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1. Technical characteristics

Source: Oxford University Press

The skyscraper is so intimately bound up with the urban economy and its industrial base that it could not come into existence until a broad range of technological innovations had been perfected and drawn together into an integrated working complex. These innovations relate to structure and foundation, which determine the height, form and appearance of the building; internal vertical transportation, essential in any building more than about five storeys in height; fireproofing, the chief factor (other than the strength and durability of materials) guaranteeing the safety of occupants; and building services, which ensure the health and comfort of occupants.

In structural terms the evolution of the skyscraper initially depended on the development of iron- and steel-framing techniques in place of traditional masonry construction, the mass of which restricts the height achievable. Iron framing was a product of the Industrial Revolution and was first used in structures at the end of the 18th century. In the early years of their development, however, tall buildings were typically constructed with masonry load-bearing walls or piers, with a partial internal framework of iron columns, girders and beams. Soon after 1880, New York builders introduced cage construction in the Produce Exchange (1881–4; by George B. Post; destr.), where the loads were carried almost entirely on an internal iron skeleton. Steel was introduced in the upper part of the frame of the 10-storey Home Insurance Building (1884–5; by William Le Baron Jenney; destr.), Chicago, but a small proportion of the load was still carried on granite piers and brick party walls. Fully load-bearing skeletal frames for tall buildings were adopted in New York and Chicago almost simultaneously in the 11-storey, iron-framed Tower Building (1887; by Bradford Gilbert; destr.), New York, and the 9-storey, steel-framed Rand–McNally Building (1888–90; by Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root; destr.), Chicago. The Tower Building incorporated diagonal wind bracing, the first example for which drawings survive. The concept of wind bracing was well known to the medieval builders of timber-framed structures and such wind-resistant masonry buildings as Gothic cathedrals. Braced iron frames for tall buildings were introduced around 1870, yet bracing was not generally regarded as essential to the stability of tall framed structures until the 1890s.

Foundations for tall buildings posed a difficult problem in cities where water-saturated soil lay above bearing strata or bedrock, as in Chicago. In such circumstances neither traditional piling nor raft foundations—developed in Chicago in 1881–2 to spread the load and reduce unit pressures—could reliably sustain the extreme loads imposed by tall iron- and steel-framed structures. Caissons had to be used to allow excavation down to bearing strata or bedrock, and open or well-type caissons suitable for buildings appear to have been introduced in the USA in the City Hall (1888–90), Kansas City, MO. Pneumatic caissons, based on the principle of the air-lock invented by the British admiral Thomas Cochrane in 1830, provide a sealed chamber at the bottom filled with compressed air to keep soil and ground-water out; they permit deep excavations, and they were first used in high-rise building construction for the Manhattan Life Insurance Co. Building (1892–4; by Napoleon Le Brun), New York.

A crucial factor for the evolution of the skyscraper was the introduction of the passenger elevator (lift). The first mechanized lifts were used in English cotton mills in the 1830s and were hoisted by ropes and sheaves connected to the belted shafting of the mill’s steam engine. The earliest steam-driven passenger elevator with a safety brake was that invented by Elisha Graves Otis in 1852 and first installed in the Haughwout Building (1856–7; by John P. Gaynor), New York. Steam-driven elevators were superseded by hydraulic elevators, invented by Cyrus Baldwin in 1870 and introduced in a practical form by William Hale in 1873. Electrically powered elevators were invented in 1887, while the introduction of the electric gearless traction elevators in 1903 enabled the top of any structure, regardless of its height, to be reached.

The danger of fire in tall buildings was a matter of highly emotional concern until the end of the 19th century. It was widely believed that masonry and iron construction provided the best protection against fire, although it subsequently became apparent that combustible contents could transform even a fireproof structure into a furnace. The first scientific investigation into the problem resulted in a paper on fireproof construction, read before the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1869 by the architect Peter B. Wight. He was the first to emphasize that iron and steel suffer rapid loss of strength when heated, and he urged the covering of iron members with hollow tiles or other fire-resistant materials. Practical results soon followed: George H. Jonson and Balthasar Kreischer were awarded patents in 1869 and 1871 for a hollow-tile cladding for iron structural members, which was first used for a multi-storey structure in the Kendall Building (1872–3; by John Mills Van Osdel), Chicago, and subsequently widely adopted. Spray-on asbestos for interior members became common c. 1900.

The provision of building services—central heating, plumbing, artificial lighting and ventilation—was also essential to the evolution of the skyscraper: without adequate services such large buildings are uninhabitable. Steam heating had been introduced in buildings by James Watt (1736–1819) and Matthew Boulton in the late 18th century, and warm-air central heating was pioneered by William Strutt (1756–1830) in Derby at the Belper Mill and Derbyshire General Infirmary in the first decade of the 19th century. Important inventions of the 19th century included a closed-circuit hot-water system (1831; by Jacob Perkins in England) and a similar system for steam (1860; by Joseph Nason in the USA). Plumbing followed a more complex history because of the diversity of elements and its dependence on a city-wide pressurized water supply. Although a pressurized water supply sustained by steam-driven pumps appeared in England as early as 1712, the first municipal water-supply system of a scale adequate for the modern city was provided with the construction of the Croton Reservoir and aqueduct (1839–42) for New York. The modern flush toilet was largely the creation of Joseph Bramah in England from 1775 to 1790, with improvements made in the 19th century.

Adequate artificial lighting was introduced with the multiple-burner gas system designed by William Murdock and installed in 1806 at the Philips and Lee Mill (by James Watt and Matthew Boulton), Salford, Lancs. Practical incandescent electric lamps were perfected in 1878 by Joseph Swan in England and in 1879 by Thomas Edison in the USA; Edison installed the first large central power station in New York in 1882. The multiple-burner gas installation needed only to have the burners replaced with electric lamps and the gas piping with an electrical circuit to transform it into the modern multiple-unit lighting system for large commercial buildings. The evolution of forced-draught ventilation systems arose almost entirely from the patent granted to the American inventor Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant in 1870 for a steam-driven fan blowing air into ducts over steam- or hot-water-heated coils. Air conditioning, an essential service for most modern skyscrapers, was introduced in buildings in the 19th century in various primitive forms, mostly using the evaporation of ice-blocks to cool the air. The first practical mechanical air-conditioning system was invented only in the first years of the 20th century by Willis Carrier, although it was not widely installed in large office buildings until the 1930s in the USA and later in Europe. Nevertheless, by 1900 the increasing complexity and multiplicity of services and protective devices meant that they represented half the cost of construction.

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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