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Study Examines Changes in Skyscrapers’ Vanity Heights

Aerial view of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, New York
The concept of vanity height began when architect William Van Alen added a 38 m tall spire to the top of the Chrysler Building, keeping its length a secret until opening to compete for the title of tallest building against the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building. Over time, as high-rise heights have increased, so have the percentages of those buildings’ top-level, unoccupied spaces. Wikimedia Commons/Joris van Rooden

The unoccupiable space at the top of tall buildings has grown at the same rate as the structures over roughly the past four decades.

September 10, 2013—For more than a century, architects, developers, and builders have coveted the title of the world’s tallest building. And as new buildings have grown taller and taller, so has a feature they all include: vanity height.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) defines vanity height as the space in a building beginning at the highest occupiable floor and extending to the architectural top—the highest point of the building that is considered to be part of the architectural design. The CTBUH recently conducted a study of its extensive database of tall building statistics to examine vanity height.

The study, Vanity Height: The Empty Space in Today’s Tallest, was inspired when CTBUH staff examined the details of the Kingdom Tower currently under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The $1.23-billion structure could become the tallest building in the world if the project proceeds according to plans.

“That building is extremely slender. It begged the question, how much of that space is useable?” says Daniel Safarik, a communications specialist for the CTBUH who worked on the study. “We started looking at the section drawings and what information was available. We started thinking this might be the most extreme example, but maybe this has been a factor for a while.”

Indeed, in 1929, developers of both the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building and the Chrysler Building, in New York City, famously jostled for the title of world’s tallest building. After architect H. Craig Severance added height to the bank building at 40 Wall Street and declared it to be the tallest in the world, architect William Van Alen developed the Chrysler Building’s famous 38 m spire, keeping it concealed within the building until the last possible moment.

“You could argue [that] is the very definition of vanity height. They thought it was so important that this be the tallest building that they hide [the spire] and reveal it at the very last moment to steal the thunder from their downtown rival,” Safarik says.

The CTBUH established a minimum building height of 300 m for the study, going back to the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Those two buildings—the only ones to qualify before 1950—have an average vanity height of 11 percent.

Five buildings built between 1950 and 1974 met the criterion with an average vanity height of 4 percent. Between 1975 and 2013, buildings average 16 percent vanity height. Although the proportion has remained relatively constant for the past 38 years, vanity heights have grown over the period.

“The actual linear length of how large that 16 percent is has become quite a bit bigger because the buildings have become taller,” Safarik says.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is currently the world’s tallest building at 829.8 m. The CTBUH study found that a staggering 244 m of the building are between the highest occupiable floor and the architectural top.

“That, by itself, could be a substantial skyscraper,” Safarik says. “If you put it on the ground and compared it to the skyscrapers in Europe, it would be the 11th tallest building in Europe—just the part that’s empty.”

Although 244 m is the tallest vanity height in the CTBUH study, it is not the highest percentage. The Burj Al-Arab, also in Dubai, has 124 m of vanity height, representing 39 percent of its 321 m height. The Bank of America Tower in New York City has 131 m of vanity height—36 percent of its total.

Safarik says that although bragging rights are a factor in the expanding vanity heights in tall buildings, the complete explanation is far more complex.

“If you’re going to try to make a claim for those bragging rights, you want something about the appearance of your building to be a little bit eternal. Sooner or later your bragging rights will be usurped. You still want people to remember the building and think of it as important,” Safarik explains.

“Fundamental design principles account for why people think it’s important to have the apparent height resolve itself in some way toward the top,” he adds. “Even though we have been seeing more eccentric designs in recent years, that twist and turn, lean this way and that, you still see some essential forms here.”



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