The elevator, a dead end road….

Around 150 years ago, the modern elevator was invented, in a period in which the whole society was revolutionized. Cars, steel, concrete, typewriters, telephones : all entered the scene, and life started changing fast. But for buildings the elevator was the main “ game-changer”, as we can conclude on hindsight. Thats why I like to classify building history as “ Before Elevator” and “With Elevator”: cities exploded, in height. With all consequences of that: Buildings became heavier per m2,[1] The energy demand increased, for all ‘life lines’ in these towers,. The transport infrastructure around these buildings, on a traditional grid, came under immense pressure. Something the towers did not bother about, its was pushed to the burden of society. And with those problems, cities are still struggling today.

Towers in fact , are dead end streets. There is only one way out, and thats is by definition a bottleneck. Literally. Another phenomenon of dead end streets is that elevators are a necessity, climbing the stairs became a non-option. Which implied that the social structure in the vertical housing streets was disrupted. The neighbors passed anonymously in a blinded cabin.

In fact, “the neighborhood” did not exist anymore.

You can house a lot of people in a few towers, but in fact it is a trap. Regarding people as well as resources: creating excessive resource use or resources on a minimal building footprint , while at the same time minimizing the production potential for resources enormously.  They are , in a balance of consumption and availability of resources, ‘exergy swallower’s’.

Sometimes people like you to believe cities with high-rises or skyscrapers resemble forests. But the main difference is that a tree is in balance with its surroundings, both with the earth as with the sky from it which takes the energy. At the same time being in balance with its neighbors constantly adapting to get the maximum quality from all sides. While high-rises are a combination of excessive use of exergy, driven by so called architecture and planning, but mainly forced by money, which overruled the natural state of development and growth.

In short: the elevator has caused us to bring in ever growing amounts of material per habitable m2, ever more energy to keep them alive , minimizing the potential for generating renewable energy ( less outside surface per m2 floor, shadowing each other, as well as low rises around, see blog [2]), have a high risk with calamities, and are killing social-physical networks.

The elevator forms a fracture line between a more natural and manageable organization, and a complete neglecting of natural borders by excessive consumerism. I would like to plea for a ‘elevator free built environment’. Apart from the logic of this, as hopefully follows from my arguing above, its also underpinned by research. As for instance by Serge Salat in his Urban Morphology lab. He studied major cities from the energy perspective. And found that geometry of cities and layout of buildings could cause a factor 2 difference in energy demand. And the most efficient city turned out to be the Paris metropolitan area, within the ring called ‘peripherique’. He considered many aspects, like Passive solar gains, but also natural interior lighting. [3] The Paris inner city mainly consists of buildings maximized to 5 or 6 levels. It was by the way not only lack of elevators that created this geometry, it was also the Paris fire-brigade, that limited building heights since that was the highest they could reach with their ladders.

paris-19th-1852-house-cross-section-originalIts interesting to have a closer look at such a building, in Paris in the 19th century. Brilliantly illustrated by the picture  by Edmund Texler [4]. What a beautiful example of a mini society, social and participatory Central is the staircase , where everyone regularly meets. And around which life unfolds. The ground floor is used for small business, mainly providing labor activities. And the kitchen serving some of the apartments. On the the first floor the elder couple lives, the apartment with the least stairs to climb. The stairs create social order: the higher, the younger the legs, so to say. Second floor housed the young family, the third floor the bachelor, or an unmarried women, , the fourth floor a student, housekeeper, and sometimes a homeless or clochard type.

What a interesting combination. Would that not be a consideration for our modern society, in which we require integration, participation, caregiving, flexibilisation of housing, and not the least, reducing energy demand , efficient resource use, unburden traffic, and much more?

Of course I understand we will not have everyone move by tomorrow, leaving his or hers highrise or country style house. But to see and use it as a metaphor , about how we we could reorganize our built environment, inclusive, social, low carbon , energy efficient, making 1+1= 3 ? In stead of persist in densifying , higher buildings, or building park style housing areas, which require a lot of transport?

We have to think over our way of housing and living, in order to stay within limits of resource use and energy efficiency anyway. Before we end up in creating more of the same driven by a artificial financial system, leading to more and more infrastructure, horizontal or vertical, that creates multiple environmental impact? How to re-organize our way of living to stay within limits of CO2 emissions required for a maximum of 2 degrees of global warming? [5]

Its time for a new era: the AE era: the After Elevator Era.



1 Rovers R. et al., 2008, How Tall is a sustainable building? XXIII UIA World Congress of Architects, Torino, Italy 2008,


3 Salat Serge, 2007 Energy and ecology efficiency of urban morphologies: a comparative analyses of Asian, American and European cities, 2007, Hong Kong SB07 Conference, 2007, Post conference book proceedings: ISBN: 978-988-17808-1-2. See also his book on this: Cities and Forms: On Sustainable Urbanism ISBN-13: 978-2705681111 :

4 Edmund Texler, tableau de Paris 1852.

5 explorations into a low carbon budget built environment, iiSBE academic Forum report: See:

Author: ronald rovers