The sky’s the limit for the elevator of the future

 —  Article by Natalie Holmes
People travelling in a glass elevator
Image credit: Shutterstock

The elevator has already been hailed as one of the most important inventions of the modern urban world.

Now a new design could revolutionize how we get around the complex structures of today’s skyline. An advanced elevator system from ThyssenKrupp, which doesn’t require ropes – and can move sideways as well as vertically – is being tested in a purpose built tower in Germany. The innovation uses magnetic levitation technology like that used in Japan’s bullet trains, meaning it can also operate numerous cabins on a continuous loop.

Antony Wood, executive director of The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat hailed the system as “the biggest development in the elevator industry since the invention of the safety elevator some 165 years ago.”

Indeed, it has huge implications for how tall buildings are designed and operated. Since their invention revolutionized building design over a century-and-a-half ago, elevators have modernized, but their fundamental functionality has not changed—and remains one of the key factors limiting the height of buildings.

Cables can only endure a certain amount of strain from repeated use over long distances. To get around this, most skyscrapers require a change of elevator to reach upper floors.

Opening up buildings in a new way

ThyssenKrupp’s system—named MULTI—does away with such limitations. “The technology offers new possibilities in cities that are increasingly struggling with space and availability of land,” says Martin Hofmann, JLL Germany’s Head of Project & Development Services.

In theory, buildings of the future could soar miles into the sky. What’s more, replacing the cable and counterweight system with magnetic levitation frees up a significant amount of the building’s footprint. “By putting several elevators in a shaft, this new system reduces space requirements by up to 50 percent, and increases the conveying capacity by at least the same value,” says Hofmann.

According to ThyssenKrupp, this translates to an overall increase of a building’s available internal space by up to 25 percent, which in turn impacts how the space is used. “German office staff, in particular, prefer to work horizontally on one level instead of using vertical access,” explains Hofmann. “This system could allow for easy movement between one side of a building and another on the same floor, making workspaces more accessible and potentially saving time and effort moving between different areas.”

Facilities management could also benefit from the new technology. “It impacts other problems such as waiting times and maintenance costs,” says Hofmann. “At the moment, reducing wait times means carving more space from the building to add additional shafts, while further increasing maintenance costs.”

In terms of efficiency, too, the new generation of elevators is an improvement on its predecessors. Where standard elevators require huge amounts of energy in their continual effort against gravity, the MULTI system reduces power demand by up to 60 percent—and its energy usage can be digitally managed and controlled.

Despite higher initial costs, especially while the technology is so new, for developers, Hofmann believes the investment is likely to pay off. “The increased floor space ultimately means more rental income,” he says.

Coming soon to tall buildings?

Though still currently in the experimental phase, the MULTI system will be integrated into Berlin’s East Side Tower development, due to open in 2019.

And while ropes and cables aren’t quite a thing of the past, it could give architects of future buildings more free rein to build ever higher and create ever more intricate structures without adversely impacting on how they operate. It’s not just in single buildings; the MULTI system could also connect separate buildings, replacing pedestrian bridges.

“High-rise architecture can free itself from going straight upwards,” says Hofmann. “More complicated structures such as building blocks stacked on top of each other, or in a step-like formation will blend function and form in ways which they can’t quite do today. Tomorrow’s architecture will have plenty more options to choose from that simply weren’t possible before.”

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