Book review: The Heights

An inside look at the invisible systems behind skyscrapers, where an increasing number of people live and work.


Photo: Anna Lisa Sang

THE HEIGHTS: Anatomy of a Skyscraper
Kate Ascher

If you’ve ever worked late into the night in an office tower, you’ll have felt the thing humming around you. And that’s assuming you don’t go home at night to a highrise, as do an increasing number of us. In the past decade, the number of buildings around the globe taller than 180 metres more than doubled, to over 500, and at the beginning of 2010 there were 400 more under construction. As Columbia architecture school professor Ascher notes, members of modern society spend an estimated 90% of their time inside. “Whether we know it or not, the inside workings of our built environment…shape almost every facet of our daily existence.”

Via illustration, The Heights peels back that environment’s skin to show how a tower’s complex skeleton and systems work. Most office buildings, for example, have elevator systems designed to handle 12% of the tower’s human capacity in any given five-minute window. That gets most complicated over the noon hour, when the peak combination of incoming and outgoing traffic occurs, but it’s a challenge being eased by new systems that analyze usage patterns and predict where would be the most useful places to position elevator cars at specific times of day. Interesting stuff—if nothing else, fuel for small talk on those long elevator rides.