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Real Estate
Elevators Set to Take New Direction
From the Wall Street Journal of Wed, 17 Dec 2014 06:56:10 EST
No longer will elevators that move sideways the stuff of fiction. ThyssenKrupp is rolling out a new cable-free elevator and it could very well be the lift elevators need. Eliot Brown joins MoneyBeat. Photo: ThyssenKrupp.

For more than a century, elevators have helped shape skylines around the world largely through the same technology: a car pulled up and down by a cable.

A new technology could change that.

Manufacturing giant ThyssenKrupp AG is rolling out a cable-free elevator, a technology that—if it works as advertised—would allow multiple cars to run in the same shaft, and to run not just up and down but also diagonally and sideways.

While not quite on the level of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, such a technology would permit buildings to stretch higher, with less space for elevator shafts, and to expand in new shapes, architects and engineers believe.

“I could almost not think of a technology that has the potential to fundamentally change tall buildings like this one,” said Antony Wood, executive director of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a skyscraper trade group.

Hurdles remain. While the company is starting its marketing for the technology, it doesn’t expect to complete a full-size prototype until 2016. And new technology often proves difficult to take from paper to reality.

In addition, the technology likely will cost significantly more than a traditional elevator, so it is unclear how often developers will choose to use it. ThyssenKrupp, based in Essen, Germany, declined to say how pricey such elevators might be.

Still, the company believes it has cracked the code and is marketing the technology, called Multi, to developers now so they can design towers with the new elevators in mind.

“Multi will change the landscape and the look of buildings,” said Patrick Bass, the incoming chief for North America at ThyssenKrupp, a giant in the elevator trade that is responsible for the elevators at the new One World Trade Center, among other towers.

Architects and engineers consider the current model unwieldy in tall towers because it generally is based on one elevator running per shaft, pulled by a cable from above. That takes up a large portion of a building’s square footage, particularly on the upper floors of a tapered tower.

A rendering of a tower using cable-free elevators that can run sideways as well as up and down.
A rendering of a tower using cable-free elevators that can run sideways as well as up and down. ThyssenKrupp

“Skyscraper heights are always limited by the fact that the shafts take up more and more space” the higher buildings go, said Daniel Levinson Wilk, a history professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology who studies the history of elevators.

Multi, by contrast, runs on magnetic levitation technology, akin to super-high-speed trains in Shanghai and Germany that use magnets to run frictionless and pull and push along a track. This allows for a far more efficient use of space because the technology works more like a train on a track, where one car can follow another up one shaft and then down another. As a result, ThyssenKrupp says it expects the space devoted to elevators can be cut by as much as half.

That can significantly affect the economics of skyscrapers. Less space for elevators means more leasable space, which in turn makes the prospect of constructing a tall building more appealing to developers and investors.

Mr. Bass said he believes the elevators will prove most economical for tall buildings of about 1,000 feet and higher, or about the height of New York’s Chrysler Building. That is a fast-growing category of buildings, particularly in China and the Middle East, where he believes there will be strong demand.

Such buildings would be even more commonplace, Mr. Bass believes, if existing elevator technology didn’t take up so much space.

“The reality is, we have limited the height of buildings as an industry,” Mr. Bass said.

While the company believes the main clientele will be developers of super-tall buildings, the technology, if successful, also would open the door for buildings of nontraditional shapes, since the elevators could push diagonally or horizontally. Going sideways isn’t quite as simple, because riders are more likely to shift as they do in a moving subway car, and may need to hold on to a pole or be strapped in, engineers said.

Peter Weismantle, director of supertall rtechnology at Adrian Smith Gordon Gill Architecture in Chicago whose projects include the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, said it was too early to say just how readily the technology would be adopted, and there were likely challenges to moving horizontally. But for tall buildings, if it can save space, developers likely will look upon it well, he said.

“Anything to reduce the size of the core would be attractive to a landlord,” he said.

Write to Eliot Brown at eliot.brown@wsj.com



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