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Elevators in an age of higher towers and bigger cities

During an era of rapid urbanization, the humble lift is getting a high-tech upgrade

One of the test elevator shafts at Tytyri, Kone’s test facility near Helsinki, Finland.
Kone

“Ping.”

After the familiar sound and sight of an elevator door sliding open, I step out into what could loosely be called a room, surrounded by jagged walls of limestone with mossy lichen inching up from the floor and water slowly dripping from the ceiling.

Living walls may be very of the moment for corporate lobbies, but seeing as I’m 350 meters (about 1,148 feet) underground—inside a former limestone mine about an hour outside of Helsinki, Finland—I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the work of an inspired interior designer. The water, I later learn, is from a reservoir a few hundred meters away.

I’m at Tytyri, an underground testing facility run by Kone, one of the big four firms in the multibillion-dollar global elevator market. In mankind’s continued quest to build skyward, this Finnish company figured out that the best way to test elevator technology was to go down, carving out a more cost-effective series of 11 test tracks, or shafts, from an abandoned section of a mine.

The longest test shaft inside this high-rise laboratory can send elevator cabs at speeds up to 90 kilometers (or about 55 miles) an hour. London’s Shard, the tallest skyscraper in western Europe, tops out at 310 meters.

The visitor elevator at Tytyri.
Kone

“This is the Area 51 of the industry,” says Tomio Pihkala, the company’s chief technology officer. He’ll later say that the decade-old facility is also the Formula One of the industry, a testing space pushing the limits of hardware, software, engineering, and design.

One of their safety demonstrations—which, thankfully, I don’t participate in—simulates an elevator cab free-fall: Yellow steel blocks, weighing 75 kilograms (165 pounds) each, are stacked in the cabs as test dummies. Brakes deploy and stop a plummeting elevator, which drops with the force of a 10-ton truck hitting a wall at 100 kilometers an hour.

Despite our fascination with skyscrapers—ever-rising buildings, eye-catching profiles, and cutting-edge building technology—elevator technology rarely raises our collective pulse (unless, of course, we get stuck). Roughly 18 billion elevator trips occur annually in the United States, according to the National Elevator Industry Inc., and it’s a safe bet most of those are anything but memorable.

As Pihkala says during my late-March trip to Tytyri, “What’s the big deal about a steel box moving up and down?”

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Quite a bit, in fact, if you’re interested in expanding skylines, growing cities, and our race for ever-taller towers. Elevators have been, and will continue to be, central to the story of urbanization and skyscraper architecture.

In 2015, according to Kone, 840,000 new elevators were installed in the world (half in China), adding to the roughly 14 million currently in service worldwide. Kone expects that number to increase sharply as an expected wave of urbanization hits developing countries, especially Nigeria, Indonesia, and India. The United Nations estimates urban populations will grow by 2.5 billion by 2050, with 90 percent of this growth concentrated in Asia and Africa. Kone’s president and CEO, Henrik Ehrnrooth, even went so far as to call elevators “urban mass transit.”

Kone has developed and refined a technology on display at Tytyri called UltraRope. It’s a system to hoist elevators with lightweight, carbon-fiber straps that help designers and architects build higher with less weight. UltraRope will be installed in the forthcoming kilometer-high Jeddah Tower, set to be the world’s tallest building when it’s finished in Saudi Arabia, possibly as soon as sometime next year.

Not every new tower will be record-setting, but with urban growth and increased density, the world is certain to be spending a lot more time in elevators. Kone, like its three big competitors—Otis, ThyssenKrupp, and Schindler—wants to find ways to make your time in these steel boxes more efficient and engaging.

“Our mission is to improve the flow of urban life,” says Ehrnrooth.

During one of my test rides at Tytyri, I get a chance to see what that future may look like. Many aspects of an elevator ride, such as top speeds and safety requirements, are governed by local building codes or regional customs. Kone engineers tell me, for example, that North Americans like a faster run, while Asians prefer a slower acceleration and deceleration. But Kone engineers and designers are exploring how lights, music, and even scents can improve your ride.

Inside one of the illuminated elevators at Tytyri.

Inside a glistening white elevator cab, pressurized to make my brief ride even more comfortable, I’m whisked into the bowels of the earth in what could best be described as a mobile spa waiting room. I feel very out of place dressed in a hard hat and safety boots for the trip underground. Soft ambient music plays as I drop at 6 meters a second, and lights pulse in multiple colors. This is all part of Kone’s efforts to make the time you spend in their products more enjoyable and relaxing.

Like any contemporary company, Kone makes design and innovation a central part of its pitch, talking about user experience and market disruption: In addition to testing systems that allow you to control elevators cabs with a mobile device, they’ve also held hackathons to develop more efficient transportation solutions.

A recent partnership with IBM’s Watson will analyze trip data to see how Kone can better optimize travel between floors. We may dismiss elevator rides as less than remarkable, but for Kone, that seems to be the point: making the experience of navigating increasingly dense urban environments as frictionless as possible.

A diagram of the UltraRope system.
Kone

It’s also about the money. Ehrnrooth says Kone—a firm with 50,000 employees that operates in more than 60 countries—sold 158,000 elevators and escalators last year, adding up to net sales of 8.8 billion euros (about $9.4 billion), or about 20 percent of the global market share. Maintenance of the company’s existing base of 1.1 million devices adds even more income. According to Ehrnrooth’s estimates, the company sells more than one elevator or escalator every minute during the working week, a figure that’s poised to rise.

“Every day, 200,000 people around the world move into cities,” he says. “And in many countries, people are marrying later, forming families later, living alone in the city for a longer period of time and deciding not to move into suburbs.”

In other words, in a century set to be one of growing urban populations, it’s good to be an elevator maker.

During part of the visit, I’m given the chance to stand on top of an elevator cab as it inches up and down, running at what Antti Hoppania, the research and development director, tells me is “maintenance speed.” I can see the UltraRope in front of me—a series of thin black straps, each roughly 1.5 centimeters thick—slowly hoist the elevator, steadied by a series of guardrails lining the test shaft. It’s much sleeker, and 90 percent lighter, than the coiled-steel ropes traditionally used in elevator systems.

UltraRope isn’t a new technology. In 2013, the Marina Bay Sands Casino in Singapore opened with an UltraRope system, and it’s been refined ever since. But by far the most high-profile example of the technology will be the Jeddah Tower, which the company hopes will serve as a massive ad for the new technology.

The top of the Jeddah Tower surrounded by clouds.
A rendering of the Jeddah Tower.
Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

According to Peter A. Weismantle, director of supertall building technology at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, the firm that designed the Jeddah Tower, UltraRope came along at the right time.

The firm, known for its boundary-pushing design, had already stretched the limits of existing technology. The service elevator on the Burj Khalifa—the current tallest building in the world—which runs nearly 1,700 feet tall (one and a half Willis Towers), pushed it even further.

“I have to hand it to Kone, because they saw that we’re in this new age of the supertall building, and there’s a need,” he says. “That’s what pushes the technology.”

Weismantle says that UltraRope, which will be used in the Jeddah Tower’s 59 elevators, helps cut down the size and weight needed for elevators, allows for quicker rides, and makes it easier to build taller structures. In an era of ultrathin towers, such as the designer residential buildings on New York City’s Billionaire’s Row, technology that can save space is welcome.

Other technology on the horizon seeks to make a similar impact on building construction and urban design. One of Kone’s competitors, ThyssenKrupp, is currently erecting a test tower in Rottweil, Germany, to showcase their new MULTI system. A series of elevators cabs that runs on a maglev system, this underdevelopment technology would allow multiple cabs to run in the same elevator shaft, making the task of moving crowds through a building more efficient. The technology even promises to allow for vertical and horizontal travel.

The MULTI System by ThyseenKrupp, which uses maglev technology.
ThyssenKrupp
A rendering of how the MULTI system would work within a high-rise building.
ThyssenKrupp

Thomas Felis, the vice president of innovation for ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas, believes the technology can free architects and designers from the big-box model of skyscrapers and towers and lead to more efficient building designs.

“I think we’ll see more unique, efficient city design,” he says. “The use of space in cities will only become more and more important.”

In an age of rapid urbanization, denser blocks and taller buildings will add to the challenge of moving people throughout cities. Weismantle says that plenty of technical challenges stand in the way of building up. The impact of wind on taller and taller structures requires more deft, technical designs that “confuse the wind” and prevent sudden movements. Safety and evacuation become more complex as architects aspire upwards, and supertalls, by their very nature, size, and large footprint on the ground, raise the question of economic feasibility and environmental sustainability.

But one of the most vexing challenges, Weismantle says, is recognizing that it’s not ideal to “isolate human beings in cubes in the sky.” Designers and architects need to find ways to introduce the public space into the higher realm. Perhaps as better, faster, and more efficient elevators help buildings go higher, they can also help make it easier for high-rise dwellers to stay grounded.