Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
Do buildings have to be permanent? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."
The European currency features buildings that didn't exist, until Spijkenisse made them in concrete
- The euro banknotes feature seven different bridges – all of them fictional.
- They represent periods instead of places, so as not to offend anyone.
- But one Dutch town has turned monetary fiction into monumental fact.
Go to the end of this street to find Heartbreak Hotel.
Credit: Google Street View
In topography, there's a wonderful subcategory of places that existed first in the imagination before they materialized on the map. Examples range in size from the New York landmark of Agloe, a tiny map trap that accidentally became real (see #643) to the huge country of Pakistan, one man's dream turned into a home for millions (see #647).
For an example at the intersection of lyrical and whimsical, book a stay at Heartbreak Hotel. It's in Memphis, right across from Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion. The King of Rock 'n Roll had a hit with that title back in 1956. Today, as in the song, you'll find the hotel down at the end of Lonely Street.
The euro bridges were designed to be transnational – but now they're all Dutch.
Credit: Google Maps, ECB (Graphics: Ruland Kolen)
And then there's the otherwise unassuming Dutch town of Spijkenisse, where you can take a walk across seven brightly-colored bridges which until recently only existed on banknotes.
You might recognize those bridges. If you've ever handled euro notes, you'll have seen them on the reverse of each of the seven denominations. Those bridges, however, are not real. Unlike other currencies, which often double as patriotic pamphlets and/or tourist teasers, the euro notes do not feature real-life landmarks or real-dead Europeans.
That would have involved favoring some countries and leaving out others, and in a multinational endeavor like the pan-European currency, that was a definite no-no.
So, what to do? It's a problem that had to be solved relatively recently, as the euro is the youngest of the world's major currencies. The look of the euro notes can be traced back to a European Council meeting in Dublin on December 13, 1996, when the European Monetary Institute (the precursor of today's European Central Bank) announced the winner of its competition to design the euro notes.
The five-euro bridge: Classical, and dirt-grey.
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
The prize went to Robert Kalina, a designer with the National Bank of Austria. His 'Ages and Styles of Europe' was chosen from among 44 contenders. Mr Kalina had some form in the matter. All Austrian banknotes from 1982 onwards were by his hand, as were notes he later designed for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Azerbaijan, and Syria.
Mr Kalina's euro designs scrupulously avoided any allusion to particular people or places, referring merely to abstract, supra-national style periods. The obverse of each note shows a window and a doorway, symbolizing Europe's spirit of openness. Each reverse shows a bridge, exemplifying communication and cooperation, both between the countries of Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world.
The architectural style of each note progresses chronologically as the value of the denomination increases. Most also feature a color from the rainbow spectrum.
The ten-euro bridge, Romanesque in style and red in color.
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
- €5: Classical (as this was to be the most widely used note, grey was chosen to mask the dirt)
- €10: Romanesque (red)
- €20: Gothic (blue)
- €50: Renaissance (orange)
- €100: Baroque and Rococo (green)
- €200: 19th century Industrial (yellow)
- €500: 20th century Modern (purple)
These euro bridges would have remained fictional, were it not for Robin Stam. The Rotterdam-based artist got the idea of turning financial fiction into architectural fact in a pizza place, while fiddling with a euro note. "Suddenly it struck me how amazing it would be if these fictional bridges came to life," he said.
Mr Stam found a willing partner for his idea in the city council of Spijkenisse, his hometown, a suburb of Rotterdam. The plan was to build seven euro bridges across a canal that almost entirely surrounds an area called De Elementen ('The Elements').
Letter of approval
Gothic blue: the twenty-euro bridge
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
But before he got started, Mr Stam felt he needed the blessing of the European Central Bank. The euro notes scrupulously avoid favoring one member state over the other, but Mr Stam's euro bridges would all be in one country – the Netherlands. Would the ECB mind? Mr Stam sent them a letter. But he needn't have feared: out of Frankfurt came a kind reply with an official letter of approval. "Their main concern is counterfeiting. And you can't pay with a bridge," says the artist.
And so, 'The Bridges of Europe' got underway. Funded by the city and aided by local contractors, all seven bridges were installed between October 2011 and September 2013. They all preserve the color and shape of the 'originals'. All were made of concrete except the two most recent styles (€200 and €500 notes), which were made out of steel. In all the project cost around €1 million to complete.
The fifty-euro bridge, in Renaissance orange.
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
However, the euro bridges of Spijkenisse are not as monumental as their depiction on the notes suggests. In fact, they're pedestrian in more than one sense. Mr Kalina, who first drew the fictional bridges, while amused by the project, has said he would have liked the bridges to be built in the style in which each was designed, instead of their appearance being used as a "kitschy façade." So, it's perhaps more appropriate to call them 'follies', but then many have said the same about the euro itself.
From 2013 onwards, a second series of euro notes was published. This 'Europa' series–named after the Greek goddess who is watermarked into the notes–is a redesign by the German banknote designer Reinhold Gerstetter, who wanted the notes to be "more colorful, so they would appear friendlier".
Useful to criminals
If it's Baroque/Rococo and green, it must be the one-hundred-euro bridge.
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
The basic design of the first series, including the colors and bridges, has been maintained, with one notable exception. The Europa series no longer features a €500 note, out of concern that it appeared to be more useful to criminals than to law-abiding citizens.
The reason is its exceptionally high value. True, Switzerland has a 1,000-franc note (app. € 900, or US$ 1,075), but the euro is the only major currency to have a note this valuable. Compare the US dollar, which has the $100 bill as its highest denomination.
Because it is so valuable and was so relatively widespread, the €500 bill is ideal for transferring large amounts of money in a compact volume of notes. Turns out that quality was greatly appreciated by money launderers, drug smugglers, and tax dodgers.
Industrial and yellow – the two-hundred-euro bridge
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
The notes soon acquired the nickname 'Bin Ladens' because, despite their notoriety, they were rarely seen in public. One examination by the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency noted 90% of the €500 bills distributed in the U.K. were in the hands of criminal organisations, who liked the note because it made it easier to launder money (the highest British denomination is £50). For that reason, the U.K. Bureaux de Change stopped trading €500 notes in 2010.
Old €500 notes will remain legal tender forever, as will other notes from the first series; but they will gradually be taken out of circulation. Spijkenisse for its part has as yet no plans to demolish the €500 bridge.
Strange Maps #1075
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Purple and modern, like the 'Bin Laden' note beloved by criminals: the five-hundred-euro bridge.
Credit: ScWikiSc, CC BY-SA 4.0
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
The work consisted of 20,000 small green plexiglass squares, with intricate holes cut in each one, depicting vanished or endangered pieces of global cultural heritage, including buildings, monuments, and sculptures. Attached to fencing about 40 feet high, the squares collectively formed an image of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra, Syria, an ancient treasure destroyed by fundamentalists in 2015.
Lit up at night or shimmering in daytime, this installation — the “Memory Matrix" — was a powerful reminder of the fragility of our cultural creations in the face of conflict and strife. But it also represented human resilience and the strength of collaboration: About 700 people helped construct it, including MIT community members from 11 different departments and programs, and participants from Egypt and Jordan.
“That project was amazing, because of the solidarity-building it created across campus and internationally," says MIT Associate Professor Azra Akšamija, who created the idea for the installation.
Akšamija is an uncommonly versatile artist, architect, and scholar whose work explores cultural identity and conflict. Her own career exemplifies resilience: Akšamija experienced displacement as a Bosnian Muslim whose family left in the early 1990s to escape the war at home. Having spent much of her life in Austria, the United States, and Germany, her work frequently explores encounters between Islam and the West.
Among other distinctions, Akšamija was given the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for her design of a prayer space's symbolic elements, at Austria's first-ever Muslim cemetery, in Altach (the cemetery itself was designed by Bernardo Bader). Some of her best-known designs are wearable art, including her "Frontier Vest" from 2006, a garment that works as a jacket for refugees and can be transformed into a Jewish prayer shawl or an Islamic prayer rug. Akšamija has detailed many of her ideas in a 2015 book, "Mosque Manifesto — Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence."
She has also been a program-builder at MIT, founding the Future Heritage Lab (FHL), which focuses on cultural preservation. At the Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, FHL members, along with their partners at German-Jordanian University, have helped Syrian refugees document their lives through photography, design, and poetry; the work was displayed at the 2017 Amman Design Week.
Over the past three years, camp residents, FHL members, and MIT students have developed a book about refugee inventions, which will be used in MIT's first design studio-based online course, "Design and Scarcity" (co-taught by Akšamija and FHL program director Melina Philippou). The book will also be translated for the camp and the wider region.
The Al Azraq camp refugees, Akšamija says, "design artifacts that are partly utilitarian, but are about preserving human dignity and memory, and keeping the feeling of who you are. It's powerful."
"Making things since I could think"
Akšamija grew up in Sarajevo, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of her grandfathers was an accomplished architect who had studied in Prague and, she says, "brought Czech modernism back to Bosnia." Design grabbed Akšamija's interest from a young age.
"I have been making things since I could think about myself," Akšamija says. "As a child I was completely obsessed with drawing and sculpture, which I would do for hours. Also, to get out of my piano lessons, I would make these plasticine sculptures and then display them on the piano, to distract the piano teacher."
At the time, Sarajevo was part of the larger republic of Yugoslavia. But in 1992, after war broke out in the Balkans, Akšamija and her family moved to Germany, then Austria, to escape the conflict. As an undergraduate, Akšamija studied architecture at the Graz University of Technology. Still, she says, the university "had these awesome art classes," and she wanted to incorporate art into her career.
Akšamija attended graduate school at Princeton University, receiving her MArch in 2004, while becoming active artistically; by 2004, her work had been displayed in high-profile institutions and exhibitions in Vienna, Valencia, Leipzig, and Liverpool. Joining MIT's PhD program in the history and theory of architecture, Akšamija continued to create art; in addition to "Frontier Vest," she produced noted works such as "Survival Mosque" (2005), a wearable and portable mosque equipped with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, earplugs (to block out the insults Muslims might hear), books, and more. Soon her work was exhibited in major art museums in London, New York, and Berlin.
Some of Akšamija's projects from this period went in novel directions. With nine other artists and architects, Akšamija co-curated the "Lost Highway Expedition" in 2006, a trek in which 300 people walked the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity that connects the capitals of the former Yugoslavia.
"After the war I had thought, 'I'm never going to Serbia again in my life,'" Akšamija says. However, for the trek, "we had events in cities and you had to find your own way, you had to make friends. And this is the way I went for the first time to the territories my country had the war with." Though the project was challenging, she says, "It was important to start discussing difficult topics. It doesn't mean they're fully resolved. Unfortunately, there are still many people denying that genocide happened in Bosnia."
For her dissertation, working with MIT professors Nasser Rabbat and Caroline Jones, as well as Harvard University's András Riedlmayer, Akšamija looked at the systematic targeting of cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war, examining how Bosnian Muslims restored mosques that had been destroyed.
"These buildings were attacked because nationalists wanted to revise history and alienate people to an extent that they would never want to live together in the future," Akšamija says.
The questions driving her research apply anywhere, Akšamija says. "From the Balkans we can learn important lessons about how we live in spaces of fragmented commons. When that falls apart, how do you reconnect? What kinds of cultural institutions do we need to bridge divides and hold governments accountable? It is relevant globally. Who has the right to write their history, to be visible in public space, and who decides those things?"
After joining the MIT faculty, Akšamija earned tenure in 2019.
At MIT, Akšamija has found it gratifying to see students gravitate to her classes, to projects like "Memory Matrix," and to the Future Heritage Lab.
"MIT students care," Akšamija says. "They really want to do something to contribute to this world. This place is so inspiring."
At the same time, she notes, the Institute can be an intense academic setting, and instructors need to help sustain the sheer enjoyment of learning.
"You [can] lose sight of why you started doing things and what initially drew you to them, and it can be overwhelming," Akšamija says. "You see it with students. I like to create joy in things, especially in classes. That's why it's so amazing to teach here, because the students are so full of enthusiasm and joy. But also sometimes anxiety, and I think we all have responsibility here as teachers to take care of that. It's not about students performing for someone else, but becoming better versions of themselves."
Akšamija calls the current direction of her research "Performative Preservation." This is an approach to cultural preservation that uses "methods of contemporary arts and participatory art." She emphasizes that participation and co-creation are crucial to cultural restoration; physical structures can be rebuilt, but they will lack meaning without community involvement.
Her work is now on view at the Gallery for Contemporary Art, in Leipzig, Germany, and at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, with a new work slated for the 17th International Architecture Exhibition for the Venice Biennale, in May 2021. Curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, the Biennale's theme is "How Will We Live Together?" Akšamija's project, "Silk Road Works," a symbolic construction site for a pluralist society, will be part of a section at the Arsenale titled, "Among Diverse Beings."
As always, Akšamija hopes for a thoughtful response from her audience, without knowing exactly what that will be.
"When you work in public space, it's not about finding a consensus, where we all have the same opinion and are happily living together," Akšamija says. "It's about accepting and coming to terms with conflicting attitudes and ideas, and making space for them."
A mile-high tower would not just be a new structure, but a new technology.
- Frank Lloyd Wright originally proposed The Mile-High Illinois in the 1950s.
- Innovations in construction materials and elevators are necessary to reach the one mile height and beyond.
- We may see the first mile-high skyscraper by the middle of the 21st century.
Humanity has been on a quest for millenia to build bigger and taller structures. In our reach skyward we've built ziggurats, pyramids, and coliseums. Our mythologies placed the seat of the gods in lofty towers high on mountaintops. We've had moralizing religious parables like the Tower of Babel, warning those who'd place themselves above a god. And some of the self-proclaimed greatest among us have always sought to immortalize themselves through massive works.
It's safe to say our world civilization is one fixed on achieving ever higher milestones.
Yet, the dreams and wonders of yesterday's buildings look like children's toys compared to our structures now. In the past century and a half skyscrapers have come to dominate the city's form and they haven't stopped growing taller.
Now we have to ask ourselves, is it possible to build a skyscraper one mile high?
Perhaps. Let's find out.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Mile-High Illinois
One of the first legitimate plans to build a mile-high tower that wasn't some megalomaniac's fever dream (maybe his was too), was famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's The Illinois.
On October 16th, 1956 at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago, Wright at 89 years old presented his design for what he conceived to be the tallest skyscraper in the world, an incredible spire shooting one mile high. The structure proposed to stand 528 floors and 5,280 feet (1,609 meters) tall. Behind him stood an illustration that measured 25 feet (7.6 meters) tall with the skyscraper's dimensions drawn at a scale of 1/16 inch to the foot. The Illinois' dimensions would have been astronomical at the time, with:
- 528 floors
- 76 elevators
- Gross floor area (GFA): 18,460,106 ft² (1,715,000 m²)
- 100,000 occupants
- 15,000 parking spaces
- 100 helicopter landing pads
- Architectural height of 5,280 ft (1,609.4 m)
- Tip antenna height of 5,706 ft (1739.2 m)
"This is The Illinois, gentlemen… In it, will be consolidated all government offices now scattered around Chicago," Wright proclaimed.
Frank Lloyd Wright presents The Mile High Illinois at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago
Credit: Alamy Photos
Wright in an exemplary display of showmanship unveiled the first proposal for the mile-high tower. He believed that he'd found a method to construct the tower out of two principles he coined "tenuity" and "continuity." With these methods he'd believed he would be able to construct the tower out of reinforced concrete and steel.
The general principles between these two ideas is characterized by Wright's designs in which he used a "taproot" foundation to support the central load of the structure.
Chicago Tribune's Blaire Kamin described it as follows:
"The Mile-High didn't simply aim to be tall. It was the ultimate expression of Wright's "taproot" structural system, which sank a central concrete mast deep into the ground and cantilevered floors from the mast. In contrast to a typical skyscraper, in which same-size floors are piled atop one another like so many pancakes, the taproot system lets floors vary in size, opening a high-rise's interior and letting space flow between floors."
In Wright's own words he saw his method as a break from conventional form, which instead he'd mimic the appearance of a tree with its deep roots and branches spreading deep into the foundation.
"I detest seeing the boys fooling around and making their buildings look like boxes," Wright said. "Why not design a building that really is tall? ... Long ago I observed trees after the passing of a cyclone. Those with deep taproots were the ones that survived."
As evident by our lack of sky cracking buildings, Wright's vision never came to pass. His taproot idea, which had only been put into practice in a single building of his, never became part of the future structural engineer's toolkit. While Wright did put an extraordinary amount of effort working out the details of this vision, there were far too many what-ifs that still hadn't been figured out. Many of which we're still working on today.
But there has been progress.
Building technology for a 1-mile skyscraper
The undefeated champion of the skies right now is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 2,717 feet (roughly half a mile) and is the tallest building in the world.
Although take that with a grain of dusty salt—only 1,916 feet of the Burj Dubai is occupiable space, the rest is vanity height, meaning nearly 800 feet is non-occupiable space. That represents 29 percent of the building's height.
So let's get back to real contenders for a mile high.Researchers at MIT Technology Review used data from the experts at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and predicted that there is a 9 percent chance that a building exceeding a mile will be built by 2050. They've also predicted that by 2050, nearly 6 billion people will live in cities. Already we're seeing that urban areas in China and the Middle East are continually building up, not out.
Credit: Jonathan Auerbach and Phyllis Wan, International Journal of Forecasting Vol. 36, Issue 3
There are three major construction and stability aspects that must be dealt with if we're to reach a vertical mile. Those are:
- Dampening wind sway
- Elevator speed and length
- Construction materials
The tallest skyscrapers all employ a tapered top design. This serves both a utilitarian and structural purpose. It's simply not possible to take pre-existing buildings and just double their height.
A mile-high tower would not just be a new structure, but a new technology.
Putting aside Burj Khalifa's vanity height for a moment, we have to admire its structural ingenuity. Designed by architect Adrian Smith and structural engineer William Baker at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the structure's foundational approach is a buttressed core – which is a hexagonal concrete core that frays out into three triangle buttresses. This was one inventive solution they made to support such a great height.
But that only solves one issue.
Diverting winds at high elevations
What might be a slight breeze on the ground floor can turn into a windstorm in greater heights. Aside from the fundamentals of stability, occupants also need comfortability. Most building sway is harmless to the structural integrity of the building. But the last thing anyone wants is to feel like they're in the midst of a tornado 500 floors above ground level.
Architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals calculate estimated wind sway from a building's height and incorporate that into the design. Buildings are often made to withstand cataclysmic 500 to 1000 year inclement weather disasters.
To deal with wind, you either confuse it by spinning it around the building in creative structural ways or you use a mass dampener.
A mass dampener is a counterweight suspended somewhere in the building to counteract and balance the movement from the outside. For example, the Taipei 101 Tower employs a 730 ton orb pendulum that sways back and forth to balance wind from storms and typhoons.
Aerodynamic vortexes of wind can exert dangerous amounts of pressure and vibrations on a building. Air currents can be unpredictable, so rather than guess what could happen to the building, AEC professionals need to calculate it directly into the design. If it's not a mass dampener, it'll be a mix of structural fins, curves, and asymmetrical floors.
Elevator speed and stability
The logistical obstacles of moving thousands of people in a mile-high skyscraper is one of the biggest challenges. To reach the floor at the top of a mile-high building with current technology would require people to change elevators multiple times.
The current figure for elevators runs at 1,600 feet as wire suspension ropes cannot support their own weight and any additional weight after that point. Aside from the technical limitations, needing multiple elevator lobbies would take up too much valuable space.
A few years ago, Finnish elevator company Kone developed a carbon fiber cable, UltraRope that they believe could double the distance of an elevator rope. This would be enough to get those would-be mile-high penthouse residents to their sky digs.
Beyond the old school cable elevator, others have floated ideas about a looped system that could pull elevators up, down and sideways. This could increase the building's usable area by 25 percent.
New structural materials
Concrete has served us well for thousands of years. It's time to rethink what materials we can use. Engineers are looking at materials like carbon fiber, an extremely lightweight and strong material.
Carbon fiber is a polymer composed of thin strands of carbon atoms bound together in a unique crystalline formation. It is far lighter than steel, five times stronger and has double the stiffness. Currently carbon fiber is used in a number of manufacturing processes ranging from aircraft wings to bike frames. Carbon fiber and other related composite materials weigh very little but can take on heavy bearing loads.
The future of the mile-high skyscraper
With billions of residents in our cities, it's an inevitability that we'll one day reach the one-mile-high mark, if not beyond that as well. But we need to think about what these skyscrapers will be used for and how they'll interact with and reshape the built environment.
At the turn of the 20th century, the 1916 Zoning Resolution in New York City was a measure adopted to stop massive skyscrapers from blocking light and air from reaching the streets below. It established limits to what could be built and created a series of setbacks to building lots.
New measures would need to be created as a building of this magnitude entered into the public domain. New building uses also need to be considered. How many more luxury condos and office space do we really need?
The advent of a mile-high tower could bring about a new age of the homestead and of our created environment. We have the opportunity to build something that could be a fully functioning self-contained ecosystem, more than just a building, but a city within a city.
A mixed use building like this could shelter thousands and give them a place where they could work, play, live, and exist on the peripheries of humankind's greatest ingenuity. A place like this could also serve as a consolidated seat for governments and working space for companies of the future. Why not continue to build vertically with farms, factories, and more?
When we one day build to a mile and beyond, the sky will no longer be the limit, it will be our domain.
Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.
Around the world, home builders are vigilantly reading tea leaves in the fog, trying to figure out how to survive (and even thrive in) an unfolding economic disaster. And we mourn the fallen, working to keep our loved ones healthy and safe.
COVID-19 has drawn a political dividing line in much of the world. It reminds me of something an American revolutionary, Samuel Johnson, said in 1775: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." In my story, the scoundrel is this virus – COVID-19.
Home builders construct the physical environments for families, who turn them into homes – homes we hope are filled with laughter, love, aspiration and celebration. Good housing is the cornerstone of strong communities.
Much of how COVID-19 impacts us will be determined by science, but not all. "The question of how the pandemic plays out is at least 50% social and political," Sarah Cobey, epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, told Scientific American.
Just as the Spanish flu gave us the vanity room, which originated as a hand-washing basin immediately inside the front entry of a home, COVID-19 will influence innovation in home design.
Open-plan, ever-larger houses have ruled the market for decades, even though family size has shrunk and middle-class real earnings have remained flat. U.S. households averaged 2.44 children in 1965 but 1.9 by 2015. With 128.6 million households, that's 7 million fewer children. Yet the average size of U.S. houses grew 62% from 1973-2015, from 1,660 square feet to 2,687. House size was still growing in 2018. In Canada, houses have also grown as families shrunk. In Europe, average house size has grown to 1,880 square feet (which Europeans will say astounds them).
Pandemic thinking will likely favour less-open spaces (though people will crave nature-positive spaces), perhaps reviving cozy dens to supplement living rooms. Spending may shift into less obvious enhancements of safety and comfort. Better interior insulation will enable quieter places. Screened-in porches and outdoor spaces, and new approaches to landscaping will help keep mosquitoes and other disease-bearing critters at bay. A bedroom, kitchen, living room area and bath that is a little removed from the core of the house will accommodate adult children now and elderly parents later (at Lennar, we call this the Next Gen Home). Split HVAC systems can prevent sickroom air from being pumped into everybody's space. Such mini-HVAC systems with no ductwork have become very affordable.
Home-based jobs call for better home offices (Lennar calls this the Next Gen Home Office). The infamous toilet flush in the background of U.S. Supreme Court by-telephone oral arguments underscored the perils of inappropriate home-work spaces. So do videos of children and pets interrupting conference calls or other tasks. A larger home-based work force will drive designers to balance job requirements with the privacy and safety of the family.
Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide, however, with three critical forces that were already simmering pre-COVID and are now at a high boil.
- Techno-Accelerations. The pandemic has accelerated the already-brisk integration of real and virtual activities, including remote work, remote health, and remote education. But electric and automated vehicle compatibility, delivery-enablement systems, frictionless purchasing and the Internet of Things (IoT) enabling the remote maintenance and repair of homes . . . all require fast bandwidth – faster even than 5G. It also requires security: in a geopolitical environment where surface attack areas have expanded, we all want military-grade cybersecurity.
- Climate. As China began publicly grappling with deaths from COVID-19 in mid-January 2020, the World Economic Forum's "2020 Global Risks Report" was released. It warned that climate change makes more of the planet hospitable to infectious pathogens. Resilience is therefore the watchword of the remainder of the century. Energy and flood resilience, and smart insurance and other financing products that will encourage a great migration away from the coasts . . . these are the characteristics of the new urban morphology brought about by climate change.
- Social Justice. While COVID-19 did not cause the social justice movement that swept many parts of the world this summer and the U.S. in particular, the virus amplifies economic burdens which, in turn, exacerbate the movement's root causes: income inequality is central to this dynamic. The Institute for Policy Studies found America's 400 richest people are worth $US3 trillion, more than all African-American households plus 25% of Hispanic households combined. There's little doubt these numbers err on the low side now. COVID-19 has wiped out the ready resources of many families and that will spark varying degrees of political reaction globally. Populist housing policies that threaten capital investment could deter home building and contribute to future housing crises. Inclusionary housing programmes that accelerate wealth creation among traditionally excluded populations, enable financing, inject innovation into housing use and urgently work toward housing security for vulnerable populations will underpin how governments reallocate precious housing-related subsidies.
The ghosts of the 2008 financial crisis hang over the pandemic economy. But the 2008 crisis was housing-ignited. High-risk mortgages drove up the prices of houses buyers couldn't afford but bought anyway. This textbook housing bubble was buoyed by an irrational conviction that prices would keep rising and rising. Low interest and inflated housing values led millions to refinance or, in the U.S., extract home equity loans to pay for remodelling, cars, boats, campers, and bucket-list quests. The housing bubble popped and its bad ink seeped through world economic systems.
A 6 January 2020 Washington Post article opened with: "A strong job market and low mortgage rates should sustain the housing market in 2020. The problem will be finding enough homes for buyers. With unemployment hovering at a 50-year low and interest rates well below historical norms, the real estate industry is being dragged down by scarcity in housing stock…."
Within three months, U.S. unemployment had surged to historic levels (more than 23 million Americans were officially unemployed at the start of May, more than 30 million by the end) but that Washington Post article still holds true today. Low mortgage costs in the U.S. and the developed world continue to drive affordability. And the deficit in housing production inherited from the 2008 crisis still constrains supply while, at the same time, millennials all over the world are starting their families.
Sales of existing houses — normally about 90% of the U.S. market — have been eviscerated this year. New homes are favoured over resale, and de-urbanisation is occurring where it can. If new-home sales of the late spring and, as reported in the media, the early summer, continue, 2020 could be a fair year for new home builders. There's been a big jump in online sales of new homes, a global spike in online home-searching activity, and purchasing occurring often without buyers even walking through a house. A new, fully warranted home, bought without having to spend time with realtors and owners, has great appeal.
In the last century, vaccines and the public health movement largely eliminated dreaded contagious disease in much of the world. Industrialised countries have periodic outbreaks that remind us of this danger, among which, the HIV/AIDS, SARS, Zika, and West Nile viruses. Public health professionals tell us we could be entering an era in which mass urbanisation, climate change, stressed natural eco-systems and other factors will yield a pandemic (or something approximating one) every 7-10 years. This will force a reckoning with what it means to work together toward a better future. But we will also realise that we will all seek refuge in a home. Maybe knowing that will be our true last refuge.