Love them or loathe them, the skyscraper is, without a doubt, the greatest architectural symbol of the modern era. Over the last century or so, skyscrapers have sprung up on every continent, providing homes, offices, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions for countless visitors.

But why do we build these colossal structures in the first place, and what’s the future of skyscrapers?

3d rendering of a skyscraper

How tall are skyscrapers?

There is no universal definition of a skyscraper. However, in modern usage, the term usually refers to buildings that are over 100 metres tall (others put the cut-off at 150m). They commonly feature a steel framework with curtain walls and, especially over the last 30 years or so, have relied extensively on the use of large panes of non-load-bearing external glass.

There are thousands of skyscrapers in the world, with Hong Kong, Shenzhen and New York City being the cities with the greatest number of these structures. According to the World Economic Forum, there are 132 ‘supertall’ skyscrapers (300m or taller) worldwide.

5 tallest finished buildings in the world by height:

  1. Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE (2,717 ft)
  2. Shanghai Tower, Shanghai, China (2,073 ft)
  3. Royal Clock Tower, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (1, 972 ft)
  4. Ping An Finance Center, Shenzen, China (1,965 ft)
  5. Lotte World Tower, Seoul, South Korea (1,813)

What are the benefits of skyscrapers?

Skyscrapers help solve multiple challenges facing urban areas, while also introducing many benefits to the cities that build them. Here are just some of the key benefits of skyscrapers:

  • A solution to urban sprawl

The problem of urban sprawl affects most cities worldwide. Without controls, cities would simply keep expanding horizontally outwards, using up more land and resources. Meanwhile, space close to the centre becomes ever more expensive. Skyscrapers can address this challenge. By allowing far more people to live and work on a small geographical footprint, urban populations can keep growing without taking up more land.

  • A tourist destination

Many of the world’s great skyscrapers become a ‘destination’ in and of themselves. Whether it’s New York’s Empire State Building or Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, these buildings become tourist destinations, boosting the local economy.

  • Prestige

For many cities, having a large building is a prestige symbol. It puts their city ‘on the map’, demonstrating that the metropolis is dynamic, innovative and growing.

  • Makes for a dramatic skyline

While skyscrapers can be controversial – and not everyone is fond of the structures – they can add character to a city’s skyline. The best skyscrapers become memorable icons, with architects designing graceful, unique and iconic structures.

  • Hubs for economic activity

A skyscraper can become a hub for economic activity. They host offices and private residences, and restaurants, nightlife, gyms, leisure facilities and retail industries grow around these buildings. They also offer a testbed for new technologies such as the ‘smart city’ concept.

  • Better return on investment

For property developers, skyscrapers are financially attractive. By fitting more homes and offices onto a single plot of land, they can generate a higher return on investment.

  • (Possible) environmental benefits

By reducing urban sprawl, recycling materials, using new materials like wood, and being energy efficient, skyscrapers can be less environmentally damaging than more traditional building methods and smaller structures.

  • Great views

Last, but by no means least, one of the biggest benefits of skyscrapers is the astounding views they offer!

How will the skyscraper evolve?

By the year 2050, the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas will reach 68% – up from 55% today. Given their ability to reduce urban sprawl, lower the environmental impact of buildings and improve economic performance, we can certainly expect skyscrapers to continue popping up. But what challenges are facing them, and how are they evolving?

  • The pandemic poses a temporary challenge to skyscrapers

There is no doubt that the pandemic has affected the construction of skyscrapers, at least temporarily. If fewer people do come to city centres to work and live, there may be a long-term decline in demand for tall buildings in the urban sphere. This doesn’t necessarily mean there will be fewer skyscrapers, but we might start seeing them in different locations (perhaps more often in the urban periphery).

  • Wood is emerging as a next-generation skyscraper material

For the past 150 years, steel, concrete and glass were the materials of choice when it came to skyscraper construction. However, in recent years, architects and engineering firms have started integrating wood in skyscrapers as a new method of construction. Cross-Laminated Timber (wood glued together at a 90-degree angle) provides large wooden panels that can offer excellent structural qualities for tall buildings.

Research shows that using wood in the construction industry can reduce emissions drastically, tackle the urban heat island effect, while also offering an entirely renewable material that captures carbon for decades. It is also aesthetically pleasing.

Watch: The world’s second-tallest wooden building

  • Fewer supertall structures?

One possible trend in skyscrapers is that the taste for supertall skyscrapers (300m+) may have finally passed. Over the last five years, there has been a general decline in the number of buildings over 200 metres tall. At the same time, China, which is home to by far the largest number of skyscrapers, is imposing restrictions on the number of tall buildings that can be put up. This suggests that urban planners may be focusing on more functional towers where space can easily be rented.

Supporting the skyscraper of the future

However skyscrapers evolve, PlanRadar is helping engineers, architects, contractors and building managers to create and operate the skyscrapers of the future. Our software for construction professionals helps with every stage of building skyscrapers, from construction management through to the maintenance and operation of these incredible buildings.