Skyscrapers or high-rise buildings are the standard new build in most cities and urban areas. While they can be extremely costly to build, they make the most of land, which is often in short supply.
Depending on the region, they can also serve as tourist attractions, bring retail and living spaces into a single building, and otherwise generate revenue in ways that smaller buildings don’t.
The average cost of building a skyscraper can vary quite a bit by location. For example, across the United States, costs average about $400 per square foot. In Los Angeles, that increases to $420, and in New York, to $495. However, costs also significantly depend on the total scope, luxury, and design of the building.
Cost To Build A Skyscraper
Building a skyscraper involves a significant amount of moving parts.
For example, your actual rate will depend on what types of materials you use, the local cost of labor, the size of the building, and local land.
Location is one of the most important aspects of cost when building a skyscraper.
For example, a plot of land in downtown Chicago will cost considerably less than the same plot in downtown New York. How much so?
The average cost of land in New York is about $1,000 per square foot. In downtown Manhattan, that can escalate well over $2,500 per square foot. That works out to about $10-$180 million per acre.
In downtown Chicago, rates can be as little as $50 per square foot. Often, you can expect to pay about $1 million per acre.
These rates vary significantly by location. In general, the more the sellers expect you to be able to make from the property, the more they’re likely to actually charge for the property.
And, you’ll often pay a premium for smaller land parcels divided into neat city lots versus buying an acre or two of land you have to develop yourself.
In addition, many landowners simply won’t sell. Instead, many skyscrapers are eventually built on leased land.
Often, these leases come with 50–100-year contracts, meaning that builders get to see the full value from the building.
But, by refusing to sell the property, the original landowners, of the city, ensure that they continue to realize value from the property, even as land values change.
This may or may not increase costs. However, it does often make property more accessible, because you won’t have to get a mortgage to cover the cost of land as well as the cost of building.
You will also likely have to have your development plan approved and will have to have significant cash reserves to prove that you can finish the development.
Architects and Design
In most cases, architects are a significant and important part of the total cost of building your skyscraper. Here, architects or architectural firms charge either an hourly rate ($125-$250 per hour) or a percentage of the construction costs.
Here, the industry standard rate across the country is 2.5% to 8.5%. Often these percentages are set based on the total value of the project.
For example, if your architectural firm expects the project to run $50+ million, you will likely receive a fee of 2.5% of the total cost of the building.
In addition, you might receive a different fee based on the complexity of the project. The more engineering the building requires, the more your architect is likely to charge for the service.
Here, features like eco-friendly building design, integrated systems, and unique design will all impact the total cost of the architect.
In addition, you can expect total height, local load requirements (e.g., local wind speeds), complexity of the foundation, etc., to play a large role.
For example, if you live in an area with a high-water table, designing the foundation will require significantly more work and expertise than doing so in a dry area.
So, if you’re building a 40-story building, you shouldn’t be surprised to pay upwards of $3 million for the architectural design and inspection.
The foundation is the basis of your structure and will ensure that the structure stays upright. Often, this structure requires multiple layers of excavation, reinforcing the ground, importing supporting materials, and laying concrete.
This normally starts with excavation. Here, you’ll have to flatten and level the property. If you want a basement or sub floors, you’ll also have to excavate those.
Excavation typically costs $50-$200 per cubic yard. That can work out to well over $400,000 per acre. And, the deeper you excavate, the more it will cost.
This normally involves planning and architectural involvement, because your foundation has to meet the needs of local soil density, the water table, and be able to withstand local weather and conditions.
Factors will include:
- Height of the water table. It’s not usually advisable to have basements or sub floors under the water table
- Soil composition. Softer and wetter soils will require more reinforcement, which could involve excavation, driving piles, and importing denser building materials
- Local weather. E.g., lateral strength for support against wind.
- Depth to the bedrock. If the bedrock is close to the surface, e.g., in midtown Manhattan where it’s only about 35 feet down, you’ll have to drill piers to support the building.
- Likelihood of earthquakes
In general, the taller the skyscraper, the deeper the foundation should be.
For example, the One World Trade Center in New York City has 150 feet of foundation with 80 feet of rock anchors extending into the bedrock. It also has 5 stories of basement.
On the other hand, the Willis Tower in Chicago, which stands at 1,451 feet, has 100 feet of foundation. That mostly includes concrete anchors in the bedrock.
So, the requirements for your foundation can vary quite a bit. That also means costs can vary quite a bit.
The World Trade Center is 200 feet by 200 feet. With an excavation area of 103,703 cubic yards for the basement and foundation, excavation alone would cost over $500,000 at current market rates.
And, the foundation itself may cost anywhere from $5-$37 per square foot – depending on complexity and construction.
Cost of Materials
Material costs, including glass, concrete, and steel will be considerable.
For most skyscrapers, materials are a very large percentage of the total cost.
Steel makes up the most expensive material in your average skyscraper. Here, you can expect rates to average between $400 and $1,800 per ton.
That variable rate happens because steel is a volatile commodity. Prices are dependent on shipping, energy costs, and the cost of labor.
For example, most construction steel is “hot rolled” steel. Here, roughly 35% of total costs are labor. Another 40% are the direct cost of the steel. And, another 25% are administration and transportation.
All of these costs can fluctuate, which means that the actual rate you pay for steel will change.
In addition, you normally need 2.2 pounds of steel per square foot of building. So, with that rough calculation, you’d need something close to 4,925 tons of steel to build something like the Willis Tower.
With current “average” market rates of $1,200 per ton of steel, that works out to $5.91 million in steel alone at current market rates.
However, steel rates can also change dramatically based on accessibility, local labor supply, and distance required to transport the materials.
So, you’ll always have to check local rates before calculating costs. In addition, you’ll often be able to get some bulk discounts.
Fabricated steel is the most common choice for construction of any type. Here, you pay to have steel cut to size, tempered, and treated or painted.
The rule of thumb is that this costs three times the cost of the steel. So, if you’re paying $1,200 per ton of steel, you can expect to pay $3,000-$3,600 for the fabricated parts.
What is fabrication? It’s the machining and manufacturing the raw steel into something that your construction crew can simply fit together.
Often, it’s cheaper and less time consuming to do in factories.
For example, if you’re building steel supports for concrete, it’s significantly cheaper to have the mesh rolled out and pressed in a factory.
The same also goes for other steel parts like trusses, I-beams, and reinforcements.
It’s a lot cheaper to cut the pieces you need while the steel is at the factory and then deliver them to the site ready to use. Here are the reasons why:
- The factory has a full range of tools to cut steel.
- You spend less transporting “waste” steel that would be cut off or not used.
- You don’t need expensive machinery for decoiling and bending rebar for structural supports.
Some structural supports like trusses are also extremely difficult to get without prefabrication. For example, while it’s possible to get plasma cutters and press bakers on-site for trusses, it’s expensive.
Having those parts prefabricated can save you buying, storing, and safeguarding that equipment over the course of the build.
Ensuring that equipment stays in regulated factories means you won’t have to get licensing or adhere to safety standards for using it on your build site.
All of that will eventually reduce timeline considerably. In fact, many recent builds, like the Zalmhaven Tower, are completely made of pre-fabricated steel. The project included an aggressive construction schedule of 1 floor a week over 42 weeks, which would not have been possible with traditional site fabrication.
Other, older skyscrapers, like the Willis Tower, were also made up of prefabricated steel. Everything from the tower was prefabricated, shipped to the site, and then welded together on the site.
Unfabricated (Site Fabrication)
While it makes sense for some skyscrapers to use fully prefabricated steel for construction, that isn’t always the case. Site fabrication can be significantly cheaper if the local cost of labor is very high.
In addition, if you have the equipment to cut and weld steel, you may be able to save some money by doing it on site.
However, you will want to calculate the man-hours and costs involved in each case. In addition, you’ll have to consider the cost of equipment, construction costs, and machining costs.
Chances are, you will save some money directly over paying for pre-fabrication. However, that may not be the case if you also calculate the total cost of added time, tools, and man-hours to shape the steel.
Here, some contractors also take a middle ground of doing steel supports on-site and using prefabrication for trusses and beams. However, eventually, your approach will have to depend on your contractors, their approach, and their capabilities.
Glass is the exterior facing material of choice for most high-rise buildings. Not only does it insulate well, it’s lightweight, cheaper than concrete, and strong enough to withstand significant pressure from wind and elements.
In fact, with modern manufacturing, where liquid glass is poured onto molten tin, glass panes can be manufactured over 6 yards wide.
Here, most skyscrapers use glass panes of a quarter of an inch thick, with a sandwich of air in between. Much like traditional double glazed windows, that offers insulation and strength.
Unfortunately, glass, like other materials, is impacted by supply chain disruptions. In 2022, the cost of architectural glass rose between 15-40% depending on region.
However, you can normally expect ¼ inch glass to start out at around $35 per square foot – meaning your exterior cladding will start out at about $70 per square foot – because you need two layers.
At the same time, prices can go up to well over $150 per square foot, especially if you have a hybrid system or reinforced glass.
How much can you expect to spend? The 52-story New York Times Building is 196 x 157 feet wide and 1,046 feet tall.
That means all four faces have a combined cladding surface of 738,476 square feet. Most of it isn’t glass and most new builds aren’t 52 stories high, but costs to clad it in glass would be significant.
The 42 floor Q22 skyscraper in Warsaw includes over 269,000 square feet of glass panels. Each of those panels are 15.5 x 8.3 feet in size. At current market prices, in the USA that would cost roughly $9.5 million in glass.
In most cases, you’ll need more concrete than any other building material.
Luckily, it’s also the cheapest, which is why many building projects include concrete facades and bases. The more concrete you need, the less you’ll pay for other materials.
However, it’s also important to note that you’ll always have to reinforce concrete. So, the more concrete you use, the more steel you’ll use.
In 2022, concrete cost an average of $134 per ton. However, it’s highly likely that you can reduce total costs by buying in bulk.
In addition, skyscrapers require custom concrete. You normally have to purchase 5,000 PSI or “high strength” concrete. This means you’ll need more concrete than for a lower strength concrete.
You’ll also have to frame, pressurize, and remove air from the concrete as you build. However, that’s included in the cost of labor.
Skyscrapers use concrete for the piles, for the foundation, for the floors, and for supports and structures. So, if you’re looking at a 40-story building, your concrete usage might look something like:
- Piles: 250 x 100 ft x 3.5 ft (diameter) (250 x 100 x 3.15 x 1.7×1.7) = 227,587 sqf
- Foundation: 200 x 200 x 5 = 200,000 sqf
- Floors: (200 x 200 x 0.8) x 40 = 1,280,000 sqf
So, without calculating columns and cores, you’d be looking at 1,707,587 sqf of concrete. With roughly 13.3 square feet of concrete in a ton, you’d be looking at 131,352 tons of concrete.
At 2022 market rates, that’s $17,075,760.
Labor is another significant cost factor in building a skyscraper. Here, construction workers for non-residential buildings typically earn about $22 per hour.
You’ll also have to pay management fees, administration fees, and fees for tools and machinery that the construction company brings with them to the job.
In this case, most construction companies will bring rates down to a flat-rate fee per day or per project. With all fees involved, you can normally average costs to about $50 per hour, per construction laborer on your jobsite.
That may or may not include equipment rental. For example, a large tower crane will typically cost around $15,000 per month to rent. But, your construction company may come with them.
Of course, if you’re in New York City, you’ll have to triple that. Construction laborers with union rates will earn close to $100 per hour. That can dramatically impact the total cost of your job.
So, if you have 80 workers on the job site, you can expect labor to average out at $32,000 per day.
Over an ambitious project like the 42 week Zalmtoren, you could expect to pay $6.7 million in labor costs, provided you only have 80 people on the job and you don’t live in New York, where that cost would triple.
Skyscrapers typically take 1-5 years to finish. Some, like the Empire State Building are built with immense speed. For example, the 102-floor structure was completed in just 400 days, or less than 4 days per floor.
Purpose of the Skyscraper
Skyscrapers are either built for office, residential, commercial, or mixed use. Here, the intention of the building will impact the standards required when building it.
In addition, office buildings cost more to build than residential buildings.
However, residential buildings cost more to finish than office buildings. That’s because you’ll have to build in housing units, dividers, etc., which can be considerable extra work over building in an open floorplan.
At the same time, most office spaces require thicker flooring. So, while residential high-rise buildings normally use concrete slabs of about 8 inches thick for the flooring, office buildings usually use 9-12 inches.
That difference will impact the cost of construction.
Building permits vary significantly across the United States. However, in most cities, they cost a percentage of the total cost of the building project.
This means you could pay up to 2.5% of the total building project in fees to the city. If you’re looking at a several-million-dollar project, that can be considerable.
Other cities will charge a flat rate per square foot. Those rates are often quite low at something like $0.15 per square foot of heated space. That’s low enough if you’re building a family home.
However, if you calculate the same for the 4,477,800 square foot of floor space in the Willis Tower, the minimum fee levied by the City of Chicago is currently $2.5-3.5 million depending on the intended use of the building.
On the other hand, many cities also charge a flat rate of a few thousand dollars for a building permit, without taking floor space into consideration.
However, on average, floor space will be part of the calculation, which means that your high-rise could involve a very significant building permit fee.
Depending on location, you may also have to pay for significant inspections and testing to meet local building codes and regulations.
In many cases your construction company will come insured. However, it’s also important to insure the build site, the work being done, and any equipment you have on site yourself.
You can normally expect this to cost $10,000+ per year. Those costs will be negligible compared to other costs involved, but it’s important to include it.
Skyscraper Building Price Factors
The cost of building your skyscraper will vary a great deal depending on factors like location, labor, design, and type of building.
All of these factors will come into play during pricing your project and you will be able to make decisions to help you meet preference and budget.
Cost of Materials
The cost of materials is often the most significant part of building a skyscraper. Here, you’ll see different costs based on factors like cost to import in your area.
You’ll also have to choose between prefabricating and site fabricating your steel. And, there are different grades of steel you can choose from.
Different facades also change rates a great deal. For example, glass is often one of the cheapest options you can choose – because you need less of it.
A traditional brick or concrete façade or cladding can be 18 or more inches thick. Glass cladding is normally about 8 inches thick.
So, it’s important to review options and to see what works for your project and why.
Cost of Labor
The cost of labor is a massive part of total costs. It also changes significantly based on where you live.
For example, in a unionized area such as New York, rates per hour are often well over $100 per hour.
When you calculate overhead costs and equipment fees levied by the contractor, you’re probably looking at around $150 per hour per person on the job site.
For most projects, the faster you complete the building, the cheaper it will be. And, with fees of $32,000 for labor, extending build time can be costly.
However, you’ll have to calculate if cost-saving measures like prefabrication actually save you money when added up.
Architectural design will contribute significantly to the total cost of the project. Factors here include how unique the building is.
The more custom work it needs, the more it will cost. Buildings that excel in terms of engineering to deliver performance, eco-friendliness, etc., will also take longer or will cost more to build.
Therefore, it’s important to assess how much features actually cost to build when asking for them.
Location can significantly impact the total cost of a building. That’s because labor, cost of materials, cost of storage, and cost of equipment can vary significantly by location.
For instance, the cost of labor in New York averages about $150 per hour with equipment included.
In another part of the country, that might drop as low as $30. However, cost of labor normally directly links to potential value of the building.
Finishing, including flooring, walls, fixtures, heating, etc., can be incredibly expensive. Therefore, the final or finishing touches on your skyscraper can be a significant portion of the cost.
Of course, you’ll often be able to invest in this at a later stage of building.
At the same time, the total volume of flooring, ceiling material, plasterboard, etc., that you’ll need usually mean you should commit to the purchase well in advance of actually needing it – so that it’s available when you do.
Skyscraper Building Codes & Compliance
Any skyscraper will require significant inspection and testing to ensure that it meets building codes.
This will mean spending a significant amount of budget meeting local city building regulations. That will include an architect, engineers, and consistent inspections throughout the building process.
In every case, you’ll have to comply with state, federal, and city building codes. Here, the state applies a minimum building code. Cities can add their own custom requirements or additions.
For example, the State of Illinois has a custom building code for high-rise buildings, including special requirements for fire resistance, structural integrity, exits, stairs, and other factors.
The city of Chicago further expands on this with its own building code. And, to build a high-rise in the city, you’ll have to comply with both.
It’s also important to keep in mind that if you’re building over 300 feet, some areas will require that you have Federal Aviation Administration or Aviation Safety approval as well as City approval.
What Constitutes A Skyscraper?
A skyscraper is a tall or high-rise building. However, there’s no universally agreed definition.
For example, some sources quote a high-rise as being 10 stories or higher. Others quote 20 stories or higher.
Some standards require that a skyscraper be at least 330 feet tall to count. Others require that it be 490 feet tall to count.
Essentially, there’s no one definition of “skyscraper”. However, the taller it is, the more likely it is to qualify. If you’re under that, your building will simply be a “high-rise”.
Benefits Of Building A Skyscraper
Most people agree that high-rise buildings are the future of construction.
Building up not out serves multiple functions, and for the people building them, can provide multiple advantages.
Increased Value from Land
Providing you can fill out your skyscraper, a taller building will always provide more value than a shorter one. With more units to rent, you will get more value per square foot of land you use.
After all, with 42 floors to rent out, your long-term prospective value is significantly higher than building an 8 story apartment building.
Of course, you’ll have to invest more upfront, will spend more waiting, and may have to invest significant research in ensuring there is enough demand to warrant the building. But, if there is, you can maximize the value of your property.
Decreased Footprint Per Unit
High-rise buildings decrease the materials, land, and carbon footprint per unit. That’s true whether the building in question is an apartment, a condo, or an office.
Integrating everything into one taller building reduces the amount of land that must be cleared and developed to create the same number of units. For the eco-conscious, that can only be a good thing.
That’s even more true when considering that it’s easier to integrate geothermal heating and cooling into high-rise buildings, ensuring that everyone in the building uses those technologies.
And, with modern architectural design, many high-rises and skyscrapers can be significantly carbon friendly.
Decreased Cost Per Unit
A single unit family home typically requires about 50 tons of concrete. The same floorspace in a skyscraper may reduce that to as little as 16.
Building a 2,600-square-foot home will cost between $260,000 and $500,000+. Building a 40,000-square-foot high-rise floor, which can be split into 16 of those units, likely costs between $1 million and $5 million, or a range for $62,500-$312,500.
Building a skyscraper costs anywhere from $1 to $5 million per floor on average, or about $400-$1000 per square food. These costs vary depending on location, current cost of materials, and what you want from the building. Here, you can affect some of those costs by choosing materials, building techniques, and design that work with your budget. In other cases, you’ll be stuck with local labor rates and options, which means you’ll have to work with what you have.