Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher

 On our family trip to Michigan a week ago, we passed through Chicago. Although it was hazy, our eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the impressive and distinctive skyline created by the skyscrapers. It was therefore fitting that the book I brought along with me to enjoy on our journey was The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher.

The Heights is a coffee table sized book that is packed full of information about the history, design, construction, maintenance, and future of the skyscraper. It is full of great pictures and graphics. I thought the graphics were particularly well done and a wonderful way for a person to really understand what is going on in the text of the book. From showing how test boring is performed by a geotechnical engineer to how a wind tunnel works, the graphics were fantastic. The graphics are so amazing that my two sons (5 & 3) are also intrigued with this book. They like to flip through and have us read to them about the graphics that particularly intrigue them such as fire safety and construction of the skyscraper. My favorite graphic was actually at the beginning of the book which showed the steady progression of the height of skyscrapers over the past 150 years.
Beyond the excellent graphics, Ascher has a gift of being able to take quite complex topics and write them in a way that is accurate, but easily relatable to anyone.

As an engineer, I was very pleased to see that Ms. Asher pointed out that the design and construction of a skyscraper is very much a team effort. Too often architects end up with all of the glory, while the engineers are left in the shade.

I will admit that when I first received The Heights in the mail, my husband was very enthused and looked through the book before I did. He is a structural engineer (I am a water resources engineer) so it is right up his ally. I let him read this book too to give his opinion. He also thought it was very interesting and also very accurate. While Ben designs buildings himself, his company specializes in curtain wall design. What is a curtain wall? The Heights answers that question for you!

I have worked on sustainable projects in my career and thought that section in this book was very well done. I will admit I really loved the “drainage and sewage” bit on page 116. That is my specialty and I was more than a little disturbed to discover that in Dubai, the buildings have grown faster than the sewage systems. They actually have to deliver the waste from their skyscrapers via waste truck to the wastewater treatment plant. I could hardly believe it! I think they need to hire my firm ASAP to design a better system, preferably with me on the job. Seriously though, I thought it was very strange overall planning to forget about your sewage system.

I also was intrigued with the last section which has the future of skyscrapers. It is a little sad to me that while the skyscraper was an American invention, over the past ten years we have been far surpassed in the construction of skyscrapers by Dubai, Asia, and the rest of the world.

Overall, The Heights was an excellent book about a fascinating topic. The graphics and explanations of the design, construction, and workings of the modern marvel of the skyscrapers are perfect. The Heights is not only technically accurate, but written in a way that anyone with an interest can understand from my three-year old son to his structural engineer father.

I reviewed The Heights as part of the TLC Book Tour. For more stops on this tour, please check out this link.

Book Source: Review copy from the The Penguin Press. Thank-you!


  1. I don't know if this is something I'd be into, but your review was very informative. And EWWW... the thing about waste in Dubai... really?

  2. That is so cool that your husband was excited enough about it to read it first! I love that what he builds is covered in the book!

    It must have been fun to see what the author wrote about what you do, Laura!

    So glad the book was a hit! Thanks for being on the tour.