Blinded By the Lights: How Skyscrapers Will Reach Insane New Heights

By Tom Davenport on at

Architects who dream of casting a city in shadows with ever-higher towers are beset by the reality of making a high-rise building. One of the biggest questions is how to make a lift function above 500m, which is roughly the height you can use a steel cable before its weight is so great that it needs another damn cable just to lift itself. Like an Escher painting.

Lifts (elevators, if you prefer) are becoming an environmental concern too, with the energy it takes to carry all those people and mechanical weight all day. A lift carrying an average of 24 passengers will use around 130,000 kWh per year -- that's like boiling a kettle almost 1.2 million times (see my maths below). Mother Nature would rather leap from the roof than take a ride down. And then, on windy days, the rope will resonate as the wind rushes past the building, putting the whole building out of action.

That's where KONE, the world's most ambitious lift company, decided to step forward and answer the age-old rhetorical question: how long is a piece of rope?

The KONE UltraRope takes everything that was wrong with steel cables and drops it down a proverbial lift shaft. It's so light, lifts will be able to reach a staggering 1 kilometre high -- twice the height that's possible with today's steel ropes. It lasts twice as long, and its high-friction coating means lift engineers can do away with all that mechanical lube that older ropes need in order to support the average of 50,000 rides an average skyscraper will see. (I swear that's just some bored stiff hitting all the buttons before he jumps out the lift, but I digress).

We spoke to Giuseppe Bilardello, Senior Vice President of technology and R&D for KONE, who said it took thousands of hours to build their first fully-operational prototype.

"One moment of truth was when after thousands of hours of work and a number of prototypes, a fully operational elevator was built at KONE's Tytyri elevator test shaft in Finland. The ride was smooth and comfortable," he said with that cold pride that only a true scientist can muster.

"I would say that until now the elevators were a major bottleneck for building higher. Now the rest of the building technology needs to respond," he added, citing a need for new construction methods that can carry the weight of taller buildings. Indeed, Giuseppe says the rest of the industry needs to reinvent some of their core construction materials to be lighter, and improve their strength and thermal properties if they want to take next-gen buildings to their full capacity.

You might be surprised, but architects have gone bananas for the UltraRope. "It is not an exaggeration to say that this is revolutionary," says Antony Wood, an architect who was also impressed by its energy efficient properties. Another, the presenter of the BBC Culture Show Tom Dyckhoff, says the UltraRope "lays down the gauntlet to which the art of architecture must now respond."

Who knew that drawing bricks could be so dramatic?

It's ironic that lifts, the very technology that allowed humans to build skyscrapers in the first place, have become the very factor that would eventually hinder their growth. Now that KONE appears to have solved this quandary, the only way is up.

Tom's (possibly-dodgy) Kettle sums:
- A lift at those specs will use 130,000 kWh per year.
- A kettle holding 1.7 litres at 3kw will use 0.15 kWh per boil, according to this.
- Lift per day: 491 kWh.
- 3273 kettle boils per day.
- Almost 1.2 million (1,194,767) boils per year.