American Cities

Why America doesn’t Build Tallest Building again – The Tower Info

Chicago skyline
Skyline of Chicago seen in 2017, Willis Tower has been the tallest building in the city for more than 40 years.

America is the birthplace of skyscraper, in last century, most skyscrapers in the world were located within America, New York City and Chicago had been the most representative skyscraper cities, and the crown of World’s Tallest Building had always been owned by buildings in America, until in 1997 when Petronas Towers in Malaysia overtook that crown from Sears Tower with their decorative spires.

But after that, Asian countries keep building more and more skyscrapers, Dubai, China, and some Southeast Asian countries are best examples, as in recent years the majority of newly built skyscrapers are located in these places. With the current speed, the total number of skyscrapers above 500 feet in China will be 4 times of the number in America within a few years.

Moreover, many megatall skyscrapers have been successfully built in China, while America’s tallest completed building by roof height is still Sears Tower (One World Trade Center is not really taller than Sears Tower, its roof, highest occupied floor and observation deck are all much lower than that of Sears Tower, which is a building built in 1970s), megatall is still in vision stage in America.

So why America doesn’t build tallest building again? Below are some main factors behind it.

Technological Difficulties

The height of a skyscraper is subject to the restriction of technology. For instance, in 1930s, the height of the Empire State Building was the maximum height achievable with the technology of that time. As of now American construction companies have not built a single skyscraper taller than 500 meters (1640ft) yet, it’s unknown whether their technology could complete a building that tall. Chicago Spire was reported to have construction difficulties.

In the field of construction, China is leading the world, as of 2020, the country’s construction companies have built seven 500m+ skyscrapers in their own country (with the ones topped out but not fully complete included), and is also building supertalls in some other countries.

Tianjin CTF Binhai Center
The 1739ft-tall CTF Binhai Center in Tianjin, China

Not only so, with their technology the construction speed becomes much faster, a building that typically requires five years to complete may take only three years by using their technology, and a supertall can be built to the full height within a year. An example is The Exchange 106 in Kuala Lumpur, the tower was supposed to be complete by 2023, but after the Chinese construction company was contracted to build the tower, the estimated completion date is scheduled in advance to 2019, and they did it. By contrast, One World Trade Center, a building with a roof height of 417m, took 8 years to complete.

Rigorous Engineering Standards

So, does China really have a more advanced building technology than America? Not really, China may have a richer experience on building megatall towers, but that’s not good experience, which will be explained shortly.

In fact, the technological difficulties faced by American construction companies is mainly because of the rigorous engineering standards required by the local governments, and this is especially true in Los Angeles, which is located near the San Andreas fault line, it’s even very hard to build a 1000ft+ building there, as it’s very difficult and expensive to build that high under those rigorous engineering standards. This is why Wilshire Grand Center was first proposed with a roof height of 350m, but scaled down to a roof height of just 285m, and a more recent project called Angels Landing couldn’t get approval with a proposed height of 310m, only to reduce its height to just 260m. Now the US Bank Tower is still the tallest building by roof height in the city.

Skyscrapers in Los Angeles
Skyscrapers in Los Angeles

By contrast, the engineering standards in China is much looser. Why? In China, there is no private ownership of properties, when a developer “bought” a land lot, it means the lot is leased for a limited period, this period is no longer than 50 years if the land is for commercial uses. For this reason, almost all the skyscrapers in China are designed with a lifespan of 50 years, the developers only need to ensure the building to stand safely within 50 years.
For example, the 599-meter high Ping An Finance Center is designed with a lifespan of 50 years, and cheap materials were used in the construction, including the cement made with sea sand, which will erode the structural steel gradually, but is allowed to be used in China, for the slight corrosion poses little risk within a period of 50 years.
So, without the need of adhering high engineering standards, Chinese contractors can build megatall towers more easily.
Under the low standards, building collapses are not rare in China, serious problems are often found in skyscrapers in China. One of the most recent cases is the shaking of SEG Plaza in Shenzhen, the 292-meter high skyscraper suddenly began to shake on May 18, 2021, prompting people inside to flee in panic. There was no earthquakes on that day, the shaking is no doubt due to shoddy construction.

SEG Plaza in Shenzhen
SEG Plaza in Shenzhen

Height Limitation set by FAA

The United States has a rare nationwide height restriction on all kinds of man made structures. The FAA doesn’t allow skyscrapers to be built higher than 2000 ft in most cases to make the airlines more secure, and the restriction is even stricter in some cities in which the airports are built in close proximity to the city center, like in Seattle and Miami, skyscrapers generally can’t be built to much higher than 1000 ft.

However, we can’t blame FAA for the tallest building not being built in America, because 2000 ft is still considered quite high, even Ping An Finance Center is only 1965 ft, and Shanghai Tower (second tallest building in the world) is no more than 2000 ft if the height of parapet is not counted. We really can’t blame the height restriction until some buildings close to 2000 ft get built in America.

Skyscrapers in America is allowed to be built 10 meters higher than Ping An Finance Center.

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