reimagined tall building

Multi-cabin German ropeless lift could revolutionise design of tall buildings

Image credit: Thyssenkrupp

Technology dubbed the 'Wonkavator' could lead to skyscrapers becoming less phallic and more interconnected, and could convey passengers from the Underground to the top of the Shard.

Engineering giant Thyssenkrupp is taking lifts in a wondrous new direction: sideways.

Its multi-cabin ropeless elevator, claimed to be the first of its kind in the world, can go left and right as well as up and down and so will enable architects to plan new types of “wiggly”, less phallic skyscrapers, which could then be linked together by way of horizontal “gerbil tubes.

Since the weight of the steel cable used to move lifts up shafts is currently a major limiting factor affecting building height – to reach the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, for example, it is necessary to change elevators part-way up - the advance could also mean skyscrapers will soon be able to attain previously unthinkable heights, rising a mile or even several miles into the sky.

The new breed of lift, dubbed the Wonkavator because it is in many ways the closest thing yet to the glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, will “change the shape of cities” according to British futurist Ben Hammersley.

At yesterday’s launch at Thyssenkrupp’s specially built 244m test tower in Rottweil, Germany, one engineer quipped: “We wanted to try and build an elevator to the moon.”

In fact the first installation of the so-called Multi lift will not be in a stratospheric shaft but in a somewhat more down-to-earth mixed use building in Berlin called the East Side Tower, which is being constructed by OVG Real Estate and is expected to open in 2020.

Andreas Schierenbeck, chief executive of Thyssenkrupp’s elevator division, predicted that yesterday’s lavish event would herald the beginning of the end of 160 years of rope-operated elevators and the start of a new age.

“We thought, maybe we should do something different, maybe we should try and get rid of the ropes. For 160 years the elevator industry was dominated by ropes,” he said, adding that “the new era will start right here, right now”.

To create the Multi, Thyssenkrupp deployed technology which was instrumental in its construction of a Maglev train which uses magnetic elevation instead of wheels. The company creatively combined this innovation with the concept of the paternoster lift – a type of lift that became popular in central Europe in the 1930s and which consisted of a chain of open compartments constantly moving on a loop, which passengers could hop into and out of.

Schierenbeck said increasing urbanisation meant it was vital to make transportation through buildings quicker and more efficient. As much as 50 per cent of a building’s useable floorspace is sometimes taken up by the main elevator shaft, and “elevators are becoming a bottlenecks”, he added. New York City workers wasted an estimated 16.6 years waiting for lifts in 2011 alone.

The Multi works more like a vehicle than a conventional lift – cabins can be parked in special parking spaces and brought into service to meet demand. Households in residential blocks could have their own personal cabins which would be able to convey them in snaking movements throughout a building and through burrows connecting discrete skyscrapers with each other. The way the system allows cabins to shift from vertical to horizontal movements means they can even overtake, just like cars. A cabin on its way up can, for example, move out of the way of another which is on its way down.

The technology should also allow for a smaller footprint to be taken up by a building’s vertical transportation system.  

Schierenbeck said: “For the architects here, you are relatively free to build whatever you want. You can connect buildings; you can go up at an angle; you can really do a system of communications. All these advantages are there.”

In some cases it may be possible to replace the existing lift system in relatively old skyscrapers with a Multi elevator system, which could also allow tall buildings to be seamlessly integrated into mass transport systems beneath the ground.

Antony Wood from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat told E&T: “It’s certainly possible to apply these retroactively in a retrofit, because really all this system needs is two shafts side-by-side.

One thing that comes to mind is the question of whether there is enough space in the existing shaft. A typical shaft at the minute is just the car [cabin], a rope and a counterweight, whereas there is a lot of gadgetry involved here [with the Multi]. The real benefit of this system is the reduction of the number of shafts. Whereas now the principle of the shaft is a single car that goes up and down in a single shaft, this potentially allows one car to move out of the way of another one coming down, so I’m not sure retrospectively applying Multi to existing buildings is going to give you much benefit because the shafts are already there and it’s difficult then to bring them back into the floorspace because they’re typically big concrete shafts.”

Wood added: “One of the things I’m advocating is connections between buildings. There’s a huge benefit of that, not least that if we are going more vertical then we need to replicate the [road] ground plane up in the sky… At least now we have a system that opens up the possibilities. When you’re pulling a car on a rope, there are no possibilities - it can only go vertically.”

There are currently thought to be around 12 million lifts in buildings globally. The vast majority of these work using a rope, though in low rise buildings some use hydraulics.

Thyssenkrupp's research and development division employs 850 engineers from around the world and has bases in the United States as well as Spain and Germany.

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