Denser cities with ever-taller towers have made lift manufacturers’ businesses shoot up. But will pandemic woes and people fleeing to suburbs bring the trade to a juddering stop? No, say the key players, but do expect button-free rides and lifts that know where you are going as soon as you enter a building. We investigate the mobility giant and the ups and downs of its world.
Want to know whether an office tower’s lift system is up to speed? Visit at noon and look for queues. “The biggest problem is lunch break,” says Silvio Napoli, chairman of Swiss elevator manufacturer Schindler. In recent years, more flexible hours (more so post-pandemic) mean that workers trickle in across the morning and head home throughout the evening – but sandwich time hasn’t changed. “Suddenly, come noon, everyone wants to have lunch and if you’re in a building with the wrong lift it’s a disaster,” says Napoli.
Schindler, along with its rivals – including Finland’s Kone, Japan’s Hitachi and Mitsubishi, Otis from the US and Germany’s TK Elevator (formerly known as ThyssenKrupp) – is in the business of zipping folks up to the heavens and back down to Earth. Whether servicing shopping centres, carparks or hotels, the key is to be as efficient as possible, in terms of the elevator’s speed, physical footprint and energy usage. And when it’s crunch time – multiple flights arriving at the airport at once; a company-wide fire drill – it must rise to the occasion.
Lifts are a quiet, omnipresent force in our lives. We talk often about the last-mile problem (in the context of online deliveries and public transit) but rarely about the 100-metre dash. Yet for most urbanites, lifts are responsible for the first and last trips of our days – and many in between. They’re a place where you can have a quiet moment or pitch a big idea; a site of sexual tension or awkward small talk. And few things are more frustrating than watching the clock tick in anticipation of those doors dinging open.
They’re also a mammoth business: the global elevator market brought in about $123bn (€102bn) in 2020 and is expected to increase by about 6 per cent annually in the coming years, according to Statista. China accounts for more than 60 per cent of global demand, says Napoli; residential towers house about 60 per cent of the world’s lifts; and lifts need renovating at least every 20 years. In 2020 the revenue for Otis, one of the biggest players, was just shy of $13bn (€10.7bn).
Some 160 years after Otis installed the world’s first public lift in New York’s Haughwout Department Store in 1857, elevators have become ever more ubiquitous as cities grow taller, populations get older and more people live in apartments rather than suburban family homes. But the pandemic, by driving some people from cities and making us all hygiene-obsessed, has added some plateaus to their upwards journey.
“If you’re in a six-star hotel, then you’d want that elevator to have lots of different materials and stonework. But that can be quite heavy. How do you balance the capacity for people versus dead weight?”
When planning a development, lifts are “absolutely at the forefront of your thinking,” says Simon Swietochowski. He’s the development director at Sellar, the London property developer whose cloud-piercing projects include The Shard, with its 95 storeys and 49 lift cars. “At the outset, before you’ve thought about what the architecture looks like, you’re planning the basics,” he says. That includes lifts because they “take up such a huge amount of space”.
At issue is how much real estate to set aside given that, commercially speaking, lifts and shafts are dead space. There are formulas based on a building’s number of inhabitants and floors, and, says Swietochowski, the general principle in the UK is that no one should be waiting more than 30 seconds for a lift. For skyscrapers, sophisticated elevator models will be debated. They include the double-decker (two lifts stacked on top of one another); the twin system (two separate lifts in one shaft); and a newfangled option, TK Elevator’s Willy Wonka-esque “Multi” (magnetised cars that move sideways as well as vertically). “All this is about moving people as quickly as possible in as small an amount of space as possible – that leaves more space for other exciting things in a building,” says Swietochowski.
In 2021, talk is turning to hygiene. “You’re stuck in a box with lots of people. How do you make that safe?” says Bryant Lu, vice-chairman of Hong Kong interior design firm Ronald Lu & Partners.
How fast can a lift go? A handful in Asia reach speeds of more than 15 metres per second. The record-holder, a Hitachi lift in Guangzhou’s 95-storey ctf Finance Center, registers a lightning-quick 21 metres per second. While good for bragging rights, top speed is not overly important, says Kone ceo Henrik Ehrnrooth, given that it’s rare for an elevator to travel long without stopping. And if a lift exceeds 10 metres per second, especially on the way down, it creates an uncomfortable build up of pressure in our ears. Yet there’s always room for tweaks on smoothness of acceleration and deceleration – something traditionally tested by placing a coin on the handrail and ensuring that it doesn’t fall during a trip.
Cutting-edge air-filtration systems are already in use: after passengers exit, the lift “purges” the air by pushing it through filters and a uv-c light. Beyond this, firms are exploring options for touchless rides so that users needn’t push dirty buttons, whether that’s through lift-hailing apps, Kone’s “up” or “down” foot pedals, or voice-control technology. Some of these systems were already used in hospitals and military compounds, says Napoli, but are now being rolled out in offices and residential blocks. He describes a Minority Report-like future where, on entering a lobby, the elevator recognises you, via your phone or watch, and promptly whooshes you up to your floor, no questions asked (in some places, this is already a reality).
Schindler is also using technology to try to monetise the elevator trip. There’s “no reason why” the car shouldn’t be a site for commerce, says Napoli. He wonders whether, via its cloud system, passengers could in the future order ride shares and other things while zooming through the air; Schindler already has a patented technology – the “AdScreen” – for beaming ads from elevator walls. “No one stays in the lift more than a minute, so it has to be a very short, snappy message.”
Of greater concern is how to make lifts “smarter”. Many already run on connected systems that enable them to anticipate where traffic will be coming from and park accordingly (halfway up the building at lunchtime, for instance). And, with sustainability a major concern, there’s an emphasis on intelligent energy-conserving lifts that try to avoid single-person journeys wherever possible and operate at different speeds depending on how many passengers are on board.
Modern systems can be reprogrammed depending on who needs a ride, says Henrik Ehrnrooth, a Finn who’s the ceo of Kone. “If you own a residential building and you get a visually impaired person, you can turn on the ‘Blind Square service’,” he says. Or if a hospital recruits a fleet of robots to distribute equipment – an increasingly common practice – elevators can be programmed to interact with the droids. “Every time you have a change of tenants, you change the elevators’ algorithm,” says Ehrnrooth.
Although today’s elevators are far less grand than the art deco designs of the early 20th century, when a lift ride was an occasion, there is room for sharp designs – especially in Asia, where lifts are slicker and roomier with higher ceilings. Yet there are unique concerns. “If you’re in a six-star hotel, then you’d want that elevator to have lots of different materials and stonework,” says Lu. “But that can be quite heavy. How do you balance the capacity for people versus dead weight?” He says that, with everyone glued to their phones, the major considerations for the elevator experience – both waiting area and inside the car – are smell, lighting, ambience, temperature and good mobile reception.
A bigger worry than sweet perfumes are the doomsayers proclaiming that the pandemic will cause a long-term decline in city populations as people work remotely from the countryside. Could this halt the industry’s ascent? “People living in cities are really the big driver for us so of course we’ve been thinking about that,” says Ehrnrooth. “You might not be moving to the biggest city but instead to satellite cities nearby and then going into the office for, say, three days,” he says. “So it might look a little bit different but we don’t expect that this will slow urbanisation overall.”
Another factor is that more people in the West are living alone – more than 40 per cent of Swedish households contain one person; in the UK, it will be half – as family formation happens later than for previous generations. “Where do you want to live when you’re by yourself or just with one other person? Close to services. That’s why the trend in most countries is that the volume of single- family homes being built is still very small compared to apartment blocks in cities,” says Ehrnrooth.
The flipside of fewer young families is that the world’s population is ageing – and lifts are a lifeline for older folks. In China, three million elevators are currently being retrofitted in dated, walk-up apartments by installing shafts along the sides of buildings. “It’s an opportunity to give mobility to people, particularly those born in the baby boom in the 1960s,” says Christopher Smith, Otis’s vice-president of marketing and product strategy. Meanwhile, Ehrnrooth points to France’s 2019 edict that all buildings with three or more floors now require an elevator; as well as having welfare merits, he sees this policy as economically sound. “The longer elderly people can stay in their homes, the better for society, because it’s cheaper than care homes,” he says
When it comes down to it, though, making the case for lifts goes hand in hand with making the case for cities: you can’t have a thriving metropolis without these strange metal cabins to spirit you up to the apartments, offices and rooftop bars. It’s a big responsibility for an innovation that most of us never think about. “Lifts are these hardworking, behind-the-scenes systems essential to our built environment,” says Lu. “They’re unsung heroes.”
History of lifts:
236 BC: First elevator is invented by ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes; it is attached to ropes wound around a drum that is rotated using manpower. In ancient Rome, the Colosseum has lifts that ferry gladiators and animals from underground rooms into the arena.
1857: First commercial passenger elevator – a steam-powered model – is installed at Haughwout Department Store, a Manhattan emporium selling silverware, chandeliers, cut glass and china.
1880: Electric elevators invented by German Werner von Siemens.
1905: The world’s first vehicle elevator opens in Paris to move cars up and down a multistorey carpark. In recent years, Elon Musk’s Boring tunnel company has deployed car elevators to get vehicles into its test tunnel.
1922: Music company Muzak creates soothing tunes to be played on a loop in elevators. Today “elevator music” or “muzak” refers to the genre of background music played in shops, lifts and lobbies.
1990s: The term “elevator pitch” is reportedly coined when Michael Caruso, a Vanity Fair editor, starts presenting his story ideas to the magazine’s editor in chief Tina Brown in the lift.
2016: German elevator pioneer ThyssenKrupp creates “Multi”, a technology to move people vertically and horizontally through buildings.
2019: The world’s fastest elevator, developed by Hitachi, is installed in the Guangzhou ctf Finance Center in China. In carrying passengers from the ground to the hotel lobby, the lift rises 95 floors over 440 metres in 42 seconds.
2050: Tokyo-based construction firm Obayashi Corporation aims to build the first “space elevator” by 2050 to send cargo into the cosmos.