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A Mile-High Skyscraper Isn't a Fantasy. At Least Outside the U.S.

On Tuesday, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat officially named the new One World Trade Center as the tallest building in the U.S.

At a height of 1,776 feet, it surpasses the 1,451-foot tall Willis Tower in Chicago—you probably know it by its old name, Sears Tower.

However, these are minor-league stats in the world of skyscraper design. After a century-long run as home to the world’s tallest buildings, the U.S. has become increasingly irrelevant in the past 15 years. The real action is in the Middle East and Asia.

Actually, 1 WTC may be the 17th-tallest skyscraper in the world in the next decade, according to CTBUH data, which include proposed buildings and those under construction. In fact, it will be the only skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere to crack the global top 40. The vast majority—28—will come from China, with the rest scattered across Asia and the Middle East. Here’s what the rankings will look like, with 1 WTC barely a contender.

The tallest of them all will be the 1-kilometer-tall Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia, currently under construction, and expected to be finished in 2019.

Going through the global data (the Skyscraper Center site has every detail you can imagine), we can forecast possible future trends in building heights. Here are the world’s 600 tallest buildings through the next decade, using a logarithmic scale to better visualize the pattern:

The red line forecasts what we might expect in the future. At 3,281 feet, Kingdom Tower is the right-most blue dot on the chart. It’s by far an outlier here—the red trend line would have forecast a building that large only about 0.2 times per 30 years, or once every 150 years. Obviously it’s happening now. The problem with this first attempt at a forecast is it includes too many smaller buildings.

We’ll get a more accurate estimate by focusing on only the absolute tallest buildings, and ignoring the massive amounts of high-but-not-that-high buildings. Here we look at buildings over 1,500 feet, all with completion dates between 2004 and 2020, a very short 16-year period.

According to this new forecast line, we should see a 5,000-foot building about 0.4 times every 16 years, or once every 40 years. It would be easy to expect a mile-high (or 5,280 feet) skyscraper sometime in our lives.

Here’s another way to the same forecast, using a different approach with the data. (Click the image above for a full screen.) By tracking the progression of the world’s single-tallest building (both height and completion year), we can forecast a trend into the future. The red line hits 5,280 feet about 40 years into the future, just what we forecasted above.

Looking at it two different ways, we can be fairly confident that the mile-high skyscraper is coming in about 40 years.

According to Daniel Safarik at CTBUH, there has been much discussion in the skyscraper community about what it would take to make a building so tall. Safarik says the primary obstacle right now is money, not technology. New innovations like carbon-fiber elevator ropes may make it easier to get these highly ambitious projects into construction—one way is by designing slender buildings that don’t need to take up so much space at ground level.

Let’s return to the U.S. market for a moment. This chart shows the heights and frequencies of the tallest U.S. buildings. Included in this chart are buildings under construction through 2017. The vast majority of the buildings here represent a 50-year range, 1967-2017.

The red forecast line suggests we should expect a building as tall as 1 WTC less than 0.5 times every 50 years—or less than once per 100 years. The fact that it already exists now most likely means this building is an outlier—not something we should continue to look forward to. We most likely will not read an article titled “America’s Newest Tallest Building” anytime in our lives.

More immediately, nothing is out there on the horizon: There are zero buildings currently proposed or under construction that would take the top spot.

On the speculative end of the scale, 23 potentially taller American buildings have been “envisioned.” Take them with a (huge) grain of salt, though. Safarik points out a “vision” project doesn’t generally have any funding or a construction plan to go forth with. They can even be plans simply for theoretical or academic use.

Chemi is head of research for Businessweek and Bloomberg TV.

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