How tall is tall?

According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a high-rise building is any structure over 35 meters (about 115 feet) in height that is divided into regular intervals with occupiable levels. To be a high-rise, a building must have at least 12 floors, or if it doesn’t, then no single undivided portion within the building can rise to more than 50 percent of the building’s total height. Also (as if this weren’t specific enough!), the edifice must be based on solid ground and fabricated along its full height “through deliberate processes (as opposed to naturally-occurring formations).”

The debate about the title of “Tallest Building in the World” has more stipulations and conditions than the title of heavyweight champion in boxing. But many questions have to be answered before we can point to any single tall building and call it the tallest. For one, people have had to agree on the difference between a tower and a building. Apparently, a building is a frame structure with walls and floors. The CN Tower in Toronto (the world’s tallest freestanding structure, at 1815 feet) has some occupied floors, but most of it is a very long concrete elevator shaft. And what about the world’s tallest structure? Some wire-propped radio and television beacons in places like North Dakota and Siberia top out over 2000 feet in the air.

And then, once we agree on the definition of a building, where do we measure to? The architectural top? The highest occupied floor? The top of the roof? The top of the antenna? The Sears Tower in Chicago (which is 1450 feet to its architectural top) is tallest to the top of its antenna (1729 feet). Taipei 101 (1671 feet) is tallest to the architectural top and to the top of the roof. I found much conflicting information as to which building in the world has the highest occupied floor.

Let’s picture that kind of height for a moment. Tower One of the World Trade Center stood 1368 feet in the air. I’m 5 feet 10 inches. That means the WTC was almost 235 times as tall as I am. Two hundred thirty-five of me, standing on top of each other as tall as we can stand. On the other perspective, 1/235 of my height is about 1/3 of an inch. This issue of the Reader in your hands is probably about 1/3 of an inch thick. So there’s a height analogy for some perspective: the height of the World Trade Center was to my height as my height is to the thickness of the Reader.

Or, if we might indulge mathematics another moment, even more compelling I think than scaling height is scaling up or down the concept of square footage. The biggest building in the world, Taipei 101, has over 2 mil- lion square feet of office space inside it. The average human body, prone, takes up about 5 square feet of floor space. So about 400,000 of me could fit inside Taipei 101, lying side by side and head to foot in every room on every floor. Sizewise, maybe a flea is to me as I am to Taipei 101.

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