Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Tall is Too Tall

Photograph by Declan McCullagh Photography.

We often say that we should follow the biological examples set forth by nature when we design. But what happens when our ambitions are greater than the limits of natural design? Take the height of a tree for example - in many cases, the taller the tree, the more energy it can harvest. Since trees naturally grow close to one another, they need to grow vertically to reach the sun amidst it's neighbors. The taller the tree grows, the more access to life-giving sunlight it has. However, any successful quest for the sun would surely be folly - and nature knows it. At the upper limits of a trees structural and functional capacity there is a point where the need for more height becomes obsolete. Growing taller would mean too much energy is invested in moving water from the roots to the upper branches and leaves. The quest for height is counteracted by the physical limits of the trees natural capabilities and thus, an upper limit is reached.

Coastal Redwoods via Coastal Care.

The tallest tree now generally accepted as the tallest living is a 379.1 ft (115.56 m) Coast Redwood in Redwood National Park, California. The height of the Coast Redwood Tree is within the upper limits of a trees natural boundary. Any taller, and the energy required to function would be too great to validate it's successful existence. What are the upper limits of buildings?

The Burj Khalifa.

The tallest building in the world is the
Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. It measures 2,717 ft (828 m) tall. The building, designed by Skidmore Owings Merrill, is undeniably a marvel of modern design and construction. The sheer enormity of the structural, mechanical, and planning needs of a building this tall alone warrant it's status as one of humankinds greatest achievements. The structural system of the building was an elegant solution to excessive height. According to Gulf News:
"To support the unprecedented height of the building, the engineers developed a new structural system called the ‘buttressed core', which consists of a hexagonal core reinforced by three buttresses that form the ‘Y' shape. This structural system enables the building to support itself laterally and keeps it from twisting."
The strength of this revolutionary system allowed the engineers to add more floors than building was originally designed for. The building will apparently also use solar power to heat 140,000 litres of water a day for use in residential and commercial use in the tower. However, the building still consumes a massive amount of resources to operate. Consider the comparison by The Red White and Green:
  • Water: Around 250,000 gallons of water a day
  • Electricity: At peak times, roughly 40,000 kilowatts — the equivalent of 500,000 100-watt light bulbs burning at the same time
  • Raw materials: Nearly 40,000 tons of steel — enough to stretch a quarter of the way around the earth if laid end to end
  • Wasted space: The upper 30+ floors are so tiny, they can only be used for storage.
The building is an enormous achievement of excess. Beautiful and terrifying.

But can they become bigger without some type of radical new technology? Can a building of that size exist without consuming more than it takes to operate? Give back even?

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

A building twice the size of the Burj Khalifa boasts of the idea of reaching for the gods - a true Tower of Babel. A feat that surely will be attempted, and probably even achieved some day. But like the tree before it, will it do something for humanity, the earth, or for something else altogether - our ego and physically awe-inspiring proof of our dominion over this planet. Will the world be better with it, than without it? That's what nature knows. and is trying to tell us. It only allows for something to exist when that something is a both a benefit to itself and everything else around it.

Inspired by What is a Tree's Maximum Possible Height as seen on i09.

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