Mridul Sharma, a 27-year-old political analyst, lives with a roommate in a condo near the top of a 45-storey tower in City Place. Their unit is next to one of the four elevators, so they’ve worked out a life hack to deal with the wait times. One will run out, push the button, and then go back to the apartment to finish getting ready to leave.
Sometimes, the wait can run up to 10 minutes if they’re leaving during a morning or evening rush. Mr. Sharma says he’s basically adjusted his habits so as to avoid the vertical traffic jams. “You’re not even thinking about it, but you know you’re doing it,” he observes, noting the crowds that gather in the lobby to board the tower’s four lifts, at least one of which is usually out of service. “There’s literally a line-up most of the day.”
Nor is waiting the only problem. In theory, residents can use the stairs, but for security reasons, they can only exit on their own floors (with a key fob) or at the ground level, which means even getting to the party room or the fitness room requires a trip on the elevator. And if you’re high up, as Mr. Mridul is, climbing the stairs is pretty much out of the question.
The pandemic and social distancing requirements revealed the problems with high-rise elevators, yet residents of Greater Toronto’s increasingly tall towers have long known about the chronic maintenance issues, delays and other headaches, like getting trapped for almost an hour, as happened to Mr. Mridul on his way to work earlier this week.
“I think the issue of the dependency of residents in very tall buildings on the elevator system is a very important one with respect to quality of life, safety and health,” says University of Toronto engineering professor Eric Miller, an expert on regional transportation planning. He adds that the “non-trivial” waits likely add to the amount of time it takes apartment dwellers to reach their destinations, a key metric in transportation planning.
Now, as the City of Toronto moves to approve an entirely new generation of so-called “super-talls,” the issue of elevator adequacy is likely to, well, rise to the surface of the planning debate. For example, the provincial government last week unveiled a much higher density plan for midtown, which allows developers to add an additional 700 storeys on projects planned for the Yonge and Eglinton area. Another major application, at Yonge and Steeles, calls for several towers up to 50 storeys. And many of the point towers in the development pipeline downtown will rise to 70 storeys or higher; one planned for Balmuto and Bloor will be 94 floors.
“I don’t think people talk enough about the elevator situation,” says lawyer April Engelberg, who ran for council last fall in Fort York-Spadina and canvassed in dozens of tall buildings. “But it’s definitely a deterrent for people to live in the super high rises.”
On tight development sites with small floor plates, the question of elevator capacity often comes down to a zero-sum game: more elevator shafts, which are common area conveniences, mean less saleable floor space.
High-rise architect Richard Witt, a principal at BDP Quadrangle who is active on the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, points out that technologically advanced elevators, which move at high speeds – 20 metres a second – and are optimized using smart dispatch systems, have become increasingly common. Modern office buildings can be fitted out with double-decker elevators or elevators that can shift horizontally between shafts using mag-lev technology.
These systems have been created by the handful of global elevator giants – firms like Otis, Thyssen Elevator, KONE and Schindler. The industry generates tens of billions of dollars in sales every year, with most of the largest players also earning hefty maintenance fees.
While such brands are extremely common in condo point towers, those systems tend to be more basic. In a tower with only 10 to 12 units a floor, the economics of an expensive or state-of-the-art system, like those found in new office towers, tend not to work.
There are some design tweaks that can ameliorate elevator headaches. Mr. Witt, for instance, is working on a Cortel Group project, the 60-storey CG Tower in Vaughan, Ont., which is constructed in four increasingly narrow segments. To make the servicing more efficient, his design creates separate lifts for the parking, situates the amenity rooms half way up and provides elevator service to dedicated sets of floors, as is done in many office towers.
Strangely, there are no standards that determine the minimum elevator capacity in a tower of any height, beyond a building code requirement that there must be one service elevator. Mr. Witt says the industry used to work with an informal rule of thumb – one elevator per 10 floors. Now, he adds, the calculus is “more complicated” and tends to be outsourced to specialists. (One of the leading local practitioners, Jonathan Soberman, declined an interview.)
The question of standards has come up before. In 2018, Ontario’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) released a 78-page “elevator availability” report (see sidebar) written by Justice Douglas Cunningham as part of a legislative effort to address concerns about service and reliability. Among his recommendations: that all new buildings be fitted out with enough elevators to serve peak period traffic, with those figures based on a transparent standard developed by an organization like the Canadian Standards Association.
He also called for the use of traffic studies for elevators serving high-rises, not unlike those required by municipal planners as part of their due diligence on development applications. “A standard approach to traffic analyses will ensure appropriate elevator capacity at the time of construction,” Justice Cunningham wrote. (The report’s recommendations, which responded in part to a private member’s bill, didn’t turn into policy.)
Phil Staite, who heads the Canadian Elevator Contractors Association and runs one of Greater Toronto’s long-established firms, Markham-based Quality Allied Elevator, says that Justice Cunningham’s proposal for elevator traffic studies is long overdue. “You can have a great building with a great view, but it’s under elevated.”
The maintenance problems that afflict many high-rises, he explains, are due to inadequate upkeep, increasingly complex technology that breaks down and the high level of usage in very tall buildings with hundreds of units but only a handful of lifts. “The elevators are overloaded,” Mr. Staite says. He adds a warning: “If you’re talking about all these buildings going [up] and you put them in without enough elevators, then you’ve got a problem.”
For his part, Mr. Sharma would like to see more buildings emulate what was done at One Bloor East, the city’s first super-tall, and the home of some friends. It has about twice the number of elevators as his own building, and they each serve banks of floors instead of the entire tower. “It just manages the crowd well,” he says. “On my experience, I’ve realized that it’s way smoother.”
Sidebar: Elevator scrutiny
According to the Technical Standards and Safety Authority’s (TSSA) 2018 report by Justice Douglas Cunningham, there are about 20,000 elevators in Ontario, serving some 10,000 buildings, providing about 655,000 trips a day. Many are aging, he observed, while rapid development raised a number of issues, including worker safety, accessibility, downtimes, maintenance, regulation, the availability of mechanics and contractor industry concentration.
While industry surveys reported to Justice Cunningham’s taskforce claimed that elevators were, on average, available for more than 95 per cent of the time, he nonetheless observed a lack of baseline standards. “Despite the current construction boom, builders have no formal obligation from the Building Code or other mechanisms to invest in elevator capacity to a common standard.”
The report made 19 recommendations, including regular and consistent reporting on elevator maintenance, preventative maintenance that complies with safety standards, improved data collection and training by the TSSA (which regulates elevators) and mandatory notification by property managers to fire departments when an elevator has been out of service for more than 24 hours.
Ontario’s Auditor General in 2018 also highlighted the TSSA’s inability to persuade the large elevator firms to address chronic maintenance problems following revelations that 80 per cent of lifts failed their TSSA inspections.
The TSSA last year unveiled new regulations requiring building owners and licensees to upload information about “outages” to a publicly accessible data portal.