CTBUH rules Chicago is no longer home to nation’s tallest skyscraper

November 12, 2013

Did you know?, World culture/events

Tallest building ruling: Chicago’s Willis Tower (former Sears Tower) loses to New York’s new One World Trade Center
Ending Willis Tower’s (Sears Tower’s) reign of 40 years as the nation’s tallest building

One World Trade Center

By Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune

One World Trade Center will be the nation’s tallest building when it is completed next year, a Chicago-based tall buildings council announced Tuesday.

The decision by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) hinged on whether the tower’s mast was a spire, which counts in height measurements, or an antenna, which doesn’t.

“Even though the cladding was taken off the spire, you can still see that is is an architectural element,” said Antony Wood, executive director of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. “It is not just a plain steel mast from which to hang antenna or satellite dishes.”

He said One World Trade Center would only become the nation’s tallest building next year when it is complete and occupied.

The decision will end Willis Tower’s reign of 40 years as the nation’s tallest building.

Widely acknowledged as the arbiter of skyscraper height disputes, the private council announced its decision in simultaneous Chicago and New York press conferences.

Reflecting intense public interest in the decision, the announcement was made before a bank of television cameras in a packed room of the 16th floor of the IIT Tower at the corner of State Street and 35th Street. The room looked out to the Chicago skyline, including Willis Tower.

The announcement culminated weeks of speculation about the ruling, which drew widespread attention because it would finally settle the issue of whether Chicago or New York could claim bragging rights to having the nation’s and the Western Hemisphere’s tallest building, as well as whether One World Trade Center would achieve the symbolic height of 1,776 feet.

Willis Tower, completed in 1974 and once the world’s tallest building, is 1,451 feet tall. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the current holder of the title, is 2,717 feet tall.

The council’s height committee met for 3 1/2 hours last Friday at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where the council is headquartered. Representatives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a co-developer of One World Trade Center, addressed the committee, as did the skyscraper’s architects, the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Twenty-five members of the committee were present, according to Daniel Safarik, a spokesman for the tall building council.

Of the nine Americans on the committee, five are from Chicago, Safarik said. They include the committee’s chairman, Peter Weismantle, director of supertall building technology at the firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, and William Baker, chief structural engineer at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

According to Safarik, two committee members are from New York.

The council’s spokeman pointed out that a majority of the committee members present Friday were from outside the U.S. They were from such countries as Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Qatar, the the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

“I think the Chicago-New York thing is pretty overblown,” Safarik said. “It is a global organization.”

In 1996, the council stripped Chicago’s Willis Tower, then known as Sears Tower, of its world’s tallest building title in a dispute that favored the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. The council ruled that the Malaysian towers’ decorative spires, which edged 33 feet higher than Sears’ roof, should count in height measurements.

In making that decision, the council affirmed its longtime standard that spires, like those atop New York’s Chrysler Building, are integral to a building’s architectural design while broadcast antennas, like those Willis, are not.

“Between Petronas and Sears, it was really a non-issue,” said Chicago structural engineer Shankar Nair, the council’s former chairman, who participated in the 1996 vote. “It was a foregone conclusion what the decision would be.”

The One World Trade Center issue was more complex than the 1996 case because the tower’s 408-foot mast was designed to be a spire that would elevate the skyscraper, whose roof is 1,368 feet tall, to total height to 1,776 feet.

That number, which architect Daniel Libeskind proposed in his competition-winning master plan for ground zero, was meant to symbolize the year the Declaration of Independence was adopted and American resolve in the face of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But eyebrows were raised at the council last year when it became known that the co-developer of the One World Trade Center, the Durst Organization, had decided not to clad the mast in a tapering, fiberglass and steel enclosure called a radome. The developers insisted the radome would be difficult to maintain. The decision saved an estimated $20 million in construction costs.

Without the covering, the mast, which reached its full height in a “topping-out” ceremony last May, consists of a conventional steel pole surrounded by round catwalks. At the time of the topping-out, it was widely reported that the tower had reached the height of 1,776 feet tall and was America’s tallest building.

But the elimination of the radome raised the issue of whether the mast should be considered an antenna, which would not count in the official height measurements.

It did not help One World Trade Center’s case when the skyscraper’s architect, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said in response to the Durst decision: “We are disappointed that a decision has been made to remove the sculptural enclosure at the top of 1 World Trade Center. Eliminating this integral part of the building’s design and leaving an exposed antenna and equipment is unfortunate.”

This September, SOM backed off Childs’ earlier statement, but did not explain why the council should continue to heed its view that the mast still qualified as a spire.

Also in September, the council issued a provocative report which noted that skyscrapers around the world were padding their heights with ever-rising amounts of non-occupiable space atop the buildings. The council called the trend “vanity height.” It pointed to such examples as Dubai’s Burj Al Arab tower. Thirty-nine percent of the tower’s overall height consists of un-occupied space at the tower’s top.

“People have started designing to the rules,” Nair said. They’re “putting on spires just to get the record.”

Some observers viewed the report as a pretext that would set the stage for the council to modify its long-running spire-versus-antenna distinction–and take the previously unthinkable step of ruling that One World Trade Center’s mast is not a spire. The mast accounts for nearly 30 percent of the skyscraper’s height.”

Last Friday, just hours after the council heard arguments on the matter, the Port Authority conducted what it said was a test of decorative lighting for the mast. Hundreds of red, white and blue LED modules lit up the mast. A beacon shined on top of the mast. Port Authority officials said the glow from the lights would be visible up to 50 miles away. The message of the test seemed clear: The mast is a spire.

On Monday, on the eve of the council’s announcement, One World Trade Center’s web site continued to refer to the skyscraper as “the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.”



One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center

Willis Tower (former Sears Tower)

Willis Tower


Chicago Skyline

New York

New York Skyline

Video: One WTC deemed U.S’s tallest building

Video: Things you didn’t know about the Willis Tower in Chicago (former Sears Tower)

Video: Willis Tower -Documentary (former Sears Tower)

Video: Willis Tower (former Sears Tower)


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