Vanity Height: How Much of a Skyscraper is Usable Space?

1. Kingdom Tower / Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Image © Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Ever expanding population growth coupled with the continuous development of urban centres mean that buildings, in general, will continue to get taller. With the topping out of One World Trade Centre in May this year the worldwide competition to construct towers with soaring altitudes doesn’t seem to be slowing, especially in China and the UAE. The question on many people’s lips, however, is how much of these colossal buildings is actual usable space?

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), who recently named the Best Tall Buildings for 2013, has published an article tackling the concept of Vanity Height, or “the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top.” The results demonstrate that many super-skyscrapers have surprisingly uneven ratios between habitable and non-occupiable space.

The CTBUH Height Criteria defines a building as supertall if its height to the ‘architectural top’ is above 300m (984ft). To give some context, the Empire State Building is measured at 373m (1224ft), whereas buildings such as Dubai’s , which is measured at 828m (2717ft), are leading the way into the Era of the Megatall. According to the CTBUH, as of July 2013, there are only 73 supertall and 2 megatall buildings in existence.

Courtesy of CTBUH
Courtesy of CTBUH

Dubai’s two tallest buildings both offer interesting statistics. The Burj Khalifa’s total vanity height is 244m which, on its own, would stand as Europe’s 11th tallest skyscraper. The Burj Al-Arab, on the other hand, has “the greatest vanity ratio of any supertall building” with 124m (39%) of its total 321m height “devoted to non-occupiable space above the highest occupiable floor”. The average vanity height in the UAE is 19%, making it the nation with “vainest” supertall buildings. In the USA, the Bank of America tower in New York has an occupied floor height of 235m, leaving 131m (or 36%) non-occupiable. The CTBUH predict that once Centre is complete in 2014, New York City will be home to three of the world’s top ten vanity heights.

Courtesy of Emporis

Although we’re yet to see a building hit the 1000m mark, Emporis have compiled a list of the top ten tallest skyscrapers currently under construction. Three of the tallest in the collection are being built in China, whilst two others (including the Kingdom Tower which is set to hit the 1000m mark, and the Makkah Clock Royal Tower) are in Saudi Arabia. Whether Vanity Height ratios will grow as buildings around the globe compete to be the tallest will be something to watch.

Visit an interactive diagram exploring the history of Vanity Height by the CTBUH. You can read the full article published by CTBUH here (PDF).

References: CTBUH, Emporis

Cite: Taylor-Foster, James. "Vanity Height: How Much of a Skyscraper is Usable Space?" 06 Sep 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • Shawn

    Well, given that the majority of this “tallest building fever” is happening in Dubai (or UAE in general), it’s no surprise. The entire culture in Dubai is about “Vanity”; i.e. No Culture; just breaking records and doing silly things like filing the Persian Gulf with land mass so you can make fake islands …. what for?

    They’re just a bunch of silly people with too much money and zero creativity, culture, heritage or education. “the height of vanity” indeed.

  • Eric in Colorado

    What is CTBUH’s definition of “occupiable”? Does it include observation levels? Looking at the images of The Shard there seems to be several levels of observation space closer to the top than any rentable space.

  • Croco Dile

    Who cares if sky scrapers have usable space left !
    Those are NOT built to be usable !
    They are a manifestation of money power.
    Architects are willing tools in the process.

  • Ryan

    Their definition of occupiable space does not include mechanical or service areas, which is of course a critical part of these buildings. Would be nice if they included that distinction in their calcs.

  • Daniel

    It would be nice to know the occupiable space that removed mechanical system space from the equation and focused not on height but floor area. These buildings get much thinner at the top. Adding a 200ft radio tower on top is not as wasteful as 200ft of empty floors that might have been occupiable.

  • Ilya Bourim

    … and don’t forget that the taller the building, the more structure, the smaller the bottom floors too… Just imagine 50+ elevators and a bunch of 4 meter columns?!! Mechanical is the least of your concerns.

  • Sergey Alexeev

    I think today is a great folly to build such tall buildings. They are very irrational – expensive to build and very expensive to operate. Those who look to the future already have refused to build such high-rise buildings, and today basically so are built only ambitious but short-sighted Asians )).
    ХХI century – the time of rational use of resources and energy. And it is very possible that already in the next 15-20 years the tenants to leave these are too expensive a premises, and the owners will have to begin to take down these high-rise monsters )).
    Green Architecture for ХХI century – .
    The article proposes to consider the idea of a rational coatings for large spans and is about how we can bring a bit useful Green of variety for monotonous Architecture our towns.
    Progress does not stand still; the use of new materials and technologies gives amazing results, if at the same time we are able to give up some of their old patterns of thinking )).
    Production of energy from renewable sources – this is fine, but the architecture itself can and should reduce the need for electricity.
    And these objects will soon be able to achieve this.
    Sorry for the minor inconvenience to read my article. For example, this is easily one can done with an automatic interpreter Google –

  • gabriel reyes strappa

    No matter how high is each building, or how high can become next.
    Dwelling on heights reasonably walkable is an act of arrogance which is difficult to justify. We need energy, engines, costs to get the higher is possible, however the places that people are commonly dreams to live are closer to the ground … it is thus another human schizophrenia who hallucinate with megaprojects, but prefers the natural soil?