of energy, carbon neutral development, transportation costs, creation costs, etc.

One way of looking at this is that the creation of sustainable energy will be taking place on an individual building level. Energy could be more of a network industry involving many suppliers.

This, however, requires quite some technical development. I also believe that the development of attractive urban density can play a major role, as densities allow for faster movement of goods, people and ideas. Tall buildings could play a substantial role in this.


Given that most buildings have already been built, retrofitting existing buildings could have a far bigger impact than making new developments sustainable.

It’s not surprising that many of the existing super tall buildings have chosen to make their projects green. Both Empire State Building and Taipei 101 have launched greening programmes to be carried out in the next few years.

During the 2009 CTBUH Conference in Chicago, architect Adrian Smith presented the plan for greening the Willis Tower in Chicago, which aims to reduce its energy use by 80 per cent of base building energy.

One of the most basic yet beneficial improvements is reglazing the building’s 16,000 single-pane windows.

This creates effective day lighting and ultimately 40 per cent less lighting energy consumption.

When the outdated HVAC, elevator, and plumbing systems are replaced, they will operate as much as 50 per cent more efficiently. The new plan also integrates wind turbines, which, along with solar hot water panels and green roofs, are being tested to withstand high-altitude wind conditions on the tower’s rooftops.

Urban habitat

Looking at the wider picture, urban development should be focused on taking a more holistic approach, more so than obtaining Leed certification alone.

Sustainability is more than the sum of the proper ingredients, it’s also about how these are mixed and create a synergetic effect that adds value. Creating sustainable neighbourhoods through high-rise was one of the main topics of our recent and successful CTBUH Mumbai Conference.

Being part of an emerging economy, Mumbai recognises there are great opportunities ahead. The city aspires to become a world-class metropolis in Asia, seeking to find its place within the new world order.

However, it is hindered in these ambitions by an already overpopulated and crumbling city, an enormous stress on infrastructure and a large influx from rural to urban of the economically challenged.

A classic solution to cope with density-related stress is to build upwards. History has shown famous examples of how tall buildings have been deployed to solve urban problems, while at the same time creating an international image for the city through a powerful skyline.

The city aims to create a replicable model for a sustainable redevelopment of other urban areas, based on principles of modern technology, planning and engineering. Not only the building itself but the space it creates should be iconic.

The concept of creating neighbourhoods and livable cities is becoming increasingly important.

Public perception and differing views from each generation are not the type of technical terms that previously had been considered in the design of the urban habitat.

Tall Building design also needs a dialogue with the community and must have positive momentum to confront the potential resistance that may exist when they enter a new neighbourhood.

Challenges ahead

Many of the current topics in the field of tall buildings were touched upon during the conference that we organised in Chicago in October 2009.

This conference also celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the CTBUH. The title for the conference was The Evolution of the Skyscraper: New Challenges in a World of Climate Change and Recession. Tall buildings have enjoyed almost two decades of unprecedented development, built in greater numbers, height and geographical spread than at any time in history.

Given the twin challenges of global climate change and a severe international economic recession, it was a good moment to rethink what has been taken for granted and an opportunity to discard old habits. New problems or challenges ask for creative solutions and the goal of the conference was to learn in what direction we in the 21st century are and should be heading.

The general sentiment about the future of tall buildings is leaning towards optimism. The future is actually here. We are constructing today what had been dreams just a few years ago, and today we are learning how to build the skyscrapers of the future.

As large scale and super tall projects can require 10 years to design, develop and construct, one is aware that these projects are going to run into an economic downturn sooner or later within this time span.

Timing is of great importance, and financial times are not great currently. But projects have not been written off completely; they are just awaiting better times, which are expected to lie ahead.

The conference also reinforced the fact that sustainability is here to stay. It reconfirmed the importance of sustainable design and development and the creation of attractive urban densities as lasting legacies of our time.

Through their iconic presence tall buildings are excellent showcases of green building technology. Although sustainability sometimes feels like “nailing a jellyfish to the wall” like Steve Watts described it during our Chicago conference, it is also a topic that penetrates its way into the design, from the smallest detail of the building to the general planning of cities.

It influences every profession related to the design, development, construction and management of tall buildings.

Tall buildings will most likely continue to play a role as icons embodying these developments and ingredients to create attractive urban densities.

– The writer is Chairman, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat