Tall order: the 127m-high National Lift Tower in Northampton

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 (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.