Vanity height: how much space in skyscrapers is unoccupiable?

From the Empire State to the 1km-tall Jeddah Tower, our roundup of skyscrapers in numbers examines the race to be crowned world’s tallest building

In a world of ever-reducing space, a skyscraper is an efficient way to create homes and offices without too large a footprint. It is interesting, then, that so many skyscrapers are full of hot air. In the race for the biggest buildings, architects have fallen back on antennae and pointed spires – with the result that skyscrapers are not so much efficient uses of space, but overblown vanity projects.

Take the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It’s impressive at 828 metres tall, but nearly a third of that (29%) is unoccupiable, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. The Burj al Arab, also in Dubai, is much worse in this respect, with 39% of the entire building unusable. In fact, Dubai has five towers listed as the tallest buildings in “vanity height” – unusable height for the sake of it. Across these five, some 31% of total space is completely wasted.

So should they really be considered the tallest buildings anymore? The Burj Khalifa’s true height is only 584 metres, making it much closer to the height of the Makkah Royal Clock Tower in Saudi Arabia, which has a true height of 559 metres. The Empire State Building in New York, on the other hand, is still a remarkably impressive achievement next to these: although it only stands at 381 metres tall, it loses just 1% of its stature to unoccupiable space. The Shard in London is 20% unoccupiable.

The fight to have the tallest building was relatively tame until the last 20 years. Built in 1931, the Empire State Building spent over four decades as the tallest building in the world. In 1973, the title went to the World Trade Center Towers in New York, and then quickly to the Willis Tower in Chicago in 1974.

Skyscraper timerline

Change since has been rapid. Since the early 2000s, Asian countries – China in particular – have acquired the capacity, resources and vision to create competitively tall skyscrapers. The construction of the 452m-tall Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 gave the crown to the Malaysian capital – until Taiwan eclipsed it in 2004 with Taipei 101. Meanwhile, the Gulf states entered the race with buildings such as the Burj Khalifa and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, which looms over the largest mosque in the world.

Now, of the top 20 tallest buildings, four are in the Middle East, four in the US (including the new One World Trade Center), and the remaining 12 spread across Asia, including the twisting Shanghai Tower.

What next for skyscrapers? By 2020 there will be more than 16,000 of them globally, with many more on the way. In London alone, there are 377 ongoing skyscraper projects, with 76 currently under construction; No 1 Undershaft at 290 metres will almost rival the Shard. New York, which still has more skyscrapers than any other city (1,302!), has 329 ongoing projects. Toronto, which already has 480, is planning 281 more.

Interestingly, Hong Kong seems to have run out of enthusiasm – or space: it has just 50 more skyscrapers in the works to join the 806 it already hosts.

Skyscraper skyline, height comparison

As for where the crown goes next, however, there is not that much competition. In China, the proposed H7 Shenzhen Tower will reach 739 metres, while the Signature Tower Jakarta is expected to hit 638 metres. Both come close to the Burj Khalifa, but not close enough.

In Dubai itself, plans are afoot to create what developers believe will be the tallest twinned skyscrapers in the world, as part of the Dubai Creek Harbour development. Another project, Santiago Calatrava’s Dubai Creek Tower, is under construction and aims to be “a notch taller” than the Burj.

By far the biggest and most ambitious skyscraper proposal, however, comes from Saudi Arabia: the Jeddah Tower. When completed in 2020, it will stretch a full 1km high.

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here


Sophie Warnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Inside Shanghai Tower: China's tallest skyscraper claims to be world's greenest
The Shanghai Tower is another in a long list of ambitious skyscrapers competing fiercely for sustainability credentials as well as height. But how ‘green’ are these buildings – and is environmentalism really the motivation?

Helen Roxburgh in Shanghai

23, Aug, 2016 @5:00 AM

Article image
Is Chongqing's 'horizontal skyscraper' the answer to overcrowded cities?
A 42nd-floor ‘skybridge’ in the dazzling Raffles City project could help solve overcrowding – or will it simply let the super-rich escape to the skies?

Helen Roxburgh in Chongqing

04, Jun, 2018 @6:15 AM

Article image
Put us on the map, please: China's smaller cities go wild for starchitecture
From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to the centre of braised chicken reinventing itself as ‘Solar Valley’, China’s second (and third) tier cities are hiring big-name architects to get them noticed

Oliver Wainwright

18, Mar, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Seeing double: is Hangzhou's new construction the Chinese twin towers?
Hangzhou already has a copycat Eiffel Tower, while other cities have versions of Manhattan and Tower Bridge. Now critics say the proposed Zhejiang Gate Towers bear a suspicious resemblance to the destroyed World Trade Centre buildings

Jamie Fullerton in Beijing

24, Jun, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Which is the world's most vertical city?
You might think of Hong Kong, given its famous skyscraper skyline, but by different measures of verticality other cities come out on top

Matthew Keegan

16, Jul, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Plyscraper city: Tokyo to build 350m tower made of wood
The $5.6bn cost of the 70-storey W350 Project is expected to be twice that of a conventional building

Elle Hunt

16, Feb, 2018 @4:08 PM

Article image
Inside Phnom Penh's empty new skyscraper: 'This is only for excellencies'
The Vattanac Capital tower – the tallest building in one of the world’s poorest countries – has an occupancy rate below 30%. Customers at its high-end boutiques are likely to be ‘excellencies’, members of Cambodia’s ultra-rich elite of business tycoons and MPs. So, what is the point of such a building?

Poppy McPherson

17, Jul, 2015 @6:30 AM

Article image
From parasite architects to pseudo-public space: 2017's best Cities stories
The numbers are in for our 15 best-read stories of the year. Now’s the time to check if you missed any – and let us know what you want us to cover in 2018

Elle Hunt

29, Dec, 2017 @7:30 AM

Russian daredevils scale the Shanghai Tower, China's new tallest building
Pair climb 650 metres to top of skyscraper and beyond, giving them an extraordinary view of fast-growing city
• Climbing the Shanghai Tower - in pictures

Jonathan Kaiman

13, Feb, 2014 @7:20 PM

Article image
China's obsession with vertical cities
By the end of next year one-in-three of the world’s 100m+ buildings will be in China, as its state-orchestrated urbanisation drive prompts a megacity building bonanza

Nicola Davison in Shanghai

30, Oct, 2014 @9:54 AM