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I was kindly forwarded a newspaper article this week that segued between tall buildings and tall people. At a little under 6’3” myself I can vouch for the common complaints of tall people discussed: the ankles, knees and hips take a lot more stress the taller you are – for tall buildings the stresses at broadly comparable locations are also higher, but the comparison between the two was what interested me most, having used the analogy of the human body myself to describe the behaviour and actions of tall buildings in a number of lectures and presentations.
The main difference between the two is that each tall building must be bespoke and adopt systems tailored to its height, location, usage and local environment. It could be argued that, in a way, humans are the same, and over centuries we have evolved in subtle ways to adapt to our immediate environment, but the universal basic structure and skeletal mechanics are the same from one person to the next. The tall building structure is not, and should not be considered universal. It is unique.
For the tall building structure, we take a risk approach to determine and design for the worst combination of natural and man-made forces that we can anticipate based on our understanding of nature, and make sure that it cannot fail; for the human body, we can never anticipate what forces we may need to endure and, to ensure that we are not weighed down by hugely dense skeletal structures, we accept that we will break a leg or an arm now and then – the structure cannot do this without disastrous consequences. The structural engineer knows in advance that crutches will be required at some stage and builds them in, it’s no accident. The engineer also knows that the figurative ankles, knees and hips will endure a lot of stress over the building’s lifetime and support is added just for the event. A tall building is planned, it is not the result of a largely genetic lottery.
Back to the article, it suggests that some architects adopt a “bigger is better” maxim. While it may be true to an extent, it is certainly not a decision any architect takes in isolation, and typically the architect actually has little say in the matter. There is only one body that takes the decision on height, and money talks. There comes a point of diminishing returns on tall buildings, so the choice for increasing height, as the article points out, is not always increasing direct revenue. It can be about a symbol, a statement that a country has arrived, that anything is possible, that it has the capability and the infrastructure to deliver anything. More often than not though, it is about the returns: they may not be direct, but they may show in the yield from the neighbouring buildings, they may be intangible in the form of tourism boosts or increases in a countries general stature.
It is not cheap to build tall and the choice is certainly never a whimsical one – on anyone’s part.
Categories: Tall Buildings