Many technological advancements have changed the way we design in the past 150 years, but perhaps none has had a greater impact than the invention of the passenger elevator. Prior to Elisha Otis’ design for the elevator safety brake in 1853, buildings rarely reached 7 stories. Since then, buildings have only been growing taller and taller. In 2009, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, maxed out at 163 floors (serviced by Otis elevators). Though a century and half separates those milestones, in that time elevator technology has actually changed relatively little - until recently.
The past few years have seen many new elevator innovations. While existing elevator cables maxed out at approximately 500 meters in length before becoming unsupportable, UltraRope, a cable technology by Finnish elevator manufacturer KONE revealed last year, allows elevators to travel up to 1 km without stopping, double the current distance. To increase elevator capacity, German company ThyssenKrupp has developed their TWIN technology, which stacks 2 elevators within the same shaft (with an extra stop below the lowest level and above the highest floors, so one cabin can park at this spot to give access to the desired floor to his twin cabin). The company is also currently working on MULTI, an elevator system that eliminates the need for a cable, allowing elevators to travel independently, both vertically and horizontally through shaft loops within a building.
Additionally, mechanical companies have begun utilizing the internet of things the improve on the functionality of their elevator systems. ThyssenKrupp, in collaboration with Microsoft, have launched a system known as MAX that provides real time feedback from elevators to service technicians, allowing the technicians to know which parts will need to be repaired or replaced before they break down, reducing the out-of-service time that currently slows down many elevator systems. Most recently, Schindler Transit Management Group has released an app called myPORT that increases the interactivity between building and person. Users can set their destination and travel preferences, so an elevator will automatically be called to arrive precisely when you do. And since the elevator will only be called for people granted access, the building will enjoy increased security.
All of this leads to the question of how this might impact the buildings we occupy. With MULTI, it is easy to imagine buildings that no longer need to revolve around a core of elevator banks, enabling easy circulation through buildings like OMA’s CCTV tower, or even more outlandish forms in tall buildings. With less space dedicated to circulation, more floor space can be freed up for unique spaces on each floor of a building, and pencil towers with tiny footprints (such as those gaining popularity in Manhattan) can be designed more efficiently.
The improved security and reduced wait times resulting from internet of things technologies also means greater accessibility to higher floors, potentially bringing public spaces higher into the sky. And since that may in turn demand housing on higher and higher floors, we now have access to strong enough cables to make the trip without sky lobbies. With increased density becoming more common in the world’s major cities, buildings will need to become more efficient and purposeful on all of their floors, and these elevator companies may provide us with the technology to do it.
As Rem Koolhaas describes in his seminal Delirious New York, the elevator has allowed architects to design buildings “able to support newly discovered territories.” With the new technologies now available to us, we can continue to explore the best way to occupy our aerial terrain.