Skyscrapers are a lot like cadillacs for countries and designers. They’re nice to look at, but they’re also there to impress the neighbors. The bigger and shinier the building, the more important and capable a nation or developer can claim to be. (“Don’t think we’re a serious investment destination, eh? Have you noticed that tower can be seen from Mars?”).
Thus, it should come as no surprise that both nations and municipalities often try to up their skyscrapers’ height figures with unnecessary altitude-enhancing design features, and according to new study, the United Arab Emirates is the worst height-padding offender.
A report by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) found that the UAE’s tallest buildings have the world’s largest proportion of “vanity height” — defined by the organization as “the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top.” In order to reach its conclusion, the CTBUH collected data on all “supertall” buildings (those over 300 meters or 984 feet tall), and then looked at each building’s percentage of extra uninhabitable space.
While many of the UAE’s buildings still remain impressive, the Council’s report shows what a huge difference this vanity space makes when it comes to getting into the record books. Reuters reports that Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure on the planet, is still a towering 584 meters high when its non-occupiable space is removed. However, without this vanity height, the skyscraper would “only” be the 11th tallest building in Europe. What’s more, the Burj Khalifa isn’t even Dubai’s most egregious example of height-padding. A whopping 39% of Burj Al Arab is vanity height, with only 41% of the building actually made for humans to live in.
Even though these examples stand out more than others, the UAE is far from the only nation to give its buildings a cosmetic height boost. The Burj Khalifa has the world’s tallest vanity height, but China’s Zifeng Tower (133 meters of vanity height) holds the number two spot, and the Bank of America Tower in New York City takes third place. Nevertheless, when all supertalls are taken into account, the UAE once again stands alone. The average vanity height of UAE skyscrapers is 19%, compared to 14% in China, and 13% in America (all the world’s remaining supertall structures also have an average vanity height of 13%).
Even when the benefits of prestige are taken into account, it might seem strange that architects design buildings where the highest (and therefore most valuable) areas cannot be sold to tenants. Why not go slightly smaller and make more money? The answer is that land and labor is cheap enough in developing countries to make iconic vanity buildings a worthwhile investment, according to Steve Watts, an expert in tall buildings for the construction consultancy company Alinea Consulting.
“You can have towers that are loss-leaders but catalysts for regeneration and iconic structures can sway decision-makers,” Watts told Reuters. However, the expert was quick to add that plain old bragging rights tend to be an important motivation as well. “There can also be an ego element with these things with developers wanting to go higher than each other,” said Watts.