February 15, 2021

The Failing Windows of the Shangri-La & the Foreboding of the Supertalls

Ever wondered what  is a “supertall building” and  how that differs from a “megatall” tower?

The Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat classify a “supertall” as a building more than 300 meters high. Double that number and you have “megatalls”, anything over 600 meters.

The tallest building in the City of Vancouver is the Shangri-La which has 62 storeys and 201 meters in vertical height, Completed in 2009, that building is not having happy strata meetings as reported by Joanne Lee-Young of the Vancouver Sun.  A Westbank development built by Ledcor it appears there is some heat stress fractures in the windows that can cause the windows to instantaneously  shatter, which could be a problem to passing pedestrians or users of the tower’s pool area.

The remedy, replacing all the windows  will cost over 60 million dollars, and a one hundred day court trial on liability is set for October 2021.

But that may be small change to pay for a luxurious address, as Stefanos Chen reports in The New York Times. New York City’s 432 Park Avenue  building is so tall it needed approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The 426 meter tower 432 Park Avenue in New York City has had six years of occupancy and a host of million dollar problems. These include “millions of dollars of water damage from plumbing and mechanical issues; frequent elevator malfunctions; and walls that creak like the galley of a ship — all of which may be connected to the building’s main selling point: its immense height.”

The building which sold out at 3.1 billion American dollars has a 96 floor penthouse that sold for 88 million dollars.The clientele of this building are the type that want to conserve their real estate equity but at the same time get the nasty problems fixed.

The developers exploited a loophole to get such a tall building~they installed many “mechanical floors”, which are not counted into a building’s allowable floor space high up in the tower. Indeed those mechanical floors  count for one quarter of the building’s height. Those mechanical rooms are also  responsible for several broken water feeds and a water line failure which rendered half of the building’s elevators useless.

But it is the weather dynamics of taller buildings and how it plays out in a supertall tower that is  interesting. Towers do flex in the wind, and they can cause elevator cables to bang, trapping occupants inside.  And like a hull of a sailing ship under sail, the walls groan as the building sways, and air whistles around door openings and elevator shafts. Counterweights are installed in walls to dampen that sway. But you can imagine the structure’s noise and internal wind can be disconcerting to residents.

Unlike Vancouver’s Shangri-La that has cleared a path forward to sue the developer and the contractor, 432 Park  increased strata fees 40 per cent two years ago and still saw  building insurance costs triple in two years.  Two incidents of water damage cost the strata owners 9.7 million dollars in one year, thankfully covered by insurance.

There are further strata owner costs to cover a private restaurant which was a selling feature. That culinary perk cost strata owners $1,200 annually six years ago; now that cost is $15,000.

In a building that is not permanently inhabited year round, 40 percent of owners commissioned a study of what was happening to the structure of the  building. The study showed that 73 percent of mechanical, electrical and plumbing components observed failed to conform with the developers’ drawings, and that almost a quarter “presented actual life safety issues.”

You can read a more annotated version of the problems with 432 Park Avenue in this article from Surface magazine. As Ryan Waddoups coyly observes “If you missed the damning New York Times exposé of what it’s like to live in Manhattan’s 432 Park Avenue, you’re in for gleeful schadenfreude

The executive director of Landmark West! a preservation group stated “I was in architecture school on 9/11. We watched the towers fall. There were all sorts of symposiums and public statements that we’re never going to build [that] tall again. All we’ve done in the 20 years since is build even taller.”  

The two YouTube videos below showcase NYC’s 432 Park Avenue as the tallest residential building, and the penthouse of Vancouver’s  Shangri-La which sold in the twenty million dollar range.

Images:Skyscrapercentral wikipedia

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  1. Do you know of any studies that looked at the long term costs of tall buildings to their respective cities versus the costs of say 6-8 stories thru-out a city?

  2. I am very much looking forward to the day when developers and Starchitects adopt a more humble approach to design by readopting the principles of form following function and sustainability. Vancouver is now becoming prone to silly designs, such as the two proposed tree like buildings in Downtown and the vertical caterpillar like building near south Granville . Just because we can make these buildings structurally able to withstand earthquakes it doesn’t mean we should slavishly follow the ego driven icons of those in the Gulf States. Interesting that the above depictions that include the Latest from Bjerknes. How can a building facade that appears to be 90% glass ever pretend to respect the limit to earths energy resources? Bjerknes Vancouver House at south Granville was granted extra height because it was to be an iconic gateway structure. But conditional on first class architecture, sustainable design and a compatible form with the skyline. The sustainable design was to include district heating. Not there yet. And the truncated flat roof is anything but compatible with the skyline. I think he did well to design the form to take into account the proximity of the Granville ramp but it did result in a structural penalty and a massive stabilizing foundation which resulted in a lot of excavated and dumped fill in the ocean and mega concrete induced green house gases over and above a more convention design. As I say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. That includes silly designs like the New York Park Avenue building.

  3. How about seismic safety? A magnitude 9 earthquake is overdue on the west coast. How does the BC Building Code stand up? Vancouver Building Code? The safety of old, standing buildings is one issue. But what about the hundreds of towers proposed and built by Westbank and other developers in the past 20 years, endorsed by Vancouver engineering and planning staff and approved by our elected officials? It is a matter of public safety how these new towers of 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 storeys are designed to perform in a minor or major earthquake. Has the current technology been proven to withstand an actual earthquake? Our elected officials may not be seismic experts, but since they have the power to approve or reject, they take the final responsibility when they approve the towers. Videos from Japan show how tall towers in Tokyo swayed widely to absorb the shock of March 2011 quake. They are built with steel girders. In Vancouver, towers are built with reinforced concrete pillars and sheer walls. Who is looking out for public safety here? Reference reading. “B.C. earthquake threatens Vancouver buildings | The Province” Gordon Hoekstra via https://spencerchandraherbert.ca/news/b-c-earthquake-threatens-vancouver-buildings-the-province/

    1. I take comfort in the fact that tall buildings have actually done quite well in large earthquakes including buildings built with reinforced concrete in Japan and Chile. Very tall reinforced concrete buildings were tested by an 8.8 earthquake in Chile and came through with minimal damage.

  4. Buildings are designed for life safety, which mean that they will remain standing and you can get out. It does not mean that it will remain habitable – so beware of crazy asymmetrical designs that will sway and torque unevenly in a big quake.

    Side note: I had business meetings at First Canadian Place in Toronto 20 years ago, and the steel frame of the office tower creaked heavily in the strong (winter) winds. The offices were about halfway up the 72 storey tower (office ceiling heights) which has floorplates (31,000 sq ft) double the size of Vancouver floorplates (TD Tower 16,000 sq ft) – so a pretty fat structure.

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