The Heights - Anatomy of a SkyscraperEducational engineering books that are fun to read and informative are sadly few and far between. A new release from Kate Ascher, the author of The Works: Anatomy of a City, called The Heights – Anatomy of a Skyscraper provides a detailed insight into the planning, construction, operation and maintenance of these most urban of structures. From the table of contents, (which starts at the bottom of the page and goes up), this book succeeds in getting you to think about the thousands of individual decisions that make up the design of a skyscraper, and how all of the pieces are put together to make a building that functions safely and silently behind the scenes. When you think of anatomy, it typically describes how an organism was made, the various systems that allow it to survive and the way that these systems interact to allow the organism to perform tasks. In that sense, much like a book on human anatomy, Kate Ascher has delved into the structure and systems of the skyscraper, from the skin which protects the structure and functions from the elements, to the defense systems, protecting against corrosion, fire, earthquakes and explosions.

Have you ever wondered how elevators work, or how water is supplied to the top floors of a tall building? Or maybe your kids ask questions like these and you mutter some answer before heading off to Google to see if you can find a reference that is easy to explain. Well this book should satisfy all but the most technical of questions on the full range of questions that might be asked of a building, how it is built and how it functions.

One of the challenges in writing a reference book is ensuring that it has a shelf life, that it is current, yet timeless. Kate Ascher does a wonderful job with this through a clear understanding of the history of design elements and a strong grasp of the current state of technology. The diagrams provide a wonderful context to the text, and the layout offers a pleasurable reading experience, with, in most cases, less than half of any page dedicated to text. This is a topic that requires graphics to engage the reader, and this is an example of a book that has truly mastered the art of communicating technical information to lay and technical readers.

While not specifically a children’s book, this book has been a regular request from our elementary aged kids, and it is clear that they are able to soak up the details of the text being read through the excellent pictures, some of which are shown below. As one reviewer of The Works wrote, I’d second this assessment, as being equally applicable for The Heights:

Reviews suggesting that the text is for teenagers may be accidentally misleading. “The Works” by no means is for teenagers either *primarily* or *at the exclusion of* adults. Yes, the book–especially its more heavily-illustrated sections–will no doubt fire the imagination of many teens who have engineering, design, line drawing, architectural, historical analysis, or problem-solving aptitudes. (Have a teenager who loved Legos as a kid but has outgrown them? This book will probably make a good gift.) Just because the book is broad in scope and doesn’t examine each urban work it covers with the detail of a textbook for electrical engineering students at M.I.T. doesn’t make it merely for adolescents.

Source: Review of The Works

 Buy The Heights - Anatomy of a Skyscraper from  Buy The Heights - Anatomy of a Skyscraper from

Ascher ends the book with a chapter on the future of skyscrapers, describing the dreams of visionary architects of the past, Le Corbusier, Hugh Ferriss, and Frank Lloyd Wright; mile-high towers, multi-use skyscrapers as centres of all facets of urban life, and a Utopian belief in the skyscraper as a solution of overcrowding and  land use constraints. She leaves us with glimpses of how high skyscrapers might go, how green they could be and what shape they might be. From my perspective, some of the statements in this last section of the book are fanciful, not because these are technically impossible, but rather because they appear financially impossible. We can scarcely look after what we’ve already built, let alone what we might plan to build. Will we have the energy in the future to pump water to the top of a skyscraper? Will we have the ability to re-skin these buildings at the appropriate times in their lifespan? Will we be able to demolish these buildings without damaging those surrounding buildings? Will we be able to reuse the materials?

Skyscrapers have grown from a humble beginning of 300 feet high in the 1870’s to the Burj Khalifa in Dubia at over 2600 feet, relying heavily on technological innovations for every height increment over these years. If you want a book that will provide a facinating read, combining accurate details of these technologies and how they all work together in a highly readable format, I recommend this book, it would make a great Christmas present for a teenager with a technical mind. Also check out The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher’s first book.

Mike received a copy of The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper as part of a TLC Book Tour, check out some of the other great sites that are part of the tour.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

4 replies on “Anatomy of a Skyscraper”

  1. I love that your kids were enjoying the book! I have a 7 month old boy, so I’m starting to look ahead at books I want to have around the house that will encourage him to read, teach him something, and inspire imagination. This book looks like it would do all three.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  2. This book is fantastic. The images really expand on the text in a way that really makes everything come to life. This book is certainly perfect for getting younger people into engineering by explaining everything in a way that is very easy to digest. Kudos to Kate Ascher for writing an amazing book.

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