Tall-building innovation has been driving architectural conversations for centuries. Society has long marveled at structures that brought humanity closer to the heavens. From the time of the construction of the 138-foot-tall Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885 (widely considered the first modern high-rise) to the 2010 opening of Dubai’s 2,723-foot-tall Burj Khalifa, the tallest buildings grew approximately 20 times in just 125 years.
This ambition is both understandable and applaudable. Tall buildings create more value for less land, not only in increased square footage but ideally through less lifecycle resource expenditure. Tall buildings also help address population challenges. According to research from the University of Texas, earth provides around 24.5 million square miles of habitable land, but as the number of people has increased almost five times in the past 100 years, the amount of habitable land has stayed relatively the same. The acreage per person has been reduced by about 80%, from almost 10 acres in 1900 to just over two in 2020.
For those looking to build higher, where has the conversation been focused? Most discussions on high-rise innovation tend to address three areas: conveyance (how one moves up and down), structural design and materials (how a building resists wind and earthquakes), and exterior walls (how energy performance can be improved). Recently, mechanical system efficiency and speed of construction have entered the dialogue. Given the significant impact of each of these factors, it’s no surprise that the design of the building core, a concrete block filled with elevators and shafts, usually demands the most attention.
What is surprising, however, is that these topics remain similar to those that surfaced over a century ago, when technological advancements first enabled society to build higher. The conversation is still rarely around how people — or organizations — stay healthy.
A substantial number of developers and corporations see the future of the built environment as one centered on community. In recent years, buildings such as the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Leadenhall Tower in London and Tencent’s HQ in Shenzen (which includes elevated gardens, porous ground floors and amenity-based sky bridges) emphasized the importance of interaction. Their investigations prompt a powerful question: if high-rises were designed around people — not systems — how would that process begin?
To answer this, it’s important to explore the intersection between the science of buildings and the science of the brain.
Designing high-rises in a people-centric manner requires an active knowledge of how the human brain responds to built environments. The first insight from the cognitive neurosciences is frustrating, however. The human brain reacts to the modern world as if it were still living in the Rift Valley of East Africa, many thousands of years ago.
How is that gap bridged? Humans evolved to be social animals. Relational interactions soon became a crucial part of human survival, a fact that was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. Any building that supports such interactions is likely to be successful.
A second insight occurs in humans’ ability to adapt. Though we appear to be creatures of habit, we actually don’t like being in places that are static. We appreciate experiences that are repetitive enough for simpler navigation, but those spaces must be unique enough to ensure our environment isn’t boring. Though we often hate change, the brain is surprisingly good at it.
In contrast to what benefits the human physiology, tall buildings are comprised of a substantial number of floors that are isolated; massive structures and greater distances from the ground or roof reduce interactions with colleagues, urban experiences and the outdoors. Although the exterior may be dynamic, the tenant experience is often anything but.
Given this context, the following ideas provide insights on how to broaden the dialogue to include innovative thinking for both buildings and human performance.
Spaces to think. Ceiling height influences different types of cognition. According to neuroscience research, a tall ceiling supports divergent thinking, while a compressed ceiling helps us focus on detailed resolution. Skyscraper floors are typically undifferentiated — the repetitive floorplate dictates a repetitive layout under a non-varying ceiling.
At The Net in Seattle — a new 36-story high-rise that recently broke ground — high-volume spaces throughout the building will create unique environments for various modes of creativity. The ground floor offers a 24-foot-high daylit solarium and a range of conditions throughout. The uppermost floor provides 30-foot ceilings for ideation sessions and events that are immediately adjacent to a three-story landscaped park.
Spaces to move. Our ancestors used to walk up to 12 miles a day. In a high-rise, going for a stroll likely requires an inconvenient elevator ride to a small ground-floor lobby that squeezes out onto the sidewalk. Placing egress stairs — usually an artificially lit element buried in the center — next to the exterior wall implores occupants to think twice about how to get from A to B. At The Net, a 36-story stair is adjacent to the elevator bank and occupies part of the façade. A code-required element, the stair now provides benefits to tenants without reducing rentable square footage.
Spaces to learn. Winding paths, plenty of nature and varying types of unpredictable movement are ideal for how we focus and retain information.
Outdoor spaces in tall buildings — if provided at all — tend to be relegated to any roof area that remains after cores and mechanical penthouses are placed. Direct floor access to the outdoors is rare in office projects over 10 stories tall. Stacked atriums that combine natural worlds to discover with verticality are a powerful mixture that can improve cognition. Even simple balconies can provide benefits.
Spaces to comfort. Pandemic-enforced isolation has taken its toll on the mental health of the worldwide workforce. Most tall buildings are limited in their ability to support multiple configurations for diverse work needs, including emotional and mental health. Elevator arrivals tend to occur in the center of the floor, and high-traffic areas like restrooms and service elevators have a large impact on acoustics and privacy. Spaces for refuge are rare.
Can a high-rise building environment aid in addressing mental health? Possibly. To take one short-term example, tall buildings might embed places where tenants could find temporary relief from psychological stress at work (WIRED calls them weeping paths).
At The Net, moving the core from the center of the building creates an open floorplate that is readily reconfigurable based on needs. Instead of being constrained to a single lease depth between the core and the exterior wall, spaces can be more graciously created for arrival and collaboration, and, just as importantly, respite. This footprint allows for different tenants to craft an experience that reflects how they work now and to adjust an experience based on how they need to evolve.
The past 125 years of high-rise dialogue has yielded some remarkable outcomes. Developers, designers, architects, engineers and contractors have collaborated to achieve unbelievable heights on properties that are often smaller than a football field.
High-rises can add value to their inhabitants. They can ignite greater creativity and cognition. Tall buildings can encourage healthier bodies and teams. They can enable individual choice and control for those moments when life and work intersect. Adding an unexpected but unsurprisingly relevant mindset like neuroscience can ensure that, as we build taller in the years to come, the distance between us and the ground does not increase the distance we feel between each other.
Ryan Mullenix is a partner at architecture and design firm NBBJ. Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Urban Visions. Dr. John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine who collaborated on the design of The Net.