The ‘irrelevant’ discussion that’s threatening 1 World Trade Center’s status as America’s tallest building

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The Spire. (via Som.com)
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One World Trade Center’s status as a 1,776-foot tower and the tallest building in the United States is now in peril, thanks to an arcane dispute about the cladding of its spire, and whether without that cladding, the spire can be considered "architectural" rather than merely functional. 

Here's the Times’ David Dunlap, earlier this afternoon:

The decision to remove the cladding from the mast was made in January, said Douglas Durst, who is codeveloping 1 World Trade Center with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It is now coming to light with all the attention paid to the fact that the building has reached a height of 1,271 feet, making it the tallest in New York City.

If the unclad mast is regarded as an antenna, the Council on Tall Buildings will almost certainly not allow it to be included in the calculation. That would mean that 1 World Trade Center would lose both its symbolic dimension and its claim to unseating the Willis Tower in Chicago as the tallest building in America. Should the mast be regarded as an ornamental and nonfunctional spire, however, the equation would change in favor of 1 World Trade Center.

The tower's principle architect, David Childs, isn't much helping matters for the tower's developers, with his public assertion that the spire, absent the enclosure, is really just an antenna.

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But a decision on the matter has yet to be made, and the Council, a member-based organization of architects, engineers, developers and the like, is open to persuasion.

“Now at this point, we’re perfectly open to Durst coming to us and making the case that what is now left is still a spire,” Kevin Brass, the Council’s spokesman, told Capital. “We don’t know yet.”

The rationale behind including a decorative protuberance in a tower's official height and excluding a functional one is that decorative spires are intrinsic to a building's design, whereas antennae are there for other reasons.

"The needle on top of Burj Khalifa helps define Burj Khalifa in more ways than just height," said Brass, referring to the tallest building in the world.

This argument has sparked controversy before.

Upon its completion in 1998, the decoratively spired Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur won the tallest-in-the-world designation, surpassing Chicago’s Sears Tower (now called Willis Tower) because the Chicago-based Council declined to include the latter’s antenna in its height measurement.

Here's an explanation of the dispute from the Council's website.

With their decorative spires considered part of the architectural height (similar to the Chrysler Building some 70 years previously), the 452m (1,483ft) Petronas Towers took the title of the world’s tallest building away from the then holder Sears Tower by 9.7m (32ft) since the antennae of Sears at 519m (1,704ft) height were not included in its height measurement.

However, the twin Petronas Towers were only 379m (1,242ft) without the spires, which was much shorter than both the highest inhabitable floor and flat roof of Sears. Thus viewing the Petronas and Sears Towers side by side (or seeing them in diagrammatic form), it seemed that Sears Tower was much taller, since the two 77m (253 ft) TV antennas brought the total height to 519m (1704ft). At the April 1996 CTBUH Height Committee Meeting, it was decided that the spires should count in the official height of the Petronas Towers, thus giving it the world’s tallest title, but it was a decision that many (especially Chicagoans!) disagreed with.

If the dispute over the tower's height persists, the Council's Height Committee, chaired by architect Peter Weismantle, will be the final arbiter.

"There was no vote that made us the poobahs of height," said Brass. "I think it’s just become accepted that we take a rational, consistent approach to dealing with these questions."

"I think by default the industry does accept that we are independent, we don’t have any axe to grind, we don’t have any biases," he added. 

The Durst Organization continues to maintain that with or without the fiberglass and steel enclosure, known as a radome, the spire is architectural (here's what the spire looks like). Durst spokesman Jordan Barowitz says removal of the radome was necessary  because repairing any damage to its exterior panels would have been remarkably dangerous. 

“A quote-unquote free climber would have to scale the [400]-foot-tall spire, attach a cable to the top, somehow lower that cable 2,000 feet down to some point presumably on the memorial, where if it wasn’t in the middle of a pool or blocked by a tree, a 2,000 pound, 40-foot long piece of fiberglass would somehow have to be hoisted up this cable and set into place in order to replace a damaged piece of radome,” said Barowitz.

He said that would have been “not just dangerous, but an engineering impossibility. As far as we know, nothing like that has ever been done before.”

Though the removal of the radome enclosure is estimated to be saving the developers $20 million, Barowitz said, "It was not a cost-saving measure."

The Port Authority, which the Durst Organization said made the decision to remove the enclosure, maintains the entire debate is specious.

"We confess," said Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesman. "One World Trade Center is really a three-story walk up in Peoria. If truth be told, this discussion is irrelevant. One WTC will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.”