Ok We Built It, Now How Does it Work?

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Ok We Built It, Now How Does it Work?

| architect, architects, architecture, architecture critic | November 11, 2011

Architecture has come a long way since 1885, when William Le Baron Jenney built what is widely considered the world’s first skyscraper. His eight-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago was designed with metal columns and beams instead of heavy masonry, leading the way for even taller constructions to come. In January 2010, SOM’s Burj Khalifa smashed the world record for tallest skyscraper in the world. The smooth steel stalagmite towers half a mile above Dubai, with its very tip often obscured by clouds.

These days, the claim of being the tallest building in the world is never held for too long. With skyscrapers going up at seemingly breakneck speeds, one would think that things have changed dramatically since Jenney’s architectural revolution in Chicago, and there is no doubt that they have. But Kate Ascher exposes the inner workings of these modern marvels in her new book The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, and it turns out that contemporary design solutions are sometimes more primitive than one would think. She sat down with Fresh Air host Terry Gross to answer a few questions, for instance, what happens when you flush a toilet on the top of the tallest building in the world? Click to learn more.

What Ascher immediately assured NPR listeners was that even after digging for dirt on these unbelievable feats of engineering, she feels safe taking the elevator to a triple-digit floor. But she does provide some intriguing food for thought for our next trip to an observation deck. For one, she told Gross that engineers purposefully design buildings to sway back and forth in order to alleviate pressure caused by wind currents. Even more jarring is the fact that there is no precise formula behind the amount of sway in a building but only a maximum fraction of the building that is permitted to sway (one-500th).

An excerpt from The Heights, via NPR.

She also explained how some skyscrapers are designed with large pools of water or some other material stored at the top of the building. These high-altitude tanks, called tuned liquid dampers, work to counter the sway from strong wind currents, functioning under basic laws of physics: when wind comes from one direction, the water will subsequently rush back in the other direction, working to keep the building in place.

As for the toilets thousands of feet in the air, we were told that flushing a toilet from the top of a skyscraper is not too different from flushing a toilet in a house. Water from toilets one or 100 floors above ground run into a septic system usually plugged into the city sewer systems, with the only real difference being the need for sophisticated twists and bends in the plumbing inside tall buildings to prevent waste from accelerating at terrifying speeds.

The most surprising fact was that despite the Burj Khalifa’s sophisticated design, the ultra modern high-rise is plugged into a city that has relatively outdated sewage infrastructure. Ascher remarked that for a number of Dubai’s skyscrapers, wastewater doesn’t deposit directly into the city sewer system. Instead, it gets trucked out to treatment plants and placed on a queue for sometimes up to 24 hours. The same goes for tall buildings in India and presumably other countries. Though Ascher foresees these countries investing in a more comprehensive, interconnected sewage system, right now it’s quite a paradox imagining a half-mile tall building requiring a half-mile long queue of wastewater-carrying trucks.
Source: Architizer Blog

About the author

Drawing upon original ideas and extensive personal and professional experience in the field, David McFadden crafted this article to explore the untapped potential of making historic architectural masterpieces more sustainable. After working at various design practices—both full-time and freelance—and launching his design firm, David identified a significant gap in the industry. In 1984, he founded Consulting For Architects Inc. Careers, an expansive hub designed to align architects with hiring firms for mutual benefit. This platform enables architects to find impactful design work and frees hiring firms from the time-consuming cycles of recruitment and layoffs. David’s innovative approach to employer-employee relations has brought much-needed flexibility and adaptation to the industry. As the Founder and CEO, David has successfully guided his clients and staff through the challenges of four recessions—the early ’80s, early ’90s, early 2000s, the Great Recession, the pandemic, and the current slowdown due to inflation and high-interest rates.

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