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speed of change

Only a few buildings, such as the 830-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, reach above 500 metres, but that could change with the introduction of magnetic levitation elevators.Shawn Baldwin/The New York Times

Elevators aren't generally thought of as innovative, but new developments in magnetic levitation technology have the potential to take buildings – and cities – to new heights.

Germany's ThyssenKrupp AG in June unveiled the first commercial development with its Multi elevator system, which uses technology similar to that found in super-fast magnetically propelled trains. European property developer OVG Real Estate plans to install the system in its East Sider Tower building in Berlin, Germany, with an expected completion in 2019 or 2020.

The system uses magnetic levitation (maglev) to do away with cables, which introduces several benefits, according to ThyssenKrupp. Elevators can go faster (up to 18 metres a second or roughly twice as fast as traditional lifts), take up less space in a building and, because there are no cables, move horizontally. The lack of cables also means there can be multiple elevator cabins in the same shaft.

"People thought we were crazy," says ThyssenKrupp chief executive officer Heinrich Hiesinger, recalling when the company unveiled its maglev elevator plans in 2014. "But it's a much higher flexibility compared to any fixed [cable] solution."

ThyssenKrupp says its system, while more expensive than a traditional elevator installation, takes up less space and thereby gives building developers up to 50 per cent more space to work with. With less square footage devoted to elevators and shafts, there's more floor space that can be sold or rented as living quarters or offices.

ThyssenKrupp also expects Multi to deliver maintenance cost savings, since cabins can be pulled out of shafts individually when they need to be fixed. The rest of the system can keep going, minimizing downtime.

"You have this continuous flow of cars being able to shuttle around the hoist-way," says Patrick Bass, ThyssenKrupp CEO for North America. "If you need to service a car, you pull the car out of the hoist-way, like in a parking garage, so you're not shutting down the whole line."

Mr. Hiesinger, who was in Toronto with Mr. Bass recently, says the company has signed two non-disclosure agreements for potential developments in North America, but he declined to name the building partners.

Industry analysts believe maglev technology has the potential to reshape how buildings are built and therefore how cities are organized.

Eliminating cables means skyscrapers can grow considerably higher, according to Daniel Safarik, editor of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Journal. Only a few buildings, such as the 830-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, currently reach above 500 metres, but that could change.

"Once you go past 200 metres, things start to get exponentially more expensive on a per-floor basis," he says. "Theoretically there is no limit to how far they can travel if they are no longer reliant on ropes to get to their destination."

The ability for elevators to move horizontally could also lead to rethinking building possibilities. Large campuses such as universities and hospitals could use maglev elevators to improve transportation efficiencies between spread-out buildings, while skyscrapers could also use them to connect to each other via sky-bridges.

"Those are the places where you really do need efficient means of transportation between buildings as well as up and down within them," Mr. Safarik says. "We'll have fewer obstacles to building thriving vertical communities."

ThyssenKrupp is indeed thinking horizontally. The company says it is also in talks with cities and airports about building maglev walkways and people movers. Ultimately, horizontal transportation across cities could blend with vertical movement.

"You're starting to blur the lines with the last-mile concept between having connected infrastructure from the city into buildings," says Ryan Wilson, president and CEO of ThyssenKrupp Canada. "You start thinking that these buildings … essentially become cities in themselves."

Thyssenkrupp's biggest competitors in the industry are Otis Elevator Co. (U.S.), Mitsubishi Electric Escalators and Elevators (Japan), Schindler Elevator Corp. (Switzerland) and Kone Oyj (Finland). Mr. Safarik says rivals are tight-lipped about their plans for maglev systems, but adds that he'd be surprised if they weren't also working on them. With the global elevator and escalator market expected to reach $125-billion (U.S.) by 2021, according to Markets and Markets researchers, much is at stake.

He expects maglev elevators to cost two to three times more to install than a traditional cable-based system, but he also agrees with ThyssenKrupp that the lifetime efficiencies will prove worthwhile. In the end, better elevator technology is likely to bring down the cost of building higher.

"That has been one of the largest controlling factors in how tall a building can practically be," he says. "It ruins the economics at a certain point."

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