Big test looks likely to provide lift for German elevator company

A German conglomerate plans to build a facility designed to put its cutting-edge technological elevators through their paces before installing them in super-tall buildings around the world.
Above, historic Rottweil, where ThyssenKrupp's elevator arm TKE plans to build a ?45 million tall test tower. Hannelore Foerster for The National
Above, historic Rottweil, where ThyssenKrupp's elevator arm TKE plans to build a ?45 million tall test tower. Hannelore Foerster for The National
The sleepy little medieval town of Rottweil in south-west Germany has a long history of towers.

Once home to some of the highest buildings in Europe, the locals are fiercely protective of the heritage of the city, which looks much the same today as in the mid-16th Century.

All that may be about to change.

The German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp's elevator arm TKE plans to build a ?45 million 244 metre tall test tower that will dominate the local skyline.

But in a town where it is illegal to display neon street advertising and it takes local government approval to paint your front door, how has the multinational managed to convince the community it should play host to what will be the one of tallest, most high-tech structures in Europe?

It is all about opportunity, according to the mayor Ralph Brod.

"The test tower will open up a new chapter in the history of Rottweil's architecture," he said at the unveiling of the facility's innovative and futuristic design model recently.

With a planned observation deck and cafe, Mr Brod hopes the building will prove a tourist draw.

"The interplay between the medieval city centre and the new test tower is a unique selling point with which our city silhouette will stand out from all other comparable cities and will provide a significant boost to tourism and the local economy."

TKE hopes the test facility will also reap rewards for the company.

With tower construction worldwide growing ever higher, elevators have been, well, elevated to a position of crucial importance in the design of mega-tall buildings. TKE says there are today more than 180 towers under construction that will breach the 250m mark and an increase of taller ones is inevitable.

"Building heights of 300m to 800m will change the skylines of metropolises in the future and the demands on people and technology will grow at the same rate," it says.

These changes mean the efficient transportation of people vertically has become a major challenge, one the test tower is designed to address.

It will enable new technologies to be tried out, such as shafts carrying more than one cabin. The company says it will also allow testing of high-speed elevators, up to 18 metres per second, which TKE proudly boasts is twice as fast as Usain Bolt's 100 metre world record. While it is unlikely even Bolt could manage that vertically, at such a rate it would take just 90 seconds to reach the top of 1.5km high buildings, the construction of which is actively being considered, TKE claims.

Increasing global urbanisation is a driving factor behind the company's vision. McKinsey recently estimated ?58 trillion (Dh290.7tn)will need to be spent to on new construction to meet demand by 2025. By 2016, TKE says the global demand for elevators, escalators and moving walkways will rise by more than 5 per cent a year to ?52 billion.

The Middle East is a prime region for such growth, where the company has a significant presence and where it sees the UAE as the leading light.

"We estimate the market at 6 per cent growing [annually] in the Middle East, and at least 10 to 12 per cent in the UAE through this year," says the TKE chief executive Andreas Schierenbeck.

"We are one of the top three [elevator and walkway firms] in Abu Dhabi, we are expanding and growing. We have started a little bit later than the others but we are catching up."

And as the construction sector bounces back this year, he says the reputation of German engineering carries clout here.

"I think what is highly valued in the region is German high-tech. We have a very good name [in the UAE] and we have delivered very good projects, like the Stock Exchange in Abu Dhabi, and that's a fantastic project in the area .

"We were involved in the new financial centre and the airports in Dubai, the boarding bridges, escalators plus we focus on service and maintenance as well," he says.

However, while the region is a major plank in the company's upmarket business, it is not the biggest.

"We have in China a big high-end market as well, as we started there with a high-end focus," Mr Schierenbeck says.

"Now we are going down the scale to the lower end. But the volume in China is much bigger, TKE's global sales are around 600,000 units a year and 380,000 to 450,000 in China alone. So that puts everything in our industry a little bit into perspective."

But the Arabian Gulf is a serious player, too, and that is something the company wants to take advantage of.

"Abu Dhabi and Dubai are places we want to grow in and particularly in Saudi Arabia with the big construction projects coming up there," Mr Schierenbeck says. "But we concentrate on the other areas as well, so Iraq and in Kuwait, where we've recently done an acquisition. We are pretty active in the whole area.

"The fact that Dubai has learned from the property downturn is good for our business because boom/bust is no good for any industry - it makes forward planning very difficult and I think there is now more sustainable development in Dubai. It's a very good development."

The test tower has another role to play - as a showroom for potential buyers.

"First, customers are very keen to know what they are buying," says Mr Schierenbeck.

"High-end customers say, 'Show me what you have' before we can talk. They do not want you to develop something on their site because doing that you're running into trouble sometimes, and you're exposing a big risk to the customer.

"You need a test tower to be part of what you're doing, to actually show the customer what they are going to get.

"Around 5 per cent of building costs goes on the elevators in a super-high rise - but of course it depends on how big the lobby is, how many shafts are involved. Super-high rises can be a little bit more than normal high rise," he says.

Perhaps in keeping with Rottweil's past, the design of the test tower is certainly eye-catching. The architect Helmut John says the challenge was to turn a functional building into an architectural delight, one he describes as a "tower of light".

"I call it 'argeneering' - architecture plus engineering," he says. "This tower is probably the most perfect example of the interface of these two concepts."

Mr Brod sees a wider significance should the test tower get local government approval and begin construction this autumn.

"Rottweill will become part of a global axis," he says, "between Stuttgart, Zurich and the world."

And that is a lofty ambition indeed.

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Published: May 27, 2014 04:00 AM


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