The world loves tall buildings, and the satisfaction that comes with building one can’t be measured. But building skyscrapers has been dangerous work from the beginning. Here’s a look at how tall building construction safety has evolved over the years.
A Short Walk Through the History of Tall Buildings
The invention of the passenger elevator and the mass production of steel are arguably the two most important steps toward the towering skyscrapers of today. By comparison, the first building to have a passenger elevator installed – the E.V. Haughwout Building in New York City – stood only five stories high.
The first building to have steel in its frame was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. Considered to be the world’s first skyscraper, this building stood 10 stories high until it was demolished in 1931.
These more modest constructions paved the way for much taller – and more iconic – modern skyscrapers, such as the Empire State building, the Sears (now Willis) tower, and Dubai’s record-breaking Burj Khalifa, which stands an impressive 2,722 feet tall.
Safety in the World’s Tallest Buildings
A recent fire in the Marina Torch building in Dubai highlighted the safety features now standard in supertall buildings.
The blaze, believed to have been started on the 52nd floor, caused some smoke inhalation injuries and a fair amount of fear – but no reported deaths, thanks to how quickly firefighters were able to bring the fire under control. That speed was made possible by modern skyscraper design, which builds safety features right into the blueprints.
These safety features have a heavy focus on fire prevention, since fighting a fire in such a tall building presents serious challenges to emergency crews. The idea is that fires should burn themselves out without causing structural damage that collapses the building. That means that occupants above the fire can either be evacuated safely or remain in place until the fire is under control.
To accomplish this, builders construct barriers to slow fires and automatic doors that close after fire detection (to further slow the blaze). Many buildings also feature a compartmentalized construction, in which each compartment has fire-proof protective material to keep a fire from spreading to the rest of the building.
After 9/11, designers put an even bigger focus on safety when building skyscrapers. For example, New York City’s One World Trade Center (a.k.a. the Freedom Tower), has a dedicated staircase up the center of the building, just for emergency crews. This means that firefighters won’t have to stumble over or struggle past groups of panicked occupants evacuating the building.
The building’s core is also protected by concrete walls three feet thick, and pressurized to make sure crews can reach a fire anywhere in the building.
Dubai’s Burj Kalifa introduced another new safety measure: lifts (called “lifeboats”) in designated refuge areas that can get occupants quickly and safely to ground level in case of fire.
Finally, new technology is being adopted in many skyscrapers that improves communication with firefighters and other emergency crews.
These safety features won’t make a building entirely immune from disaster, of course. But they do give occupants a much better chance of making it out safely in case of emergency.