Tall buildings: A future-forward solution to limited land

29 May 2023 Editorial Team

Over the past two decades, India’s major cities have undergone a remarkable transformation, resulting in a dramatic reshaping of the country’s skyline. While cities possess unique urban identities, they are becoming increasingly similar in appearance world over. A modern glass and steel tower…


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Over the past two decades, India’s major cities have undergone a remarkable transformation, resulting in a dramatic reshaping of the country’s skyline. While cities possess unique urban identities, they are becoming increasingly similar in appearance world over. A modern glass and steel tower in Singapore would not seem out of place amid the tall buildings of Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex, highlighting the globalised architectural trends that transcend geographical boundaries.

For instance, in recent years, Mumbai’s skyline has undergone a dramatic transformation. The city boasts the highest concentration of tall buildings in India, with over 12,000 structures and more than 200 skyscrapers. It ranks seventh globally in terms of tall buildings density and holds the record for the highest number of planned tall buildings in developmental stages.

Tall buildings provide an optimal solution to the challenge of limited land and property availability, as they allow for vertical accommodation, maximising the efficient use of space.
As Architect Hafeez Contractor says, “High-rise is our survival kit for the future. If we do not start building high-rises in India to provide housing to the population, we will be in big trouble.” (See exclusive interview at the end.)

Revolutionary shift

Technological advancements have brought about a revolutionary shift in the world of architecture and construction.

“In the recent past, the construction of tall and super tall buildings is gaining prominence, especially in dense urban areas and landlocked cities like Mumbai,” comments Yogesh Hate, Associate Director – Development Management, RMZ Corp. “With the construction industry facing multiple challenges in the execution of such structures, it has started opening up to newer technologies.”

Developers are reaping the benefits of cutting-edge corporate technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, robotics automation, analytics for evaluation and transportation, big data, machine learning, and other groundbreaking digital revolution techniques. These advancements empower them to streamline their processes and enhance efficiency.

Going vertical

Tall buildings serve as a necessary and future-forward solution. “Innovations in construction methods, such as system formworks and prefab technology, are being utilised to ensure seamless execution,” asserts Gurjot Bhatia, Managing Director, Project Management – India, SE Asia, Middle East & Africa. “Advanced technologies like building information modelling (BIM) software, high-speed elevators, sustainable glass facades and wind-tunnel testing are being used to design and construct tall buildings. Earthquake-resistant features are also being incorporated in high-rises in India. These trends reflect a growing demand for sustainable, efficient, and community-oriented urban development.”

“The adoption of latest technological advances are crucial for the speedy construction of tall buildings,” says Hate. “With the usage of aluminium formwork, developers and architects are trying to convert most of the internal and external blockwork within the tall buildings into non-structural concrete walls that get cast as a single pour, and the second phase wet works of blockwork, plastering, gypsum punning, etc, are eliminated, resulting in time and cost savings. Use of auto-climbing formwork for the central core of tall buildings helps in taking these structural elements with heavy reinforcement and concrete off the critical path.”

Shyam Seth, Former COO, L&T Realty Ltd shares his experience in saying, “There is a need for a gag which once engaged, should be able to complete the project. Highly skilled people, be it crane operator, formwork team, reinforcement team needs to be engaged until the project is executed. Good quality equipments like high-speed tower cranes, heavy duty pumps, and vertical transportation during the construction phase are very essential. Moreover, planning and selecting the right contractor plays a very important role in executing tall buildings.”

The discovery of the elevator stands as a pivotal factor in enabling the existence of the tall buildings seen today.

However, tall buildings come with their own unique challenges. One significant issue they encounter is wind load, which can cause oscillations and even lead to the collapse of a structure. Lateral forces exerted by wind become increasingly critical as wind speeds tend to rise with altitude, unaffected by the frictional effects of the earth’s surface. Consequently, it becomes paramount to design these structures efficiently to withstand these pressures.

Advanced materials

“Going taller means increasing the number of floors, which directly affects the timeframe of the project,” claims Bhrugu Gangadia, Associate Director, INI Design Studio. “With regular construction methodology, the timeframe will be high. But if steel is used, it will not only reduce timelines but help construction companies achieve faster returns.”

“Advances in materials and design concepts have improved safety and disaster management, while the use of wind turbines and solar panels has driven the adoption of renewable energy,” adds Bhatia.
“Adaptation of elevator installation has also seen major advancements wherein today elevator rails, doors and cabin installation can be initiated even before the building’s top-out which helps in an early finish,” says Hate. “Limiting the quantum of projections and architectural features on the external faces of tall buildings, without sacrificing the design and aesthetical intent, are welcome in reducing the hazardous and time-consuming works on facades. Thus, the usage of EIFS (exterior-insulated facade systems) for any architectural projections and features on exterior faces is gaining popularity.”

“Though not entirely, in the mid-segment of the tall buildings between 40-50 floors, lot of builders are exploring high strength steel and precast steel structures. A lot of modern design parameters have started coming in. Even the shape of the building created by the architects and designers make the building lighter and more wind-efficient. It is a common practice in Europe and the US, wherein the contractors are also involved in the initial design itself. We need to involve the EPC contractors during the initial design phase,” suggests Shyam Setth.

Connecting with the environment

Windows in tall buildings ensure occupant comfort, indoor air quality and energy-efficiency through natural ventilation. This natural airflow helps reduce the reliance on mechanical ventilation systems and provides a connection to the outdoor environment. All buildings have unique design considerations when it comes to window placement and design for ventilation. Factors such as wind patterns, building shape and orientation need to be considered to optimise natural airflow.

“Depending on the height of the building, it can be divided into different zones of wind pressure, as internal testing is almost compulsory nowadays,” observes Vivek Bhole, Chairman & Managing Director, Vivek Bhole Architects. “The building can be segregated into different wind pressure zones and the system can be designed to withstand that pressure.”

Owing to safety concerns and building regulations, not all windows in tall buildings may be operable. Safety features such as window restrictors or sensors can be incorporated to prevent accidental falls or unauthorised openings.

“The window design itself is extremely different if the control is different,” explains Tanmay Tathagat, Director, Environmental Design Solutions. “After a certain height, the wind pressure keeps increasing, so the design of the facade and other openable elements must be done with that consideration. The windows not being operable is because of wind pressure and safety concerns. Globally, there are examples of tall buildings having balconies and openable areas for ventilation, but the ventilation system must be designed for that particular height and location.”

The design and implementation of window-based ventilation strategies in tall buildings require careful consideration of factors like local climate, building design, occupant needs and regulatory requirements. A comprehensive approach that combines natural ventilation with mechanical ventilation systems can ensure a healthy and comfortable indoor environment in tall buildings.

Vertical safety

Despite the increasing number of fire accidents in tall buildings, Mumbai is still looking for answers to fire safety and evacuation measures. The manpower and equipment required to manage such rescue operations have become a challenge for the fire brigade. The main challenge to rescue people from tall buildings is carrying heavy equipment – only the first 50 m of a ladder can be reached with ease. The usual 90-m ladder can give access to the 30th floor but as they go higher, the wind velocity makes it challenging.

“Regulations now require the design and installation of temporary fire-fighting systems in tall buildings during the construction phase itself and this needs to be budgeted, planned and installed to ensure the safety of the property and manpower engaged,” points out Hate.

“Only the joint efforts of citizens and the fire department can make the city fire free,” avers Sanjay Manjrekar, Chief Fire Officer, Mumbai Fire Brigade. “Tall buildings specifically need to have evacuation solutions in place. Accordingly, the ‘fire evacuation lift’ concept was implemented in 2018. This will help self-evacuation of occupants as well as fire-fighters in case of emergencies. An adequate evacuation solution and proper training can save millions of lives.”

To this, Dr Vikram Mehta, Managing Director, SPARTAN Fire Evacuation Lift, adds, “The fire evacuation lift is considered the new PPE [public protection equipment] that reaches on time to evacuate on time, and thus saves lives and assets. These lifts are designed with well-advanced technologies like IoT [Internet of Things] They help fire-fighters ascend tall buildings with heavy equipment to reach fire-affected floors faster and safer and ensure rapid evacuation of people of all ages and abilities.”

Supporting this notion, Dr Deepak Monga, Fire Safety & Evacuation Expert, says, “Although we have a 90-m ladder, fire-fighters can’t use this to reach 40th, 50th, or higher floors because of the wind velocity and limited space. If we use a staircase, then people die owing to inhaling excessive carbon monoxide. The other available options, like fire chutes, are not practical for all ages or fire-fighters as they can’t use them to reach higher floors. Therefore, we need to understand the need for a proper evacuation solution. Infra developers need to add the fire evacuation lift in their plan to save people’s lives and assets.”

Architects and engineers are experimenting with new materials
Smart concrete: Scientists are exploring ways to develop smart concrete that can provide real-time updates on its condition. By embedding sensors in the material, engineers can identify potential cracks before they appear, improving the efficiency of building management.

Wood: Researchers estimate that the construction industry can reduce emissions by up to 31 per cent if wood becomes the primary building material. The development of cross-laminated timber has opened the possibility of making wooden skyscrapers a reality.

Smart windows: Using perovskites, a mineral consisting largely of calcium titanate, researchers have developed windows that automatically turn opaque when the temperature hits 60oC, allowing the interior to cool down.

The sustainability imperative

“Over the years, there has been a transition in the use of material in tall buildings from traditional reinforced concrete materials to steel and glass, and sustainable materials such as wood,” shares Bhole. “During the initial design stage itself, we can take care of many factors. To provide energy-saving features, we can use technology to reduce consumption. We can have synchronised vertical transportation systems to reduce the movement of elevators or calibrate the movement of users to reduce energy consumption. We can also use systems like break-pressure tanks and use less energy into pumping water by using more gravity. In high-rise buildings, we put it in service floors and do looping at intermediate levels, resulting in reduction of the pumping load. Incorporating a sustainable design philosophy encourages decisions at each phase of the design process to reduce negative impacts on the environment and occupant health, without compromising on the bottom line.”

A sustainable tall building is one that’s open, flexible and energy-efficient throughout its design, construction and consumption. As Gangadia says, “Sustainable design should be a norm in any architect’s work. I would rather say every building should be sustainable. It should not be a conscious effort but a default outcome.”

In Hate’s view, “With climate change now being a stark reality, developers have become sensitive to the requirements of sustainable development. While buildings certified by IGBC, USGBC LEED, IWBI WELL, etc, are becoming the norm, the movement towards net-zero and carbon neutrality is gaining momentum.”

“As land becomes scarce, tall buildings may become the future of infrastructure development, making energy-efficiency and sustainability key pillars of their design,” believes Pooja Nikhar, Senior Associate, Morphogenesis. “This requires thoughtful integration of architecture with building systems, such as structure, MEP, automation, vertical transportation and facade systems. Approaches like value engineering should be employed as the substructure and superstructure design are interdependent. Early decisions can have a significant impact. Hence, various stakeholders must be involved from the outset, leveraging emerging technology to create an efficient building.”

“Sustainable design is vital in reducing the environmental impact of tall buildings,” agrees Bhatia. “Architects, engineers and designers must embrace new technologies and concepts to prioritise energy-efficiency, resource conservation and environmental stewardship. Green building materials and practices, incorporating green spaces and natural features, improving indoor air quality, and promoting occupant health are critical aspects that can significantly reduce environmental effects.”

With regard to the environmental impact, Nikhar says, “High-density, tall buildings are becoming popular in developing nations facing rapid urbanisation and limited land availability. While they’ve been associated with high energy consumption, they’re efficient in terms of land use, serving multiple people from a single set of infrastructure. Additionally, tall buildings have the potential to harness renewable energy, such as solar power and ventilation systems, to reduce energy consumption costs. With a focus on innovative design techniques, these buildings can contribute to a more sustainable future.”

It is essential to consider both local and global environmental conditions, as well as the availability of renewable and non-renewable resources, in the design process. “Energy consumption during building operations must also be taken into account, as it’s often overlooked in favour of construction considerations,” continues Nikhar. “Using onsite renewable resources, such as solar, wind and water recycling, can significantly reduce a building’s carbon footprint.”

Addressing sustainability, Amit Gossain, Managing Director, KONE India says, “We offer the KONE EcoMod™ escalator modernisation, reducing energy consumption and operating costs. The KONE InnoTrack™ autowalks allow easy installation without structural changes, and the KONE JumpLift construction time elevator improves construction efficiency and safety.”

Compelling challenges

“Constructing tall buildings in India is challenging due to various factors such as the complexity of the construction process, strict safety regulations and building codes, limited availability of land, scarcity of skilled labour and infrastructure challenges,” points out Bhatia. “BIM software can reduce the need for physical prototypes and streamline the construction timeline while prefabricated building components and modular construction methods can reduce costs and speed up construction. Optimising the supply chain for building materials, reducing waste and inefficiencies and streamlining the permitting and inspection process can also accelerate timelines.”

“The requirement of delivering all basic construction and finishing materials and the associated manpower to the respective floors of work within the tall building, in the least time possible, is always an opportunity for the contractor or developer to explore and improve upon,” reasons Hate. “Tall building construction sites also need to overcome challenges stemming from the most critical resource manpower perspective while ensuring their well-being to ensure a safe and secure workplace and ensuring availability of basic amenities such as drinking water and sanitation facilities at the higher elevations.”

“The safety and security aspect for tall buildings is a highly critical factor. We invariably find workers who are not able to deliver efficient output. Once the building goes above 40 storeys height, there are multiple factors that affect the construction site like high wind and variable temperature. Also, maintenance of the building is highly critical. And the amenities used for tall building also needs to be 100 per cent accurate, as any failure will create a huge backlash for the developer’s credibility,” says Shyam Seth.

What’s trending

“We will see more optimised construction technology to deliver tall buildings,” believes Soni. “Conventional methods cannot really construct these buildings.”

In Hate’s view, “The incorporation of newer trends and technologies like systems formwork, multiple and repetitive use aluminium formwork, auto-climbing formwork for the central core, high-speed and high-capacity passenger and material hoists, high-head pumps for transporting concrete and safety screens are an outcome of the need for going taller.”

“Some new trends in tall building designing and engineering include the exploration of forms, harmonious integration of urban space, longevity in terms of civil architecture, multi-valency and flexibility in planning, use of prefabrication, advanced construction technology and building materials,” shares Nikhar. “There is also an increased use of computational methods and BIM to manage the construction and development of the project better, optimised use of resources, renewable energy generation, passive design techniques to reduce energy demand, innovative structural and building services systems, new technology of facades and facade systems, ways to reduce the urban heat island effect, retrofitting and upcycling, and onsite waste and water management.”

Offering a technical perspective, Tathagat says, “Structurally, for the skin of the building, once you cross a certain height, you must account for more than normal wind pressure and other elements on the facade. Traditional systems were very intensive in terms of use of metals and heavy systems. However, now there are options for making stronger composite materials that can be used for reducing the weight of the building. Developers are using all kinds of technologies. There is more prefabrication used at various levels from components and modules to floors.”

On the technologies coming in the elevators segment, Amit Gossain says, “Our technological breakthroughs include the KONE UltraRope™, setting new standards for high-rise buildings with its lightweight and energy-efficient design. The KONE EcoDisc® motor reduces energy consumption and offers a smoother, quieter ride, while the KONE MonoSpace® and KONE MiniSpace™ elevators provide energy efficiency and superior comfort.”

The flipside

That said, the cost of construction increases with building height, rendering the tallest structures predominantly with luxury units catering to the elite. Construction in high seismic zones necessitates earthquake-resistant design, which can further inflate costs and exacerbate elitism. Also, there is a view that the presence of tall buildings can diminish the visual appeal of heritage buildings and conservation areas.

Further, maintenance of tall buildings entails significant energy requirements, uninterrupted power supply for elevators, waste management and consistent water supply. Despite efforts to reduce their environmental impact, skyscrapers, with their extensive glass and steel structures, pose challenges in terms of heating and cooling efficiency. While innovations like green facades and renewable energy generation are being adopted, more exploration is needed, including the potential of wooden skyscrapers, to enhance sustainability in tall building construction.

Considering the overall emissions throughout the construction process, the claim that tall building environments promote sustainable urbanisation requires closer examination.

New trends in design & engineering
Biophilic design: Biophilic design is a practice of connecting nature within the built environment. Features such as vertical gardens, rooftop gardens and green walls and substantial use of natural materials are used to create naturally aesthetic spaces.
Energy-efficient technologies: Smart controls for lighting and HVAC systems, advanced building automation systems, energy monitoring, management systems and integration of renewable energy sources
Vertical transportation: Double-decker elevators, high-speed elevators, sky elevators and more.

Sustainable practice: Emergency power systems, robust structural systems, redundancy in critical building systems and integration of structure with resilient urban infrastructure to withstand natural calamities and minimise climatic effects.
Digitisation: BIM, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for enhanced visualisation, coordination and collaboration among various stakeholders. Additionally, sensor-based systems enable intelligent monitoring and control of building operations for improved energy-efficiency and occupant comfort.

A green order

“The trend is focused on producing embodied energy of tall buildings by looking at alternatives to steel and concrete,” says Tathagat. “There are timber-made tall buildings coming up across the globe. Globally, highly processed timber is replacing steel and cement such it can be reused at the end of life. By default, there is a higher intensity of energy used in vertical transportation in lifting water, services, etc. These can be produced through better transportation systems, management and control systems. Also, innovative design features can allow people to conveniently walk up and down a few floors, especially in commercial tall buildings, thus minimising the use of elevators. Further, efficient supplies are needed through various lifting systems for multiple materials that are pumped up and down.”

“With heightened awareness, clients are demanding that the sustainability and resiliency features of the built environment meet and even exceed the metrics in vogue internationally,” believes Hate. “Today, references are made to overseas projects that are designed and built in a highly mature market for green buildings and this has prompted the Indian construction industry to take cognisance and act appropriately. Today, the design for a new or retrofit project does not pass muster unless the project can demonstrate substantial design interventions to meet sustainability goals.”

On the green aspects in the elevator segment, Amit Gossain shares, “One notable achievement is the introduction of the world’s first carbon-neutral elevator. This ground-breaking innovation complements KONE’s smart and sustainable service offering, which includes the first carbon-neutral maintenance service in the elevator industry, KONE Care DX.” He further adds, “By leveraging digital technology, we improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of our products.”

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, KONE focuses on promoting circularity and reusing existing materials. Amit Gossain asserts, “Our elevators, primarily constructed of metal, have components that are up to 90 per cent recyclable or reusable. By embracing a circular economy approach, we contribute to minimising waste and conserving valuable resources in the construction industry.”

In conclusion

All considered, tall buildings constitute an intricate and diverse component of urban environments, presenting a range of advantages and obstacles that require thoughtful deliberation.

“I foresee that in the next 15-20 years in India, no building will be less than 60 floors,” predicts Contractor. “The Government should make a law that those who build only G+1 buildings need to be taxed extra for wasting precious land.”

Indeed, as we strive to explore new frontiers in the realm of tall building design and construction, it becomes crucial to do so in a manner that is sustainable, equitable and responsible, benefiting society as a whole.

Standing Tall
Dubbed by The New York Times as ‘The Man Who Draws India’, Padma Bhushan Architect Hafeez Contractor discusses the future of tall buildings in India in an exclusive chat with CW.

The current scenario

Some of the tall buildings across the globe are more of an image-building phenomenon to show off and glamorise the cities. India constitutes around 17.8 per cent of the world’s population but has only 2.5 per cent of the land area. For healthy survival, there is a need for a sizeable percentage of land for agriculture and forests. If the forestsare not there, the wildlife is not there; if the bees and the birds are not there, human survival will no longer be there. Alarmingly, we have just about 8-10 per cent forest cover left in India.

The difficulty

Across the world, the urban area only occupies 2-4 per cent of the land. However, in India, we occupy around 10-11 per cent. In the good old days, people were content to have their own G+1 house; in today’s world, that concept can no longer flourish.On the other hand, most cities like Ahmedabad, Pune, Nagpur, Bhopal, etc, have increased in size over the past 20-25 years. And when these cities increased, they cobbled the farmland, which in turn cobbled the forest land. The rich forest we had is virtually disappearing. We are literally sitting on a time bomb.

The big mistake

A big mistake we are making is that while increasing the boundaries of cities, we are not giving additional FSI for newer areas as compared to existing cities. The new areas are still getting less FSI than cities, which I believe is a big mistake.

Mumbai initially was just a piece of inter land, with a huge amount of farmland surrounding it. But now, the inter land has grown multi-fold and, sadly, the farmland is getting lesser day by day. The same story has been witnessed in cities like Pune, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The growth of these cities has consumed a majority of the farmlands surrounding them. If we are eating up the farmland around us and the farmland is eating up the forests, it is a dangerous scenario for human beings. We already have the big sword of global warming hanging over our heads.

India is the most populated country in the world today, standing at 1.4 billion, and we have the youngest population in the entire world. Hence, very soon we will crossthe 2.5 billion population barrier. What will the consequences be if we keep on eradicating the farmland as we are fast filling up all the wetlands and low-lying areas?It is something to ponder.

Hence, the only solution for us is to go high! Having said that, going high will be an expensive affair but, somewhere, we have to devise a way to go high and build economically. That is the crux of the issue.

Need of the hour

Sadly, more than half of the population of India does not have proper housing. However, as the economic solution of the country is going upward, the younger generation is bound to earn handsomely. Most youngsters in the future will want a better house to live in, which will result in big demand for bulk housing inurban areas. Today, none of the other countries in the world are facing the problem of housing their people. We have toformulate a way to build higher, house the growing population, and save on farmland and forest land.

We don’t have the luxury of zoning laws anymore that depicted separate spaces for hospitals, police stations, and so on horizontally. It is time for us to have vertical zoning with offices, warehouses and manufacturing units below and offices and residences on top in the same building. We need a completely new way of construction.

Cities are already congested and we have to understand that we will not have the same roads and green spaces as before. And we have to come up with a sustainable plan to cater to it. We cannot look at high-rise buildings as glamorised models. High-rise is our survival kit for the future. If we do not start building high-rises in India to provide housing to the population, we will be in big trouble.

If we make a law today, the repercussions of it will be witnessed at a minimum after 10 years. Hence, laws need to be made keeping in mind future prospects. To plan a building today, multiple approvals are needed, which consumes a lot of time. Add to this the construction time of a few more years. In the next five years or so, the repercussions of urban laws of the area will be truly realised. This is another fallacy in the making of tall buildings in India.

To have a balanced environment and proper food security for people, we need a good amount of greenery around us. Land is the most precious commodity in today’s time. Everything else can be created or regenerated, barring land.

The future

I foresee that in the next 15-20 years in India, no building will be less than 60 floors. The Government should make a law that those who build only G+1 buildings need to be taxed extra for wasting precious land.

Speed of construction can be achieved; the only thing needed is the right intention. A classic example is the Empire State Building in the US, which was built before World War 2 in a record-breaking 13-and-a-half months. If they could build it so fast then, why can’t we do it now? We just need to devise a way and have a proper system in place.

Today, flats in tall buildings are considered a luxury when being planned. But we need to look at it as a necessity first, and then design it. It is the mindset that needs to be changed.

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