Skyscrapers may be older than you think. Towers and tall buildings have been used for over 10,000 years to allow for defence observation, clock visibility, and communication. And while skyscrapers are definitely newer, they’re still over 100 years old. Just like with towers, skyscrapers are built with a specific purpose in mind. Reducing housing costs, to level inequality, and allowing more people to live in city centers are three of the founding reasons that skyscrapers were built. Whether these are still true today depends on where you look.
It was the understanding and advancements of building with steel and iron that allowed for skyscrapers to be born. More specifically, it was the Bessemer Process of mass steel bean production that truly made way for skyscrapers. Now that high-quality iron beams could be produced quicker and at a lower cost, all bets were off. Architects and builders could invent and dream of new buildings that didn’t seem possible before.
As skyscrapers became more possible and the first one was actually built city planners, architects and engineers were fascinated by the ability to fit more people into smaller spaces, to provide more housing – ideally – at a lower price. But the first skyscraper wasn’t a residential building at all.
The very first skyscraper was built in 1885 in Chicago, Illinois. It was a 10-story home insurance building designed by William LeBaron Jenney. The building was constructed with a “modern” (AKA modern for the 1880s) steel frame that could go taller and have more stability than traditional masonry construction.
A fire had decimated Chicago in 1871 which led to mass construction in the city in general. They were hoping to rebuild the city to set it up for economic growth and revitalization. The Home Insurance Building was to sit in the middle of Chicago’s business district. They wanted it to act as a leading example of new construction trends featuring stone, iron, and steel instead of wood and bricks. The building also featured other modern applications such as safe elevators and plumbing.
Stretching 138 feet in the air, the project was actually halted by city authorities because they were worried it would fall over. It’s hard to believe that today, one of the tallest buildings in the world – the Burj Khalifa – reaches over 2,716 feet into the sky. Authorities conducted a number of safety inspections and tests before allowing the project to continue.
Two more floors were added to the building in 1890. The building was demolished in 1931 to make way for today’s LaSalle Bank Building.
You may be wondering why a 10-story building was ever referred to as a “skyscraper”. In fact, the classification of the term has transitioned since the 1880s. At the time, a skyscraper had to have at least 10 floors. As technology advanced during the 20th century, this classification was too attainable.
Today, a building must have over 40 floors, be taller than 150 meters (492 feet) and be free-standing without any support or tension wires in order to be called a skyscraper. Another standard for skyscraper-classification is that 50% of the building must be habitable floor space. That’s why the CN Tower in Toronto, for example, is called a tower and not a skyscraper.
Skyscrapers grew in popularity mainly because of mass migration to urban areas. City centers are appealing to live in because of accessibility, being in close proximity to events, restaurants, shops and having access to transportation hubs. Although they were first used as office spaces in city centers, they have become more and more popular as a housing option as well.
Ideally, the concept of fitting more people into a smaller piece of land and building upwards would have created lower buying or renting prices. It seems that the opposite has happened. Condos have grown to represent a luxury lifestyle, living in the heart of a city and close to all events.
Although there is always the possibility of finding cheaper housing, the average cost of condos is still high. In Toronto, an average one-bedroom apartment could cost upwards of $550,000 CAD. In New York, that price jumps closer to $1 million.
Aside from providing housing, skyscrapers help to reduce urban sprawl, add visual creativity to a skyline, and even impact the creativity and invention of those who live or work within the building.
Skyscrapers have grown into iconic buildings and almost pose a challenge to modern architects. Supertall and megatall buildings have become sub-classes of skyscrapers, being classified as greater than 300 and 600 meters in heights.
A building in Saudi Arabia, the Jeddah Tower, is set to be the world’s tallest skyscraper. It was started in April 2013 and was set to finish in 2020. However, the construction hasn’t been progressing as expected. By the end of its completion, the tower should have over 200 floors, reaching over 3,280 feet into the sky. It will cost over $2.2 billion dollars to build.
In 2015 alone, over 106 buildings were built that were over 200 meters tall. With projects like the Jeddah Tower, it’s clear that skyscrapers will only continue to get taller and taller. Who would have thought it all began with a 10 story insurance building in Chicago.