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11 December 2023

What is a tall building?

As of early 2010, there will only be approximately 50 buildings in excess of 300m completed and occupied globally. (IMAD ALAEDDIN)

By Staff Writer

There is no absolute definition of what constitutes a tall building. It is a building that exhibits some element of "tallness" in one or more of the following categories:

Height relative to context

It is not just about height, but about the context in which it exists. Thus whereas a 14-storey building may not be considered a tall building in a high-rise city such as Chicago or Hong Kong, in a provincial European city or a suburb this may be distinctly taller than the urban norm.


Again, a tall building is not just about height but also about proportion. There are numerous buildings, which are not particularly high, but are slender enough to give the appearance of a tall building, especially against low urban backgrounds. Conversely, there are numerous big/large footprint buildings which are quite tall but their size/floor area rules them out from being classed as a tall building.

Tall building technologies

If a building contains technologies which may be attributed as being a product of "tall" (eg specific vertical transport technologies, structural wind bracing as a product of height, etc), then this building can be classed as a tall building.

Although the number of floors is a poor indicator of a tall building due to the different floor-to-floor height in dierent buildings and functions (eg oce versus residential usage), 14 or more stories (or a height of over 50m/165ft) could perhaps be used as a threshold for a tall building.

What is a super-tall building?

Again, opinions on this dier internationally. Although great heights are now being achieved with built tall buildings (in excess of 800 m/2,600ft), as of early 2010 there will only be approximately 50 buildings in excess of 300m completed and occupied globally. The CTBUH thus defines "super-tall" as being any building over 300m/984 ft in height.

How is the height of a tall building measured?

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) recognises tall building height in three categories:

1. Height to architectural top

Height is measured from the level (see footnote 1) of the lowest, significant(2), open-air(3), pedestrian(4) entrance to the architectural top of the building, including spires, but not including antennae, signage, flagpoles or other functional-technical equipment(5). This measurement is the most widely utilised and is used to define the CTBUH rankings of the tallest buildings in the world.

2. Highest occupied floor

Height is measured from the level(1) of the lowest, significant(2), open-air(3), pedestrian(4) entrance to the highest occupied(6) floor within the building.

3. Height to tip

Height is measured from the level(1) of the lowest, significant(2), open-air(3), pedestrian(4) entrance to the highest point of the building, irrespective of material or function of the highest element (ie including antennae, flagpoles, signage and other functional-technical equipment).

Floor number

The number of floors should include the ground floor level and be the number of main floors above ground, including any significant mezzanine floors and major mechanical plant floors. Mechanical mezzanines should not be included if they have a significantly smaller floor area than the major floors below nor should mechanical penthouses or plant rooms protruding above the general roof area.

Note: CTBUH floor counts may dier from published accounts, as it is common in some regions of the world for certain floor levels not to be included (eg the level four, 14 and 24, etc in Hong Kong).

Height calculator

The CTBUH has developed a tall building height calculator to estimate the height of tall buildings when only the number of floors is known.

Building usage

What is the dierence between a tall building and a telecommunications/observation tower? A tall building can be classed as such (as opposed to a telecommunications/observation tower) and is eligible for the tallest lists if at least 50 per cent of its height is occupied by usable floor area.

Single-function and mixed-use buildings

A single-function tall building is defined as one where 85 per cent or more of its total floor area is dedicated to a single use. A mixed-use tall building contains two or more functions (or uses), where each of the functions occupy a significant proportion of the tower's total space.

Support areas such as car parks and mechanical plant space do not constitute mixed-use functions.

Functions are denoted on CTBUH's tallest lists in ascending order, eg "oce/hotel" indicates hotel function above oce function.

Building status

When is a tall building considered to be completed?

A completed building can be considered as such – and added to the tallest lists – if it fulfils all of the following three criteria:

1) Topped out structurally and architecturally.

2) Fully clad.

3) Open for business, or at least partially occupied.

When is a tall building considered to be topped out architecturally?

When it has reached its ultimate architectural height (eg it includes spires, parapets, etc).

When is a tall building considered to be under construction?

When site clearing has been completed and foundation and piling work has begun.

When is a tall building considered to be on-hold?

When it is widely reported within the public domain that construction has halted.

When is a tall building considered to be a real proposal?

A real proposed tall building can be considered such if it fulfils ALL of the following criteria:

1. It has a specific site.

2. Has a developer/financier who owns the site.

3. Has a full professional design team who are in the process of progressing the design beyond the conceptual stage.

4. Has a dialogue with the local planning authorities with a view to obtaining full legal permission for construction.

5. There is a full intention to progress the building to construction and completion.

Only buildings that have been announced publically by the client and fulfil all the above criteria will be included in the CTBUH's proposed building listings. Also, due to the changing nature of early stage designs and client information restrictions, some height data for proposed tall buildings that appears on the CTBUH's tallest lists is unconfirmed.

Structural material

A steel tall building is defined as one where the main vertical and lateral structural elements and floor systems are constructed from steel.

A concrete tall building is defined as one where the main vertical and lateral structural elements and floor systems are constructed from concrete.

A composite tall building utilises a combination of both steel and concrete acting compositely in the main structural elements.

A mixed structure tall building is any building that utilises distinct steel or concrete systems above or below each other. There are two main types of mixed structural system: A concrete/steel tall building indicates a steel structural system located above a concrete structural system, with the opposite true of a steel/concrete building.

Determination of compliance to criteria

Due to the complex and diverse nature of tall building designs worldwide, some exceptions to this set of criteria may be appropriate depending on the particular building. The CTBUH Height Committee, therefore, reserves the right to examine and define such exceptions on a case-by-case basis.


1 Level:
Finished floor level at threshold of the lowest entrance door

2 Significant: The entrance should be predominantly above existing or pre-existing grade and permit access to one or more primary uses in the building via elevators, as opposed to ground floor retail or other uses which solely relate/connect to the immediately adjacent external environment.

Thus entrances via below-grade sunken plazas or similar are not generally recognised. Also note that access to car park and/or ancillary/support areas are not considered significant entrances.

3 Open-air: The entrance must be located directly o? an external space at that level that is open to air.

4 Pedestrian: Refers to common building users or occupants and is intended to exclude service, ancillary, or similar areas.

5 Functional-technical equipment: This is intended to recognise that functional-technical equipment is subject to removal/addition/change as per prevalent technologies, as is often seen in tall buildings (eg antennae, signage, wind turbines, etc are periodically added, shortened, lengthened, removed and/or replaced).

6 Highest occupied floor: This is intended to recognise conditioned space which is designed to be safely and legally occupied by residents, workers or other building users on a consistent basis. It does not include service or mechanical areas which experience occasional maintenance access, etc.

7 This significant proportion can be judged as 15 per cent or greater of either: (i) the total floor area, or (ii) the total building height, in terms of number of floors occupied for the function. However, care should be taken in the case of super-tall towers. For example a 20-storey hotel function as part of a 150-storey tower does not comply with the 15 per cent rule, though this would clearly constitute mixed use.


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