A History of Highrise Building Construction

Written by Brian Enright

Highrise buildings, also known as skyscrapers, are buildings that are continually habitable and usually have at least ten floors. Skyscrapers are generally designed for commercial, office, and residential uses. A common feature of highrise buildings is their steel framework that supports what are known as curtain walls. Curtain walls different from conventional load bearing walls as they either bear on the below framework or are suspended from the above framework. Early highrises were made with steel frames to enable the construction of load bearing walls.

In the 19th century, two developments paved the way for skyscrapers with the first being a safe elevator. Prior to safe elevators, primitive elevators had been used followed by steam operated elevators. Old elevators were used to move materials in factories and warehouses but were not considered safe for people because if the cable broke, the elevator car would fall to the bottom of the elevator shaft. It wasn't until 1853 that an American inventor by the name of Elisha Graves Otis created a safety device that was meant to keep elevators from falling even if the cable broke. The new elevator development had a huge impact on the public as it allowed for safe transportation of people. Later in the 19th century, elevators became even more practical when electric motors began being used.

The second development that paved the way for highrises occurred in Chicago after a huge fire in 1871. Following the devastating fire, the city experienced what can only be described as explosive growth. This growth meant that by the 1880s, there was not enough land available to keep up with the demand for new buildings. The only option was for builders to begin building up but this meant that the method of construction had to change. The new construction method included the use of a grid of steel columns and beams that had the strength to support any forces that the building may experience. Forces included the weight of the building contents and floor, wind and depending on the region, earthquakes. With this new method of building came the birth of the skyscraper, leading to a race to construct the tallest building.

As highrises started to become lighter and taller, they began having issues with wind and would start to sway, sometimes as much as two feet in any direction. Engineers worked to come up with a solution to the problem and began installing steel trusses that were diagonally braced to give the buildings a stronger core. Columns and beams were also moved to the outside edge of the walls.

Throughout the early 20th century, corporations had skyscrapers built simply to increase name recognition and promotional value. These were among some of the earliest highrises in Manhattan and included the Woolworth Building, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, and the Chrysler building. The Empire State building was constructed during the Depression and was the tallest skyscraper until 1972 when the World Trade Center was constructed. The Sears Tower was built shortly after the World Trade Center and took over the title of tallest building. Today, builders still try and outdo each other to create the tallest skyscraper in the world.

Since the beginning of highrise construction, engineers and builders have worked to come up with ways to improve building materials and methods. Today, one of the most commonly used materials in the construction of skyscrapers is concrete which can be reinforced to make it stronger and stiffer. Another commonly used material is glass, with glass walls becoming very popular following World War II. To learn more about the history of highrise buildings, click on the pages listed below.


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