what is the lifespan of a skyscraper?

The Empire State Building was completed in the 1930s and it is still used today. Have any skyscrapers been abandoned due to structural fatigue resulting from time? Do steel buildings have any practical lifespans?

Tower of Pisa?

As for the specific example of the ESB, the documentary “Life After People” estimates about 200 years, if we neglect to solve any foundational problems that arise. Of course, this doesn’t really speak ill of the structure itself…

The same source says that a steel and masonry building such as the Chrysler Building would last marginally longer than the ESB.

The Woolworth Building is almost 20 years older than the ESB and is one of the oldest “skyscrapers”. It’s now over a century old, and still in use.



I don’t know of anyone who is seriously considering getting rid of them – the Woolworth building is being renovated, and is considered prime real estate. David Macauley’s 1980 book unbuilding described the dismantling of the Empire State Building (for re-erection elsewhere). Undoubtedly the issue has received serious study somewhere, but people seem more interested in preserving them.


The “practical lifespan” may be shorter than that due to the costs of upgrading the mechanical systems in a skyscraper. The ESB, for instance, was obviously built in a time when people only had phones and no computers. So I assume it’s been upgraded to add data closets and Ethernet cabling.

The Flatiron Building was completed in 1902 and is still standing.

A steel structure can in theory be designed to have no fatigue limit.. I don’t know whether it’s standard practice in designing a steel building to consider/design for fatigue.

Kazo’s cite assumes that all the people in the world have vanished. The ESB has not been neglected in that way, of course. Buildings in use undergo not just regular maintenance but structural inspection and repair wherever necessary. New technology is constantly being added. Even though the steel is intact, the latest techniques for preservation and upgrade are applied when possible. Modern windows allow for less leakage, e.g., so that water doesn’t seep into walls. Upgrading older structures is a specialized industry.

As long as the buildings are fully maintained, their lifetime is indefinite.

I know it’s a joke, but just to say it out loud: The Tower of Pisa leans because of soil subsidence.

The ESB went through a major renovation in recent years which involved significant electrical upgrades and new elevators. They also managed to get themselves a gold LEED certification; pretty impressive for a 70-year-old building.

Sure, but I assume that was very expensive. In a building that’s not as historic or famous, the owners may decide it’s not worth the cost of upgrading it. Or they might decide to tear it down to build a larger building with the next lot over. So the “practical lifespan” may be shorter than the steel structure is capable of lasting.

Yes indeed. Last I read they had dropped over a gigabuck on the place. And I thought I spent too much redoing my kitchen.

In case of an erection lasting over one hundred years, see your architect.

If we’re looking at the historical record, pretty much no skyscraper has ever been demolished, with only a few notable exceptions. Apart from the buildings of the World Trade Center, the tallest building to be demolished was the Singer Building, in New York, at 614 feet. One other example in Chicago rounds out the list, and then pretty much every other building of the modern era above around 450 feet tall is still around. And 450 isn’t that tall; it’s shorter than the Washington Monument, and half the height of the Eiffel Tower.

Basically, from the time we started building them to that height through today, they’ve always been built with the expectation that they’ll stand indefinitely.

Designing to fatigue limits is generally applied to things with cyclic loads, such as reciprocating or rotational machinery (i.e., engines and drive trains). The non-cyclic and difficult to predict loads on a structural entity like a building or a bridge don’t really lend themselves to fatigue theory.

That said, as already noted, most “skyscrapers” (a term whose definition seems to change over the decades) that have been built throughout history are still standing and doing fine. Maybe an architectural engineer will chime in with some info on “design life” used in building design. I’m just a mechanical engineer and don’t feel qualified to an opinion on the topic.


The top 2 being 45 and 47 stories tall.

Quoting another source for my own city; In Minneapolis, the tallest building to have ever been intentionally demolished was the Metropolitan Building, built in 1890 and torn down in 1961. It stood 218 feet tall.

The Northwestern National Bank Building was 216 feet tall (to the roof) and was torn down in 1984 after being gutted by a fire.

I recall another building near this size that was torn down in the late 1980’s. It was dismantled floor by floor.
So if, for example, they were to decide that they needed to take down the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), they would do it floor by floor, working their way down. Gutting the interior and then removing the structure. Also pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to simply bobcat the debris off the side (like they did with that building above) or use side mounted chutes, because the kinetic energy from the drop would be too dangerous.

In other words, if would incredibly fucking expensive, difficult, and slow.

The Continental Building in St. Louis is pretty small as skyscrapers go (286 feet) but it was neglected for a good 20 years after the tenants moved out and the owners went bankrupt.

By the late 1990s it was in such bad shape thatthe only reason it hadn’t been torn downwas the cost of cleaning up the asbestos. It’s been completely rehabbed. I guess that proves the old structures can take a lot of abuse before they come down.

Just as a reference point, other than the World Trade Center, every building that was deemed the tallest in the world since 2560 BC is still standing.

The Great Pyramid of Giza held the title for over 4300 years, of course. People never built anything bigger until the middle of the 19th century (the Cologne Cathedral), mostly because they didn’t see any point in doing so…

So if the ESB could stand indefinitely, does that mean that eventually every single piece of original ESB construction would have been taken out and replaced? Or rather does it mean that the core pieces of steel that make up the load-bearing structure can literally last forever?

The Lincoln Cathedral built in 1311 was the first building to top the Pyramids.

People never built anything bigger, because when they did, it fell down. Ancient Rome had a restriction to 5 floors, because it was against the law to try and build an apartment building taller than that.

With the older European cathedrals, the question is not “did the tower fall down?” but, “when did the tower fall down?” or possibly “how many times did the tower fall down?”

True also that even after they got the construction right, they didn’t use it much until they got safety elevators, but the elevator was only invented because they could safely build taller buildings.

Not entirely correct. Elevators were built to haul freight (coal from mining, cargo from ship’s holds, etc.) before they were used to move people.