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Steinway Tower
Photograph: Shutterstock

Why are there suddenly so many super-skinny skyscrapers?

Your guide to the global trend for extremely tall, extremely slender ‘pencil towers’

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham
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You know those stick-thin, pencil-like skyscrapers that seem to defy reasonable laws of stability? Look a bit weird, don’t they? Last month the skinniest skyscraper in the world, New York’s Steinway Tower, was unveiled, with a height-width ratio of 24:1. And, to be frank, as you can see above (it’s the tower on the left) it looks pretty ridiculous.

However, the Steinway certainly isn’t the first skinny skyscraper. New York now has so many that the area containing them all is known as ‘Billionaires’ Row’ (also named, of course, because apartments in the buildings have often fetched eye-widening sums). So-called ‘pencil towers’ are defined as having a height-width ratio of 10:1 or skinnier, and plenty of them are popping up all over the world.

So why are there so many of these structures being built? Well, the answer depends on where you are. In most places, super-skinny skyscrapers are built because of high demand for city-centre locations. In the likes of Melbourne and Hong Kong, there is so little land in the centre of cities that developers choose instead to build upwards. So perhaps logically, as cities become more populated and overcrowded, the number of pencil towers is likely to increase.

In New York, however, which is arguably the city that has seen the most dramatic increase in pencil towers over the past decade, the causes are slightly different. For one, the maximum height of a building depends on floor area ratio (FAR) of the building within its own plot. It’s pretty complicated stuff, but essentially the smaller you build within the plot, not using up the entire base area, the higher you’re allowed to build upwards.

Developers in New York can also buy so-called ‘air rights’ from surrounding properties. In simple terms, every building in the city is given a certain amount of air above it. However, neighbouring buildings can buy that air off them if it isn’t being fully used, allowing them to build even higher. Combined, the FAR and ‘air rights’ rules actively encourage the building of super-tall structures on tiny areas of land.

No matter the direct cause of pencil towers, however, there’s one commonality behind the vast majority of them. They’re usually glamorous, expensive statements intended solely for the super-rich. Does anyone need to build that tall? Of course not. It’s simply developers looking to cash in on absurdly high property prices.

And it doesn’t look like the construction of pencil towers will be slowing down anytime soon. New York is poised to receive plenty more in the next few years, while the likes of Sydney, London, Birmingham and Toronto all have them planned. In other words, watch out: a super-skinny skyscraper might be coming to a city near you. 

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