The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject

In 1854, at a trade fair in New York, Elisha Otis removed his top hat while standing on a moving platform held up by a rope. On his order, a man among the crowd below swung an axe at the rope. The platform began to fall, but Otis had designed a brake to engage automatically, and stop it less than a second later. By proving that lifts could be safe, he had launched the age of the skyscraper.

The first elevators as we know them, installed by Otis in Manhattan a few years later, moved at about half a mile an hour, or 20cm a second – roughly the pace of a grandmother with a hip replacement. But lifts soon got faster, higher and more sophisticated. The quickest in Britain, including those inside the Shard, the tallest building in the UK, now reach hat-raising speeds of seven metres a second, or up to 16mph.

As a global arms race waged by (mostly) men wielding retractable pencils continues, buildings get ever higher, requiring faster lifts. The Shard's lifts are glacial compared with those that catapult passengers up Taipei 101 in Taiwan at 17 metres per second, or 38mph. But this world record will soon be broken. In 2016, two lifts inside a new skyscraper in the Chinese city of Guangzhou will top 20 metres per second, or 45 mph.

If the sky is not the limit for building design, then what is? And how fast can lifts go? The answer, in short, is as fast as you can bear. Fairground thrill seekers happily travel at 100mph on "drop tower" rides. But latte-toting office workers and penthouse high-rollers demand to be whisked rather than dropped. Comfort is the priority, which means silence and a sense not so much of ascending or descending but something approaching teleportation.

"Above 12 metres per second you get into real problems with your ears," says David Scott, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, and a structural engineer at Laing O'Rourke. Modern lift cars are sealed and work like aircraft, automatically pressurising and depressurising to reduce the effects of altitude change. "The limit on how fast you'll be able to go is the limit at which your ears can adjust," Scott adds.

Speed and height create headaches, too, for engineers. Brakes that we can trace back to Otis's invention must now work like those of the most advanced super cars to bring speed down rapidly without leaving stomachs behind. Reinforced rope is now replacing steel cables, meanwhile, saving tons in weight. Computers control speed, and the distribution of lifts across shafts. Many now have two decks.

  Tall order: the 127m-high National Lift Tower in Northampton Tall order: the 127m-high National Lift Tower in Northampton (Alamy)
Richard Taylor is a British engineer and the boss at Taylor Lifts, based in Nottingham. He works regularly at the National Lift Tower in Northampton. The 127m tall structure, opened in 1982, was designed to test lift technology and train other engineers. "Twenty metres per second is a ridiculous speed," Taylor says. "Imagine a bullet shooting out of a gun. A lift shaft is like the barrel and at that speed you're moving a lot of air – you've got to have somewhere for it to go."

Winds such as those felt on London Underground platforms can make skyscrapers breezy places, while buffeting could shake cars like space-shuttle cockpits. "Higher-speed elevators have aerodynamic spoilers on the top and bottom," says Santeri Suoranta, director of high-rise platforms at Kone, the company behind the Shard's lifts. "They guide the air around the cabin so that the noise level is low and the ride is smooth and nice."

Unexpected challenges sometimes arise. In the Middle East, the regular call to prayer of office workers requires lifts designed to cope with sudden surges in demand. Speed can help. But away from the rarefied race to the heavens, where lift companies make losses on one-off designs in return for prestige, the challenges are more grounded.

"The UK market is quite different to the rest of the world," says Taylor, whose work mainly concerns council blocks, hospitals and low-rise offices (lifts in these buildings make up more than 95 per cent of the market, he adds). "Average speeds at this level are between one and 1.6 metres per second for councils. Offices are generally 2.5 to 3.5 metres per second."

After Otis, Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect, remains the foremost skyscraper visionary. The design of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world's tallest building, is said to have been inspired by Wright's The Illinois, a mile-high tower that would have been almost twice as tall. Designed in 1956, it was never built but presented as a statement of what might be achieved. It includes 76, quintuple-decker lifts. Their speed? 60mph. We're almost there.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
The spider makes its break for freedom
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

    £27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Customer Support Technician

    £15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Waterlooville based softwa...

    Ashdown Group: C# Developer - (C#, VB.Net, SQL, Git, TDD)

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Developer (C#, VB & ASP.Net, SQL Server, TSQL) - Pe...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Executive - OTE £30,000

    £16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Salary: £16k - £20k Dependant o...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot