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Building an underground facility, rather than a traditional test tower, was the ultimate environmentally friendly move, as Lohja is flat for miles around, and Helsinki has few buildings taller than 20 stories. Seen here is the Helsinki skyline; photo by Jussi Hellsten/Visit Helsinki.

KONE provides an in-depth look at Tytyri underground lab, and a taste of Helsinki.

Finland’s KONE is behind some of the biggest game changers in the industry — the world’s first machine-room-less elevator, MonoSpace®, which debuted in 1996, and UltraRopeTM lightweight hoisting technology using carbon-fiber materials, introduced in 2013 and making buildings such as the 1-km-plus-tall Jeddah Tower possible, to name a couple.

It performs research and testing of these and other innovations at the Tytyri limestone mine in Lohja, Finland, approximately 45 minutes west of Helsinki by car. The facility is deeper than London’s The Shard is tall. It recently underwent extensive renovations, after which a handful of journalists from around the world (including your author) were invited to tour it. Besides an in-depth look at this unique facility, KONE hosted a full day of activities with an “extreme” theme that included fascinating talks about Finnish culture, design and architecture. Journalists experienced a Helsinki waterfront sauna (Finns love saunas, and many people have them in their homes), followed by a dip in the icy Baltic Sea, and later, a multicourse dinner in a restaurant housed in an 1800s sea captain’s house and run by a pair of Michelin-star-awarded Finnish celebrity chefs. It was definitely a day to remember.

But first, the lab. Containing multiple shafts and a labyrinth of corridors and high-tech research areas, the facility is otherworldly. Being there was like being in a dream. The R&D that goes on here is far from dreamlike, however. It is precise, intense and driven by the global trends of urbanization and technological advances.

Before our descent to the research and testing areas, we gathered in an above-ground boardroom to listen to presentations by KONE President and CEO Henrik Ehrnrooth, who spoke about improving the flow of urban life, and Chief Technology Officer Tomio Pihkala, who focused on “innovations that change the urban environment.” After welcoming journalists, Ehrnrooth gave an overview of the industry, the company and the forces driving it. Building the underground lab rather than a traditional, above-ground test tower came naturally for KONE, Ehrnrooth said. “We like novelties in Finland, finding new and innovative ways of doing things,” he noted. The limestone mine, operational since the late 1800s and today owned by Finnish company Nordkalk, is a perfect example of that. Besides providing the limestone from which many products are made, the operation serves multiple purposes: private and public event venue, filming location for movies, mining museum, art space and restaurant. Expanding its role to elevator test lab was, in your author’s opinion, the ultimate environmentally friendly move, since it respects its environs. The terrain is flat for miles around Lohja, and few buildings in Helsinki are taller than 20 stories.

The Lifestyles to Which They’ve Become Accustomed

What drove KONE to add the mine to its R&D centers around the world can be boiled down to two megatrends: urbanization and technological advances, Ehrnrooth said, trends that are changing the world and the elevator industry. He stated:

“Every day, more than 200,000 people move to cities. That is more than 70 million people a year, and results in a massive change in how societies function. There is huge urbanization happening in China, western Asia, Europe and North America. The number of people living alone is increasing. A few years ago, we started to see people marrying and forming families later than usual, living alone for longer periods of time. And, once people form families, they want to stay in cities to be close to the better health care, education and services they’ve gotten used to. They are no longer moving out to the suburbs. That’s why we believe urbanization will continue and why we are a big believer in cities.”

KONE is a major player in the global vertical-transportation industry. With a nearly 20 percent market share, KONE’s scope is literally awesome. A few people your author told about it refused to believe it. Ehrnrooth relayed some facts to illustrate KONE’s might, including that it:

  • Received orders for approximately 158,000 and delivered approximately 136,000 units last year
  • Installs more than one elevator or escalator per minute during a typical work week
  • Services more than 1.1 million units
  • Provides more than one billion rides per day

“That tells a little bit about the impact on society of our equipment,” Ehrnrooth said. “Since you left your hotel in Helsinki, for example, we probably installed another 100 units or so around the world.”

While cities like Chicago and New York City are the traditional high-rise hotspots, in the future, that will shift, Ehrnrooth observed, to India and, notably, Africa, where land in growing metropolises is limited and populations are surging. Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.4 billion by 2050,[1] which he observed is not that long from now. “When we look at countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and India, the landmass on which they have to build is limited,” Ehrnrooth said. “That’s why they will continue to build up, because it’s the only practical way of bringing new people into cities.”

“A Very Interesting Industry in a Very Interesting Time”

KONE feels it is in a “very interesting industry in a very interesting time,” Ehrnrooth said, and it intends to be ready to take advantage of that. He observed the company’s best years have occurred during times when markets changed most. Director of Reliability & Quality Antti Hoppania illustrated this by explaining that the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s resulted in a drop in use of carbon-fiber technology by the military and a shift toward commercial use. “Fiber prices came down, and you began to see different uses like tennis racquets, cars and sailboats,” Hoppania stated. “It became a much more attractive technology to use in the elevator industry.”

As urbanization happens and tall buildings multiply, elevator user experience becomes ever more critical, Ehrnrooth said.

“Our mission is to improve the flow of urban life. As we provide people flow in and between buildings, we strive to make people safe, comfortable and content, which helps make cities better places to live. That’s what gets KONE employees up in the morning and drives us forward.”

In addition to the convenience of destination control, KONE aims to provide a multisensory experience for passengers, one that includes light, sound, acceleration, deceleration, speed, temperature and, in the “very near future,” scent. This is not being taken lightly, as it is a tricky proposition, according to Pihkala. One person’s roses can be another’s rotten eggs. It depends upon factors such as culture and personal body chemistry, he said. “It’s not unusual to have bright temperature, bright lights and bright sound in an elevator car,” Pihkala said. “But if you mix things in the wrong way, it can create mixed emotions and no longer works.”

“Like an Orchestra”

The layman may think of elevators as simple pieces of machinery, but they are far from it, Pihkala said. “It’s the safest way to travel, safer than cars, trains and airplanes,” he noted, continuing:

“Elevators are making more than a million starts a year, carrying tons of load and reaching speeds of approximately 20 mph, and doing that every day, constantly and safely. It seems like it’s easy, but there is no margin of error. An elevator is a very complex solution. It consists of thousands of components, and all the components need to work as designed. It is like an orchestra that does not play music but provides excellent people flow.”

After the talks by Ehrnrooth and Pihkala, journalists donned safety gear and split into two groups for the journey down to the laboratory and mine areas. Hosts were Technology Director, Major Projects Santeri Suoranta and Hoppania. Here, the guests got to have the same experience as a client, elevator consultant or architect who would visit the lab, boarding a sleek, 1000-kg-capacity elevator and getting to use KONE’s destination-control system. White, backlit walls transformed to shades of blue and purple that changed during the descent as atmospheric music played and the hosts quieted down so guests could take it all in. Up-to-the-second data such as depth, load and travel speed were displayed on the cab wall. Hoppania stated:

“What we are demonstrating and testing here is not only how elevators function in certain conditions, but what we can provide for the people. Features such as observation decks are very big income drivers for very tall buildings, and passengers should experience something nice while they’re on the way. As you can see, we kind of dropped the traditional way of building an elevator here. We don’t use fancy materials like marble and wood, but focus on controlling light, sound, temperature and, of course, acceleration and deceleration.”

After that experience, journalists and guides wound their way through the cool, cavelike, dripping labyrinth to a large, brightly lit room where robotics, machines and installation methods are tested. KONE is working on a new, soon-to-be-named robotics-aided installation technology that Hoppania says its technicians are eager to receive, as it promises to enhance precision and save time. We then rode a more utilitarian elevator down in order to reach the cab where UltraRope tests are performed. The UltraRope-testing cab is open and skeletal, allowing one to closely observe the UltraRope that supports it.

The group then repaired to the Mining Museum restaurant located 260 ft. underground for lunch and conversation, followed by an abbreviated mine museum tour.

Finnish Traditions

Then it was back upstairs for a presentation by architect David Malott of CTBUH (see sidebar, “Building Tall: The Future of High Rises.”) Afterward, everyone boarded the bus for the trip to Löyly sauna in the heart of Helsinki overlooking the Baltic Sea. Here, we learned all about Finland’s sauna culture and the design of the striking, modernist building from its designer, architect Ville Hara of Avanto Architects. After the sauna, most of us climbed down the stairs and into the Baltic Sea for a quick dip in the 34˚F waters. Most found that experience surprisingly pleasant. The structure blends old and new, making the most of natural light but incorporating the traditional, chimney-less “smoke sauna,” considered by sauna connoisseurs to be the superior method.

While guests enjoyed gourmet Finnish hors d’oeuvres such as delicate salmon and liverwurst creations and gin and tonics, Hoppania shared the interesting fact that one of the engineers who developed UltraRope used some of the material for a serving tray for use in his home sauna, since it was able to withstand very high temperatures. “Sometimes very small things can have a role in a bigger story,” Hoppania observed.

Dinner at the upscale Finnjävel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a fitting end to a most interesting day. The party was joined by restaurant designers Tuuli and Kivi Sotamaa, who explained how each piece of cutlery, dinnerware and glassware was created specifically for the food or beverage it will accompany. Kivi Sotamaa explained to your author that Finnjävel means “Finnish devil” and was a term Swedes used to describe Finns who had moved to Sweden during the 1950s.

This is because some Swedes regarded Finns as low class and rough around the edges. In true Finnish fashion, Sotamaa said, restaurant founders turned it around, finding it the perfect way to describe the restaurant concept, which takes rustic, traditional Finnish cuisine and makes it inventive and elegant. On the menu were items such as tartare of lamb from an organic Finnish farm fermented with savoy cabbage and mustard and blood crêpe with lingonberry marmalade. These were as delicious as they were beautiful. According to restaurant founders, the name exemplifies “the guts, open-mindedness and ambition, which is flavored with a touch of megalomania,” of the Finnish people.

About the Laboratory

KONE’s high-rise elevator testing facility is one of seven R&D sites the company has in Finland, Italy, China, the U.S., Mexico and India. Its researchers work closely with colleagues in Hyvinkää, Finland, and Kunshan, China. Here are some additional facts about this unique facility.

  • Location: Lohja, Finland (Tytyri limestone mine, owned by Nordkalk and leased by KONE)
  • Year opened: 1997
  • Year renovated: 2017
  • No. of employees: Up to 20 during peak project times
  • Maximum depth: 350 m
  • Tests performed: UltraRope tests for lifetime and environmental effects, temperature behavior and friction properties in applicable conditions. Mileage tests, testing of new parts, quality tests, and air pressure changes. The safety, feasibility and time required for installation methods can be tested, as can the longterm reliability of equipment based on continuous operation.
Reference
[1] Pflanz, Mike. “Africa’s Population to Double to 2.4 Billion by 2050,” The Telegraph, September 12, 2013.

Building Tall: The Future of High Rises

by Steve Roman
This piece is based on a presentation by David Malott, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and an architect behind some of the world’s most iconic tall buildings, such as the Ping An Finance Center in China, during KONE’s media tour of its underground testing facility in Lohja, Finland. . . . Editor

In 2020, the world will see the completion of its first 1,000-m-plus-tall building, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia. While the achievement is guaranteed to evoke wonder and bold headlines, the real story lies in how demographic shifts and groundbreaking innovation could soon cause the number of skyscrapers in urban centers to mushroom. Let’s take a look at the developments pushing our skylines to new heights.

Tall buildings can be viewed as valuable pieces of real estate, works of art or symbols of prestige. For David Malott, founding partner in the New York City-based architectural firm AI, they’re nothing less than humanity’s future. “From a planetary perspective, as the world’s population grows, we need to compact the footprint of civilization,” he says.

Urbanization, Malott points out, continues to be the global trend. Even in the developed world, cities that were once defined by post-manufacturing blight are now seeing a renaissance as they become hubs for technology and service-based economies. “People want to live in the cities again,” he observes. “That’s where the energy is. That’s where the opportunities are.”

As these newcomers move in, the most energy-efficient and cost-effective way to accommodate them and the business they bring is vertically, in tall and supertall (over 300 m) buildings with direct links to transportation and other infrastructure, says Malott. That has already led to the ramping up of high-rise construction, as well as a massive interest among technologists in ways to build taller, smarter and more user-friendly buildings than ever before. Malott states:

“I think we’re still just at the beginning of it all. There were more tall buildings built in the last 20 years than in the preceding 100 years, and the pace of it only seems to be accelerating. The overall trajectory is one of moving upwards, not outwards.”

Harvesting Buildings

In terms of engineering, Malott says, we can soon achieve buildings that are 1 mi. (1,609 m) high using the same fundamental technology that has been in use for the past 40 years. Incremental improvements in steel and concrete, the construction materials of choice, have been nudging the height ceiling upward over the decades, but now surpassing the current threshold would require what he calls a “quantum leap in innovation.”

Malott cites the advent of KONE UltraRopeTM, a carbon-fiber replacement for steel elevator cable, as one such leap. He believes that other radical advances, only a year or two away, will similarly involve moving from steel and concrete to organic, carbon-based materials. One example is the renewed interest in wood, specifically wood combined with concrete to make composite structures, as a construction material for tall buildings. It has already been used to create buildings of up to 20 stories, he says.

Likewise, advances have been made in using crushed mushroom stems mixed with wood chips as a hardened, insulating material. Malott predicts that further in the future, perhaps in a couple of decades, buildings will feature bacteria-infused fabrics that can respond to heat by becoming porous. He says:

“It’s much more sustainable to grow materials instead of mining materials, and it’s more sustainable to spin fabrics together into stronger structures than it is to melt steel. I want to heal and repair our planet, because we’re beyond the point of simply sustaining what we have. We have to do something radically different. Growing and harvesting buildings is definitely going to be something of the future.”

Sky’s the Limit?

In the world of tall buildings, advances in construction materials and design software are certainly set to push the height boundaries ever farther, a process that will drive innovation as designers are forced to work around new problems. But, is that a good strategy? At what altitude will enough be enough? “There might always be a desire to create icons and something taller than existed before, but at a certain point, it’s not what we need,” says Malott.

He doesn’t believe that the mainstream of our future lies in these gargantuan projects, but rather in clusters of buildings in the 300 — 500-m range. As he explains, the efficiency gains derived from densely packing people into a skyscraper are offset as other problems arise, among them the need for users to take two or more elevator rides to reach the upper floors.

Other limitations are psychological and physiological. For example, occupants of upper floors often feel claustrophobic, because they can’t open windows and access the outdoors. To get around this, architects need to design sky gardens and other outdoor spaces at height that are protected from the wind. Fire evacuation is another issue when too many flights of stairs are involved. Buildings can be designed in a compartmentalized way that will make complete evacuation unnecessary, but that still might not make occupants feel safe.

User Experience

Fortunately, development in tall buildings isn’t just about setting new height records, but involves making the buildings themselves more capable with the help of improved computer power. Malott predicts that, as machine learning and artificial intelligence advance, the computers that were once the tools of the architect will become better than the architect at carrying out repetitive design work. The role of the architect will then shift to focus on user experience, a factor that itself will get a boost from improved sensor technology. An abundance of sensors, which are now cheaper and better than ever, will act as a building’s central nervous system, Malott believes, making it far more responsive than before.

Not only will the building be able to measure and adjust for changes in light or check structural soundness, but also get to know its users, providing each with a customized experience, Malott says. “There’s going to be a more intimate connection between building and user,” he observes. “Just like with our apps and our music, buildings will be able to tailor themselves to each individual user, and that is going to be a game changer.”

Steve Roman: is a freelance journalist based in Tallinn, Estonia. He is a former editor at Eesti Rahvusringhääling public broadcasting and studied Slavic languages and literature at University of California, Berkeley.
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