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How to Build a Skyscraper

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How to Build a Skyscraper

By Ian Bruce Eichner, Founder and Chairman of the Continuum Company

Imagine there's a plot of land on the corner of a busy intersection in New York City. How could you take this small expanse of very expensive dirt and turn it into something worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- or more?

It's no magic trick, although it may seem like one to a passerby. High-rise development is both a complicated art form and a logistical feat rolled into one. It has become increasingly complex ever since the first skyscraper barely pierced the clouds above Chicago in 1884. High rises are also a practical necessity: since the island of Manhattan won't be growing, the only pragmatic way to fit more offices, shops and residences is to build up, not out.

At first, the limitations for a skyscraper were physical in nature: special types of engineering had to be developed to overcome the restrictions on vertical construction. For more than 3800 years, the tallest building in the world was the Great Pyramid at Giza. To build much taller without going wider would require technology not developed for millennia. To build what we consider a high rise today, engineers needed to develop an inner steel framework that was both fireproof and self-supporting. New types of elevator, HVAC, electrical, plumbing and other fundamental systems had to be designed and deployed as well. Once these problems were solved, within a matter of decades, gargantuan high rises like the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings dotted the Earth's grandest metropolis as plentifully as diamonds on a royal diadem. Futurists announced that within fifty years, almost everyone in New York would take a flying car between home and work, and everyone would live substantially closer to the stars.

Although flying cars may still be a science fiction, many great cities of the world have constructed magnificent skylines that compete with the New York classic. And although today the engineering riddles may be easier to solve than in the past, it is still as difficult as ever to develop a high rise. Today, the restrictions on a building's height are the unfortunate realities of finance or politics. Architects and engineers have developed novel ways to build taller and taller, butwhen a developer crunches the numbers and determines the costs to create a supertall building, it often makes sense to shoot for less. A project's economic viability must be analytically sound.

Moreover, communities have correctly decided that the open sky is a public good worth protecting, and New York City (among other places) has developed restrictions for how tall one can build. Each plot of land has a certain amount of air rights allotted to it, and although the system allows for air rights to be traded between parties (with limitations), the free market has made it costly enough to make supertall development impractical for most.

In addition, to protect the public's interest, zoning and safety restrictions further complicate or prevent certain types of development. Furthermore, the volatility of the global economic climate has made the development and construction of a high rise seem, to a casual observer, as risky as ever.

How could a person spend hundreds of millions of dollars and employ thousands of people on an investment so fraught with landmines?

For one, it takes guts. Second, building a high rise requires a talented and veteran development team -- after all, real estate is a full contact sport, and New York City is the major leagues. To win here, the developer needs to act as coach, general manager and referee all in one, armed with a grand vision for how things will turn out for the occupants of the building, the neighborhood and the city at large.

The developer needs to carefully select a cadre of specialists in disciplines as varied as architects, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, elevator consultants, interior designers, and a host of other consultants including acoustical, geotechnical and many more, all of whom have credentials and significant experience. Above all, the developer needs to find seasoned and talented design and executive architects who can make bold visions come to life, expanding on creative thoughts and converting concepts into plans and specifications that comply with local, state and federal requirements.

The hiring process for each and every one of the least twenty-or-so disciplines is arduous - although a developer is typically selecting from the best people in each field, just one small mistake can be incredibly costly; it could range from a substantial diminution of profit to potential bankruptcy.

Once the key people of the inner circle are selected, the truly difficult part of the process begins. A developer has to act like a movie director responsible for a cast of thousands -- but unlike the silver screen, all the action happens live. There are no cuts or second takes. Timing is everything in high rise development; frequently, one party cannot start work until another has concluded theirs.

Safety is a paramount concern for any developer. From the very beginning of the design process, plans are made to ensure every occupant's security. Scientific studies are conducted to ensure that in the event of disaster, the building's occupants -- and neighbors -- will be fully protected. For instance, a high rise shooting into the sky faces an extraordinary amount of wind from all directions. To ensure that residents even at the highest floors feel at ease and completely steady, extensive wind-tunnel tests are conducted. The final design must pass many similarly stringent examinations.

Construction itself is frequently a multi-year process, commencing with controlled demolition and concluding with obtaining a certificate of occupancy for a building. In between, a developer will need to ensure that everyone is working according to a master plan, that contractors are performing as expected and when necessary changes arise (and they always do), an optimal pathway can be rapidly forged and followed.

Finally -- and perhaps most important to the success of the project -- the building itself must be rented out or sold. A high rise condominium building, for instance, takes careful planning to market and sell; the marketing strategy begins even as the building takes shape. For a condominium, the unit layout must be carefully selected -- questions like "how many one, two or three bedroom units should we build" must be answered based on data like the projected price points and the future demographics of a neighborhood. The marketing team helps determine which amenities packages and finishes residents would best respond to, ensuring the building appeals to potential renters and buyers. After all, the building was constructed with future occupants foremost in mind. Together with the developer, the architects incorporate these findings into their designs, and together as a team the building can be made ready to sell.

Although a modern-day skyscraper may not stand the test of time as successfully as the Pyramids upon the Nile, a properly constructed high rise may benevolently define a neighborhood and a city for many dozens if not hundreds of years. As difficult as it may be to plan, finance, design, construct and market, a skyscraper is the ultimate pillar of mankind's achievement, a monolithic testament to what society can do together. Anything this great is surely worth the risk.