In Schindler’s HQ, in the Zürich suburb of Ebikon, you do not have to wait long for an elevator. And each one boasts a distinctive interior. The first is clad in smoked-glass tiles, inset with LED screens providing live feeds of soothing Alpine views; a second is lined in spruce and oak, hewn into impressive pediments, cornices and curlicues. The third, all prosaic chipboard and duct-tape, initially seems very boutique-hotel grunge-chic. Not so, says Schindler’s communications director Jonas Hughes. “This one is being renovated‚” he smiles.
Indeed there could be few more apposite illustrations for both Schindler’s prominence in the elevator market and the essentially quotidian nature of its product. Schindler is one of the world’s five manufacturers of elevators and escalators, along with Mistubishi, Japan, Otis Elevator Company in the US, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp, and Kone, Finland (see box, right). More than 900 million people ride a Schindler product every day, and in 2008 the firm is expected to post net profits of around €387m – its best-ever result.
Mechanical hoists date back at least as far as Archimedes’ time, and the elevator basics – car, sheave, rope, counterweight – have remained the same since Elisha Graves Otis invented the safety brake in 1853. But this humble conveyance, along with the steel frame, has been instrumental in shaping today’s urban landscape. Without the elevator, there would be no skyscrapers and their attendant densities of economic productivity and cultural dynamism. Thirty million elevator trips are made every day in New York alone. But now the tiger economies of Asia and the Gulf are ushering in a new era of skyscraper-building, and setting new challenges for the elevator companies in what they call “traffic management”.
“China is our fastest-growing market by a long stretch,” says Hughes. “McKinsey [Global Institute] has predicted that, over the next 17 years, 240 million people are going to move into Chinese cities and that the urban populations will reach 350 million. So the clamour is to build bigger and higher. In Europe, high-rise means 20 storeys whereas in China, it is 40 to 50 and rising. Our products have to adapt to meet these new needs.”
In this frenetic environment, thresholds are being surpassed with dizzying speed. The world’s tallest building, the Taipei 101 Tower, has the fastest elevators in the world, rising at around 17 metres a second, that is 56.35 km/h (the cars are pressurised, to prevent ear damage). Burj Dubai, which will assume the World’s Tallest Building mantle when it opens next year, will contain 58 elevators, including two double-deckers that will shoot straight to the top of its 160-plus floors (its exact height is being kept secret until completion). Schindler supplied more than 175 elevators and escalators for Beijing’s Olympic Park and “Bird’s Nest” stadium and it is installing 63 more in the China World Trade Center Tower 3, which, at 74 storeys, will be Beijing’s tallest building on completion next year. In addition it is providing a further 83, including 40 double-deckers, for the International Commerce Centre (ICC), the 118-floor edifice that will be Hong Kong’s tallest building when it opens in 2010. “These prestige projects are sort of like our haute couture, a chance to show what we can do,” says Hughes.
There are many words that may spring to mind when contemplating an elevator ride, “delight” not being chief among them. For a facility that those in the industry like to refer to as “the heart of a building”, the elevator is largely seen as a necessary evil at best, an endurance test at worst, an image not ameliorated by various disaster-movie plummets and protracted between-floor breakdown stories told with the wide-eyed relish of urban myths. (For the record, in 1945 a B-25 bomber crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, snapping the hoist and safety cables of two elevators, sending them into freefall. Luckily, it was non-fatal and is the only instance of this ever happening.)
The success of any elevator system is judged by how well it deals with what is called “up-peak handling” – the percentage of a building’s population making successful journeys in five minutes or under at peak times. Thirteen to 17 per cent is considered a reasonable aim. For most elevator users, however, the all-important metric is the frequency of service and the waiting time. In a standard western office building, the interval needs to be below 30 seconds, and the waiting time to be about 60 per cent of that, otherwise people get agitated.
“It all comes down to psychology rather than logic,” says John Mizon, a Schindler vice-president and self-confessed elevator evangelist. “What people want is early acknowledgement, and the illusion of control.”
In the past, this was an inexact science, relying on such tropes as the “arrival immediate prediction lantern”, where a “next car” light goes on as soon as an up or down button is pressed (though in reality, says Mizon, this degraded rather than enhanced the system, by reducing flexibility and, thus, efficiency). Similarly, if the “door-close” button is pressed from inside a lift and does not actually work, it acts as a kind of passenger irritation valve.
A more effective means of rationalising elevator efficiency has been the Schindler-pioneered concept of “destination dispatch” (or, as they prefer to call it, “advanced assignment”). This assigns passengers to an elevator according to which floors they are going to, thus obliging each car to stop at as few floors as possible. This has been aided by the introduction of “sky lobbies” in taller buildings, enabling the splitting of “express” and “local” services.
“Advanced assignment can work with employee barcode IDs,” says Mizon. “A simple swipe, and you’ll be directed to the relevant car. Biometric or iris recognition will be the next step.” The technology, he says, has enabled building plans that couldn’t have been envisaged 50 years ago. “Take the ICC. That’s a prime example of one of the new multi-use buildings; it’s going to contain offices, hotels, shops and apartments, and be a mini-city in itself. What advanced assignment does is cater to all the completely different elevator needs that have to be served by such a building. It can ensure that there’s no public access to the shuttle-cars whisking VIPs to their penthouses, while getting workers to their offices, or diners straight to the 103rd floor restaurant.”
From its experience in the Far East, Schindler has not only learnt about the benefits of advanced assignment, but also the cultural differences when it comes to elevator psychology. In the West, passengers instinctively slot themselves into open spaces in a doomed attempt to preserve the 7 sq ft “no-touch zone” defined by John J Fruin, author of Pedestrian Planning and Design; the standard elevator measure is actually about 2 sq ft per passenger, described by Fruin as “intimate distance, psychologically disturbing for many persons.” The Chinese seem to have fewer qualms.
“In China, you think an elevator’s full to capacity,” says Jonas Hughes. “But then more and more people pile in, and they’ll be laughing and shouting across to their friends in the opposite corner. It’s a very different etiquette.” (However, John Mizon reports that, while personal space is less of an issue, hygiene is important. Many Hong Kong elevator cars have soap dispensers next to the buttons – a legacy of the SARS outbreak – and touch-less systems are in much demand in Asia). Those experiencing “intimate distance” may sometimes find it hard to bear in mind that 70 per cent of the daily elevator journeys made are solo ones.
However, Mizon concedes that there are curbs to the development of elevators. While it is possible for lifts to go faster than the current top speeds, the resultant G-force would make the journey uncomfortable. And while research is ongoing into composite rope designs, if a single elevator climbs much higher than current limits, strain becomes intolerable (Schindler will be installing a service facility in the 484m ICC building).
Constraints aside, Mizon maintains that elevator potential remains largely untapped. “I call the R&D department here DreamWorks,” he grins. “We want to work with architects and developers on their major projects much earlier in the process, so that the elevators are integrated into the building’s scheme, rather than treated as an afterthought.”
An exemplar of this approach, according to Mizon, is the forthcoming Heron Tower, a 46-storey block in the City of London due for completion in 2011, where Schindler has worked with architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox to design the external glass elevators. They’ll give the building the feel of a living, breathing entity, and confer a sense of dynamism, and you’ll get fabulous panoramic views of London as you ride,” he says.
With developments like these, and Schindler receiving orders from wealthy Russians and Arabs for bespoke elevators – lined in Siberian cedar, or clad in gold leaf and marble – it seems that Jonas Hughes’s conjunction of the words “elevator” and “delight” may not be mere drollery. “I think a change in the perception of elevators will come when people see what is possible in these new skyscrapers,” he says. For Schindler, he adds, the future is very much onwards and upwards.
In Mecca the King Abdul Aziz Endowment Project is providing new challenges for Kone, the Finnish lift and escalator manufacturer. The centre includes seven towers: six residential and a seventh that houses a hotel. It is estimated that 60,000 people will live and work here and every day they will travel down in the lifts to pray at the adjacent mosque. And they will all make the journey at the same time – and not just once, but five times a day.
“In 20 years, the amount of cities with 10 million people will have doubled,” says Johannes de Jong, director of Kone’s Major Projects team. “And cities can’t expand, so they need to grow upwards.” But with so few lifts capable of travelling beyond 350m, how are we supposed to get to the top floor of taller buildings without sacrificing speed, safety and comfort? Kone has come up with several solutions to the problem. The simplest is zoning, in which buildings are divided into low, middle and high zones. The number of stops is reduced and the lifts move faster.
Kone is coupling this solution with “hall call destination dispatching”, where you choose your destination and wait to be assigned to a lift where everyone wants to travel to the same destination. Then there are double-decker lifts and shuttle elevators that only serve certain floors.
One aspect of the lift business that is often overshadowed by the technology is design. By hiring design director Anne Stenros, Kone is doing its bit to change that. “This is a very traditional business. Design has more or less been about choosing colours and components that work,” says Stenros. “Now, we’ve harmonised our products so that they are recognisable.” Stenros likens lift design to fashion. “It’s like Giorgio Armani has said: the difference between style and fashion is quality. With lifts, you have to find your style,” she says.
Top five annual lift sales
- Otis: €7.64bn
- Schindler: €5.48bn
- ThyssenKrupp: €5.28m
- Kone (including escalators and moving walkways): €4m
- Mitsubishi (total sales for electronic sector): €5.14m