How tech companies are rethinking the high-rise workplace

Seventy percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. This is a dramatic change over one and a half generations, and it will require us to rethink how we build our cities.

At the same time, many tech companies — Amazon, Tencent, Google, Samsung and others — are infusing digital technology into how cities are built and operated. They’re introducing different thinking about what defines a high-rise and a city.

The traditional high-rise building paradigm is simplistic: stacked floor plates, disconnected from each other, with little integration of technology and disconnected from the life of the city, except as an urban icon or a passive lens from which to look out. Most tech companies, however, as well as companies in other industries, are looking for a more social workplace, more interaction between employees and a work experience that reflects their brand. Cities are also changing, as they toss off the “inner city” stigmas of the previous generation and become places to live, work and play. As a result, the high-rise building paradigm needs to change into something more porous and highly networked.

Here are just a few possibilities:

The high-rise building typology is highly ossified, but if we can deconstruct it, we can create seams in which people actually talk to each other, interact and generate new ideas. One way to accomplish this objective is by moving the core from the center of the building to the edge and creating common space at the center. The more we promote visual and physical communication in buildings, the more we can move towards community, innovation and happier places to work.

The vertical, linear nature of elevators also reinforces the disconnection of people and the ossification of the high-rise. If we can look at movement systems from a more multivalent or “grid” perspective — with “skip-stop” elevators that force people to interact on higher floors, with more stairs and escalators between floors, and with multistory atriums for visual connections — we can open up a lot of possibilities.

If the high-rise building is a city-planning problem, maybe public spaces, legislated vertically, can change the way we interact with buildings. Through planning and zoning we can create vertical urbanization purposefully. Just as traditional planning and zoning regulations for setbacks and heights are purposeful, we can open new possibilities for purposeful public space, green spaces and street volumes.

Green facades are a simplistic way of incorporating nature into a high-rise. The more interesting possibility is to think of the building as a true ecosystem — which, again, is human- or life-based. If we can include plants and fresh air in the workplace and make our buildings more organic, it will change the way we interact and perform in buildings. Perhaps we could even grow food for a building’s inhabitants within the frame of the building itself.

A lot of companies are broken into teams. If we think about those teams as “neighborhoods,” we can create connective tissue — almost like a plaza, a park or a square in a small city — between them to bring people together in a type of “village-ification” of the high-rise.

Another priority: daylight for all. If towers are covering the city in shadows, what can we do about it? If we start thinking about geometry, technology and materials to bring daylight down to the street, we can start using buildings to solve problems that everyone experiences — even those who never set foot inside a building we design.

At the same time, super-light towers are becoming possible. What can we learn about new materials — carbon fiber, for instance — from companies like Boeing? Studies suggest we can reduce steel and concrete in supertall towers by 35% to 40%. In an era of sustainability and scarce resources, those are things we should be thinking about.

Finally, can the high-rise building become a technology platform? The internet giant Tencent, the most valuable company in Asia according to Fortune, is using its new headquarters tower as a lab for their own product portfolio, integrating elevators, lighting, conferencing, parking and security with their own WeChat-based products. By testing their products on themselves, they are not only making their workplace more efficient, but also learning how to create better products for their customers.

The basic, underlying principle for tall buildings and workplaces in the future will be to connect people and make life in our cities more sustainable. How can we, in ways we never could have imagined in the past, create a better, more human experience in the city and in the high-rise building? Therein lies the challenge. Solving it will spur us to greater innovation, synergy and new ways of thinking.

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Tapered columns can slim down costs

Metal building system builders have an option to use straight columns or tapered columns to hold up the structure. In many metal building applications, straight columns may have more steel than they need. A tapered column design can reduce the amount of steel used and reduce costs in several ways.

Metal building companies such as Star Buildings order flat plate steel in various widths and thicknesses. They cut shapes out of it to create a custom beam, typically made from three long plates: two wide flanges, with a perpendicular web separating them. The cross section looks like a capital I, the source of the term I-beam).

In a conventional I-beam, the web is a consistent depth and the flanges are parallel, that is, the two flanges are the same distance apart throughout the length of the beam. But if the web depth needed at the top of a column is different than the depth needed at the bottom, there’s no reason to make a conventional parallel beam.

The depth at the top is dictated by the roof rafter which the column is supporting. From an engineering standpoint, the rafter “knee” may need to be 60 inches deep. At the bottom of the column, the rotational force (moment) is zero, and may only need a depth of 12 inches to support the weight and resist horizontal shear.

In conventional construction, a contractor who buys a beam has no way to modify it. The structural steel of a metal building system is all custom made. The column can be easily tapered from 60 inches to 12 inches, if that’s what’s needed.

Tapering saves a lot of steel, which saves money on material cost. It also saves money in several other ways.

Less steel means less weight in shipping, which saves money. It also means less load that the foundation has to support, which saves money, especially in seismic zones, where weight also increases the seismic load.

It is possible to mix straight and tapered columns. The choice is typically dictated by the customer and by loads. Sometimes the design works better if the columns are straight, for example, if there are loads attached to the inside flange and you want a straight bracket, or if you’re putting in a crane. For a small building, the savings from tapering may be very small, too. In instances where the taper does not make enough difference to justify the cost of the set-up time in the fabricating shop, Star advises using straight columns. But in a large building, there can be great economy in tapering the shapes.