< Back to Blog

January 2019


Sebastian Desand

High-rise building or skyscraper: what’s the difference?

There are approximately half-a-million buildings under 100 metres tall around the world today. Those are the structures driving outdoor comfort in cities, making a significant impact in solar radiation and influencing wind speeds.


“Skyscraper” as a concept was used for the first time to define the 42-metre-high buildings constructed in Chicago in 1885. Before that, all tall structures around the world were religious buildings. The highest being Ulm Minster, a church in Germany (161 m); and the oldest, the Great Pyramid of Giza, in Egypt (145 m).

Building tall structures for people to actually live in was a big shift for engineers and architects in the 20th Century. It increased the overall complexity of construction endeavours: tall buildings not only have to fight gravity and be aesthetically appealing, but they also have to create comfortable and safe environments for people. 

3 technologies played a key role in enabling humans to build giant structures.

Since the American Industrial Revolution, significant advances happened in the construction industry, structures got higher and the vocabulary had to adapt. Nowadays, there’s a general consensus that buildings with 40+ floors, 150-metres-high or greater are considered “skyscrapers”.

For buildings above a height of 300 metres, the term "supertall" can be used, while the ones reaching beyond 600 metres are classified as "megatall". The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) is THE authority when it comes to those definitions.

However, the definition of “high-rise buildings” can vary according to different references. It’s a general term for multi-story structures taller than 35 metres. It’s usually a development with more than 9 storeys, which in the skyline of a dense city can seem to be a fairly small structure. But they really aren't.

In reality, structures taller than 35 metres already cause significant impact within the urban context. Not only visually and aesthetically, but also from an environmental perspective such as sun light exposure, wind comfort and pollution dispersion.

This is what a 36-metre-high structure looks like in a dense skyline:

This is what a 36-meter-high structure looks like in a dense skyline.

In comparison, this is how a 32-metre-high structure looks like in a not so populated city:

This is how a 32-meter-high structure looks like in a not so populated city.

Although a lot of spotlight has focused on supertall structures (due to its obvious complexity and audacious efforts), the majority of new structures being built around the world are floating within the range of 35 to 100 metres. Today, there are approximately half-a-million of those buildings around the world!

There are approximately half million buildings under 100 meters around the world today.

Those are the structures driving outdoor comfort in the cities, making a significant impact in solar radiation and influencing wind speeds. They are in practical terms defining the city for its inhabitants. But still, most requirements regarding the study of pedestrian comfort in the design phase are limited to buildings higher than 100 metres.

Why is this the case? Simply because wind simulations have been complex, time consuming, expensive and sometimes unreliable. This is not the case anymore.

New technology allow building designers and engineers to conduct fast and accurate wind simulations for structures lower than 100 metres. Now we CAN truly design and build cities in harmony with the wind. What an exciting time we live in.

Skyscrapers are awesome, but what’s really changing cityscapes around the world are the buildings measuring between 35 and 100 m. The city of Seoul alone has more than 8.500 of them

Seoul  is the city with the greatest number of buildings taller than 35 meters.