The World’s Tallest Skyscrapers Aren’t Really That Tall

Having the title of world’s tallest skyscraper is an exemplary achievement for developers across the world. Ever since we started to build vertically, we’ve been competing to see who can build the tallest structure.

Skyscraper heights have exploded in recent years thanks to advanced engineering and renewed monetary investment. However, most of the world’s tallest buildings are hiding a dirty secret: they’re not actually that tall.

Learn more by watching the animated video below or continuing to read.

The tallest points on the world’s tallest buildings do actually reach staggering heights, but the actual building part rarely does. Developers have long placed spires or towers on top of skyscrapers to just inch out the competition and win the title of world’s tallest building. These pinnacles often add hundreds of feet to the height of buildings, all with relatively low cost. They also reduce the complexity of the engineering.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, CTBUH, studied all of the world’s tallest buildings and found some interesting data. They discovered that nearly 60% of the world’s tallest buildings, called supertalls, actually wouldn’t be supertalls without added wasteful space on top, such as spires. The organization calls this wasteful height “vanity height.”

Image Source: Concerning Reality

Take for example the Burj Khalifa, the current holder of the world’s tallest title. It stands at 828 meters tall from base to top of the spire. However, the highest occupied floor only goes as high as 585 meters. This means that there are 244 meters of non-occupiable space on the skyscraper that otherwise makes it so tall. This equates to roughly 29% of the structure.

The Bank of America tower in New York is even worse. This structure stands 366 meters tall, an otherwise respectable height for a tall building. However, useable floors stop at just 235 meters, meaning that 131 of the 366 meters of height are left unusable. That equates to 36% of the entire building. That may seem bad, but it’s not even the worst supertall in terms of wasted space in the world. That honor, or rather disappointment, goes to the Burj al Arab.

The Burj al Arab stands in at 321 meters tall and is the world’s tallest hotel. You’ve likely seen photos of the building’s striking construction, but you’ll notice that the top is mostly architectural fluff. All that fluff equates to 124 meters of non-occupiable space – or 39% of the entire structure’s height.

Image Source: Concerning Reality

You can see that this problem isn’t just limited to these buildings either in the chart below. 95 out of the 360 meters of the Pinnacle building is all vanity, or 27%. The Emirates Tower One has 113 out of 355 meters as vanity space, or 32%. Finally, the 450-meter tall Zifeng Tower has 133 meters of non-occupiable height, or 30% of the entire structure. This is an incredibly persistent problem when it comes to supertall structures.


Image Source:CTBUH

These findings from CTBUH mean that while these structures are still tall, their height isn’t as impressive. It takes much less engineering to construct these un-occupiable spaces and thus, their creation is almost always a ploy to win a title of world’s tallest.

The problem of vanity height isn’t necessarily a new one, but it is getting worse. The Chrysler building is 21% vanity height and the Empire State is 2% vanity height. These were some of the first structures to start the trend in the 1930s. It was during this era that the competition for world’s tallest building began heating up and only accelerated into the 21st century. Humanity’s drive to have the biggest, tallest thing means that sometimes engineers make buildings taller than they really need to be.

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.

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