Considered to be the world’s first modern skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago was constructed in the late 1800’s. When, however, were some of the first multi-story buildings constructed? How far back into history must we go in order to understand how long this architectural ability has existed to build multiple stories?

The Bible has probably the most famous and oldest mention of a multi-story building: the Tower of Babel. This was a tower that was built to reach as high as they could in the heavens to reach G-d. This backfired, and as the story goes, G-d destroyed the tower and caused everyone to speak many different languages.

Back in ancient Rome, the Romans built some of the first multi-story buildings. It was the opposite of today, however, where a penthouse, i.e. the top floor, is incredibly expensive. Back then, it was the higher the floor, the smaller the rooms, and the cheaper the cost. This was due to the fact that if there was a fire, the people in the higher floors were practically guaranteed to perish, due to a severe lack of fire safety measures back in those days. See The Early Days of Firefighting Technology to learn more about the evolution of how people fought fires.

An “insula” in Roman architecture was kind of like an apartment building that housed most of the population, all except those from the upper-middle class to the wealthiest citizens. The ground level of the insula was for shops and businesses, while the upstairs was living space. It was sometimes given a name, generally referring to the owner of the building. Usually, a single insula could house over 40 people. The entire structure would have about six to seven apartments. Often, the upper floors were without heating, running water, or bathrooms. Reforms were made under Augustus to increase safety in these buildings. There were dangers of fire and collapse, so the height of these buildings were restricted to 70 feet. Emperor Nero restricted the insula even more, down to 60 feet. The entire city had around 42000 to 46000 insulae.

There is a town in Yemen with a population of just 7,000 by the name of Shibam. It is famous for mudbrick-made high rises. Its history can be traced back to the third century AD. It is famous for its distinct architecture. Its houses are all made of mud brick and about 500 of them are five to eleven stories high. Most of the city’s houses originate from the sixteenth century. It is often called the “oldest skyscraper city in the world” as well as “the Manhattan of the desert.” It has some of the tallest mud buildings in the entire world, some of them reaching over 100 feet high.  

Multi-story buildings of the past are nothing near what we have today, with skyscrapers such as the Burj Khalifa and One World Trade Center. One day, they may look back on skyscrapers now, and think they seem rather small. What do you think multi-story buildings will look like in several hundred years? Sound off in the comments below.

Barak Bacharach, SkySaver Content Manager