Burj Khalifa

January 8th, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Business, Chicago.

On Monday, January 4, the first business day of 2010, the Burj Khalifia officially became the world’s tallest building. It’s 169 stories tall and designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the same Chicago-based firm that designed the Sears (now Willis) Tower, which opened in 1973 as the world’s tallest building and remains the fifth-tallest structure.

180px-Burj_Dubai_20090916Since its inception, the building was known as the Burj Dubai but, on opening day, took on the name of the ruler of nearby Abu Dhabi, which The Guardian called “a nod to huge bailout by rival Abu Dhabi.”

By comparison, the Willis Tower is almost paltry. The Burj is as tall as a Willis Tower with a John Hancock Tower stacked on top.

I learned that Wednesday, November 25, the day before Thanksgiving at an Economic Development Council luncheon, held at the Tower Club, which seemed like a strange name given that it’s only on the 39th floor of the Civic Opera Building, which is a mere 45 stories tall, less than half the height of the 108 story Willis Tower.

Those facts would normally be irrelevant except that we were listening to Antony Wood , Executive Director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat speak on tall building: “Tall Trends in Troubling Times.” As the organization that determines how tall buildings are measured, it’s in the news whenever a new tall building is announced and the inevitable controversy over height ensues. The previous week, for instance, the council changed its criteria for measuring building height, making the Trump Tower in Chicago taller because it could be measured from the walk at the river level, rather than street level.


As an example of how these debates can go, SOM has lobbied for years that the antenna atop Willis ought to count in its height because it is a permanent part of the structure now, not an impermanent antenna. The council disagrees, noting that it has to draw a line–if it measured to the top of the now permanent antenna on Willis it would have to include any antenna. “Where would we stop?,” Mr. Wood asked?

He went on to suggest a few trends in tall buildings:

  • The tallest towers have moved from North America to Asia and the Middle East.
  • Tall buildings are used primarily for residential and mixed use–originally they were office buildings.
  • The agenda for building a tall tower used to be corporate; now it’s municipal. Rather than displaying corporate might, they are status icons for cities competing in the world marketplace.
  • Most tall buildings are poor examples of local design and therefore contribute to the homogenization of world city scapes.
  • Buildings will get taller and taller–today’s tallest is projected to be the 19th tallest in 2020.

If tall buildings can be designed with more sustainable energy features and community spaces, they may well contribute to solving the world’s need for housing. “Cities can no longer be built on the American model, with a downtown core surrounded by outlying suburbs,” he said.

Given that some 200,000 people a day move from country to city worldwide, it requires a new city of 1 million residents a week to house them.  Going up may make more sense than going out where land is scarce and population exploding. Whether that makes economic sense in the desert of Dubai, which needs neither the housing nor office space, remains to be seen.

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