LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry

The top-down construction technique isn't new, but its use in building megastructures could be the biggest change in construction history.
Christopher McFadden
The Exchange Project: Image of the building under construction.
The Exchange Project: Image of the building under construction.


  • Human beings have been raising megastructures for tens of thousands of years.
  • The concept of building from the ground up has largely remained unchanged.
  • LIFTbuild: The new system uses a patented method of vertical structure assembly.

Buildings are an important part of our built environment and essential to our daily lives. From skyscrapers to small homes, these structures provide shelter, protection, and a sense of place.

However, all buildings have been constructed similarly: from the ground up. This is for obvious technical reasons, but this might be about to change thanks to new ways of thinking about how we construct large structures like buildings.

Let us introduce you to the Exchange in Detroit and a new construction method called LIFTbuild.

What is the Exchange in Detroit?

The Exchange in Detroit is a new 16-story, residential, high-rise building that might change how similar buildings are constructed. Relatively humble in its dimensions relative to other high-rises, the building's main claim to fame is the way it is built: from the top down rather than the more conventional ground-up.

The 207-foot-tall (63-meter-tall) Exchange skyscraper is one of the first such buildings in North America. The structure serves as a prototype for LIFTbuild technology, which uses an apparatus that transforms a building site into a manufacturing facility.

The new system uses a patented method of vertical structure assembly. The entire roof and floor plate assembly are first completed at ground level. The outer facade and other chosen systems are put in place after the floor plates are put together.

Before the finished floor plate assembly is hoisted and fastened into its final position, prefabricated sub-assemblies are inserted. While the floors below are still being constructed, the fit-out is executed in a completely contained and climate-controlled environment.

Liftbuild, a division of Barton Malow, claims to provide a safe and effective working environment while maximizing potential savings of both time and money.

Liftbuild was devised by construction firm Barton Malow, which has dedicated itself to a motto of "Building with the American Spirit: People, Projects, and Communities." for almost a century. The Barton Malow family of companies spans North America and consists of four distinct organizations and five associate businesses.

Barton Malow is an employee-owned business, with more than 3,000 team members and 16 offices says that its aims are to innovate by "changing the way projects are designed, and materials are fabricated, shipped, and assembled once on-site."

According to the company, the long-term objective of Barton Malow is to develop creative, trustworthy solutions. To this end, Barton Malow has invested in creating revolutionary technologies, such as LIFTbuild, which the company hopes will help achieve its overall goal of doubling efficiency and transforming the construction industry.

According to the LIFTbuild website, the Exchange showcases the first application of the LIFTbuild approach to high-rise construction. The residential tower includes 153 residential rental units, 12 for-sale condominiums, ground-level office space, and retail space totaling 166,742 square feet.

The company adds that LIFTbuild’s patented approaches to construction means and methods provide opportunities for a safer, quality-driven, and more efficient project site. Pre-leasing of apartments began in the summer of 2021, and completion is scheduled for spring 2023.

Each unit within Exchange provides views of the city on each side, looking toward the Detroit River, downtown, and the city’s sports and entertainment district.

In-demand amenities for residents include 24/7 valet; an exclusive fitness center featuring Technogym equipment; an outdoor rooftop terrace with a view downtown; luxury, high-end appliances; skyline and river views; elevated finishes; and intelligent, touch-free living throughout the building.

One goal of the Exchange project is to build a new neighborhood environment with the completion of the first high-rise residential units in the area in decades. The development is a short walk to entertainment venues within The District.

The project will also respect the Greektown neighborhood’s unique culture and history, as well as provide mobility, parking, accessibility, and street-level interaction with the area's new pedestrianized plaza — THE PLAZA @ Gratiot + Randolph — and aims to convey a unique overall neighborhood experience.

As for construction, the company points out that safety is a primary concern for the new system.

"We’re not putting people on beams 100 feet in the air that needs to be tied off. We’re trying to eliminate all the fall hazards. That is our number one objective, get rid of the hazards, get rid of the inefficiencies on the site," explained Joe Benvenuto, Chief Operating Officer of LIFTbuild, to WXYZ news.

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's rendering of the completed buildng.

According to Benvenuto, two spine-shaped concrete supports at the building's core will support the $64 million tower. They will function as a pulley, to lift floors weighing a million pounds, and will house the elevators and stairways.

"It’s a [full] cantilever design, and there [are] no columns in the way of the exterior glazing, so if we go up to the floors, you will see a wide-open floor space that’s great for the residents but also assembled in a way that’s very efficient for the workers," Benvenuto said.

Over 150,000 pounds (68,039 kg) of steel and 110 cubic yards (84 cubic meters) of concrete will be used to construct each floor. After being put together, each one is then lifted at a 25-foot-per-minute average speed.

"If you look up now, you can see all the ductwork, plumbing, fire protection, and fireproofing done right here," said Benvenuto.

"We can immediately condition the space, so our workers immediately go into a cool condition on a hot summer day or a heated condition on a cold winter day," Benvenuto explained.

"Ultimately, our goal is to be 10 to 20 percent in savings for cost and 30% on schedule," he added.

This is especially true given that only 50 construction employees are required on this site.

Benvenuto claims that the construction is beginning after four years of research and development and a number of U.S. patents.

"Land is at a premium, and the development of the city needs to happen in a much denser environment; this type of technology helps us accomplish that as well as reduced labor demands and hopefully faster schedule times and more economical budgets," he said.

When the Exchange is finished, it will mostly be a residential tower with a few small businesses on the ground floor. By the time it is finished in the late spring of 2023, Detroit may well have gained a new reputation for adopting cutting-edge building techniques.

Why is the Exchange in Detroit revolutionary?

In essence, it is putting a revolutionary building technique into practice.

Considered a potential substitute for the labor-intensive building process involving the creation of steel frames, floors, walls, and all components at height, top-down construction involves first assembling a building's floors on the ground and hoisting them into place.

Such top-down construction, coupled with prefabrication techniques, could prove to be a powerful building technique of the future.

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Image of the core towers.

Sited on a triangular, three-quarter-acre site, the 16-story structure will be, at best, challenging to build, and not just because bustling city streets and commercial establishments surround it. The site's proximity to Detroit's elevated People Mover system limits prospective crane usage.

But, the company argues that processes like LIFTbuild make construction on such a challenging site considerably easier.

“[The People Mover] is right at the edge of the site,” says Mark Tamaro, managing principal of Thornton Tomasetti, the structural engineer for Exchange.

“One of the appealing aspects of [the top-down approach] is that all of the meaningful loads of the building are centered on its cores. You’ve got a very tight site constrained by a neighbor’s activities that have sensitivity. LIFTbuild [allows you] to stay as close to one edge and as far away from the other as possible.”

The $64.6 million project will serve as a proof of concept for LIFTbuild, a wholly owned subsidiary of Detroit-area builder Barton Malow, which also serves as the project's development partner.

Before the 166,000-square-foot (2416 m2) Exchange began building in September 2021, LIFTbuild acquired around 15 separate patents for top-down construction and manufacturing-in-construction techniques over four years of research and development.

Of course, the building is not entirely top-down in its construction — it does not start by floating in mid-air. It does require the basic foundations and some core structure to be assembled first, using more traditional construction methods.

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's impression of the front elevation.

Two traditionally constructed concrete cores, which LIFTbuild's Benvenuto refers to as "spines," act as the building's foundation.

The elevators and stairwells are located inside the 10–12 inch (25-30 cm) thick core walls. Over 75 tonnes of steel and 110 cubic yards (83 m3) of concrete are used in constructing each steel-framed floor deck of the high-rise.

When the 500-ton, 11,000-square-foot (1,022 m2) floorplates are ready to be lifted, they are individually elevated by eight 200-ton-or-less strand jacks staged on the ground with pulley systems on top.

A specialized steel-frame rigging system developed by Engineered Rigging connects the floor segments to the strand jacks at a rate of between 20 feet (6 meters) to 30 feet (9 meters) per hour, and this may also be utilized for additional floors. Once fully lifted, the floors are joined to the cores by a specialized bolted connection.

Tamaro, who has served as the structural engineer on top-down projects in India, claims that this is the third iteration of the method used to lock the floors into the core and that it has become simpler, faster, and better with each passing iteration. “It’s getting better because we have the contractor’s input each time to see what works and what’s a challenge.” the contractor said.

Due to safety precautions and redundancies incorporated into the strand jacks, construction may start on a new floor beneath the higher one without risk. After the lifting is finished, the first two stories, which will house a retail tenant, the lobby, and the fitness center of the building, will be constructed traditionally as a podium.

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's rendering of the interior of one of the apartments.

All other floors, however, can be lifted into place.

Eight levels have been added to the construction thus far. The building's cores fully support the floors; no trusses or other roof supports exist. Before making permanent structural connections to the spines, the highest floor had to be raised and locked, which took around 10 hours.

The LIFTbuild rigging system and the strand jacks from Engineered Rigging also helped lift the roof with its membrane and mechanical components.

"It's a fully cantilevered design, and there are no columns in the way of the exterior glazing, so if we go up to the floors, you will see a wide-open floor space, which is great for the residents but also great for the workers assembling it,” Benvenuto says.

Prefabrication is a big part of the project

According to Benvenuto, all steel construction has been designed using Revit (an Autodesk CAD program) to a high level of fabrication. All assemblies—from wall panels to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) racks—are pre-measured and tagged.

From the building's walls to its MEP systems, LIFTbuild has collaborated with its suppliers to develop unitized assemblies ready for installation when the building is completed. Additionally, it has a warehouse in southwest Detroit where many supplies are kept before being delivered just in time to the location.

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's rendering of the bedroom of one of the completed apartments.

Benvenuto asserts that if constructed traditionally at height, all of the procedures LIFTbuild and its alliance contractors—subcontractors who joined the project early in its development—are completing on the ground would carry a more significant risk.

They can also temporarily raise a floor 6–8 feet using LIFTbuild's strand-jack technique to install mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems at a convenient working height.

“We constantly communicate and talk to our subcontractors about why this is the right height for us for access, installing work, or for moving around the site,” Benvenuto says.

“We can do that at any elevation. It’s all about the efficiency of the worker.”

Fire protection, piping supply, ductwork, and the top track for the interior walls are installed at this ground-level stage rather than at a higher elevation. Small crews then install the few systems that could not be built from the ground up after they climb the stairs to the most recently elevated floor and link the walls to the slabs at a height.

But labor is not the only expense that can be reduced compared to conventional techniques. By doing it in this manner, the Exchange may be built with less concrete and steel.

Because of the atypical staging and timetable, LIFTbuild was forced to include subcontractors in the project early on. According to Daniel Harding, senior project architect at architect firm Ghafari Associates, "the exterior envelope contractor [CGI] were on board from the very beginning [of the design]."

“The exterior envelope is a design-build system. Some other team members were added in as the design process went along. After the MEP folks joined the process, some of the innovative things that we’ve done, such as prepackaging the wall panels, became part of the plan from just looking at all of the different ways we could get them done—certainly a logistical challenge that Barton Malow has taken on.”

The new building method is not only groundbreaking from a technical construction point-of-view but it also enhances safety on site too.

Safety is also a significant consideration on site

A panelized metal building envelope would be installed in a traditionally built construction by workers tying in on the edge of the floor plate, first applying insulation and then a rain screen. Crews wearing safety harnesses would install a metal panel cladding on the exterior while a crane raised materials to the proper height.

However, if there is a lot of wind during installation, the curtainwall panels could be damaged or dropped - a serious safety concern.

“Here, it’s coming unitized and prefabricated in one already completed piece,” Benvenuto says. “But it’s still a conventionally tested joint that has been engineered and somewhat modified [to accommodate our system and methodologies]. We try to use the connections and other aspects of conventional construction that have been tested and relied on and not have a bunch of one-off systems.”

According to Benvenuto, standardization is a top priority, and mass customization is used, within the capabilities of LIFTbuild and its suppliers. To make the system appealing to other developers, they want to use as many commercially available building blocks as possible. "It's one of our goals," says Benvenuto.

Thanks to the fire protection subcontractor and alliance partner Progressive, all sprinkler heads are flexible and fit into the ceiling when installed on the floor above. Shaw Electric, which was also involved in the design process as an alliance partner, erected the electrical wiring using a similar technique. Similarly, alliance partner Sylvan designed and built mechanical systems and HVAC ductwork to fit in before floors were lifted.

Barton Malow put them together as unitized systems and self-performed all ground-level concrete and steel work. According to Benvenuto, a typical floor requires a 9–10 day working cycle before it is hauled into position, and Barton Malow's interior self-perform crew takes over.

Barton Malow has invested in the Exchange project, which, when finished, will have 12 condominium units and 153 residential apartments. Benvenuto expressed his hope that it will be a successful demonstration project that draws other developers, including those working on different types of structures, to the LIFTbuild method.

The building system was thoroughly presented, according to one of the minority investors, a well-known Detroit developer. Everyone involved was on board with using it and taking part in the proof of concept.

“When you move all this labor down to the ground, the more sophisticated the MEP systems are, it’s better,” Benvenuto says.

“This is a residential building. So while we’re saving labor, it's not very intricate and complex because it’s done at [the ground]. Put this in a health care facility where you have complex MEP systems, multi-trade racks, [you’re now] installing that six feet off the ground, not up in the air. That’s where I think we begin to gain momentum on labor savings and efficiency of our trades.”

All very interesting, and no doubt, once finished, the building will certainly become a new landmark in the city. But, it is not the only construction worldwide to get the LIFTbuild treatment.

Are there any other LIFTbuild projects?

The LIFTbuild project in Detroit is exciting, but it is not the only building built using its innovative system. Here is a selection of projects either under consideration for construction or which have been built using the LIFTbuild method.

1. Convention Center Hotel, Raleigh, North Carolina

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's impression of th Convention Center Hotel.

Currently in the planning phase, according to LIFTbuild, the City of Raleigh put a lot of thought into the design of the Convention Center Hotel. It is designed to give the neighborhood around the Convention Center full support and facilities, and provide a much-needed increase in rooms with quick access to the Convention Center.

With the entrance to the Fayetteville Street Corridor, the building's design is described as "paying homage" to the city's history and "carrying it forward into the future with a sleek and modern concept."

For example, the podium's design uses limestone paneling to match the building's façade with a contemporary interpretation of the fenestration.

The hotel's northern façade will be pushed away from the downtown area by orienting the tower to the south, providing unimpeded views of the Capitol. The upward perspective from the rooms above will become the roof garden.

The tower will be placed on one side of the block to create 360-degree vistas and set itself apart from the tall corridor of skyscrapers gazing down Lafayette Street. The podium massing will be kept as low as possible to retain a relationship with the pedestrian activity surrounding it, per the intent of the code and the City's comprehensive plan update.

2. Lafayette West, Detroit, Michigan

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's impression of the Lafayette West.

Another building that is still in development, the Lafayette West development will surround Mies van der Rohe's 5.2-acre (21,043.7 m2) Lafayette Park - a housing development containing the world's largest collection of buildings designed by the famed architect. The new construction is expected to add 374 new homes and stores to the area's storied Lafayette Park neighborhood. Lofts, townhouses, and apartments will all be available for rent and purchase If the building is ever completed.

If the building gets the green li, LIFTbuild technology will be used in the highrise building to construct each of the tower's ten stories at ground level before lifting each floor into its ultimate location.

One hundred and forty apartments are planned for the LIFTbuild residential tower on the property, comprising 24 condos for sale and 120 rental apartments. The skyscraper will also have shops and services for residents.

A park-like environment and a pre-cast parking structure were also incorporated into the site's initial programming for residents and visitors.

3. Ambulatory Care Facility, Eastern Virginia

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's impression of the complete Ambulatory Care Facility.

Using LIFTbuild technology, the Ambulatory Care Facility's conceptual design provided a chance to create vast, open spaces without columns. This, according to LIFTbuild, is a rare occurrence in healthcare design.

Since the entire building's design is based around LIFTbuild technology, the initial design process is more straightforward and keeps the building flexible throughout its lifespan.

By doing so, there are various advantages to removing columns, including:

  • No columns sticking out into rooms' usable space
  • being able to employ common, readily available furniture parts
  • No columns sticking out into the hallways

According to LIFTbuild, its team worked hard to provide maximum flexibility – even with the structural spines – even though this facility featured three spines that supported the conventionally built floors that needed to be planned around. Elevators, staircases, supply shafts, and electrical and IT equipment rooms are mainly located on the two outer spines of the building and will never shift.

To ensure maximum flexibility, the spine was "perforated" with large apertures to accommodate a variety of potential applications in the future. The Ambulatory Care Facility was created to maximize future re-use and its intended purpose today.

The design suggested by the LIFTbuild team featured 18 occupied stories plus a mechanical equipment floor at the penthouse. The building stacking diagram's principal components were as follows:

  • Radiation Oncology is all on one level, allowing for the extra room needed for inpatients and providing access to natural light by avoiding putting the area in the basement.
  • Possibility of more shell space beneath the parking garage next to Radiation Oncology
  • On Level 2 of the building, there is access to a garden patio for the Medical Oncology department.
  • A 12-story parking structure with the option of replacing the current cancer center healing garden with an upper-level garden area. Removing the mechanical space from the top of the parking structure made this easier.
  • The parking structure is constructed above grade for a significant reduction in excavation and soil removal required.
  • An elevated walkway connects the invasive/sedation shell level to the parking structure for easy patient access to a future surgery center.

4. Office and Research Facility, Bangalore, India

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Exterior view of the Office + Research Facility.

On an existing campus in India, this office and research facility for a private Fortune 100 firm is a shining example of innovative thinking. The 620,000 squared-foot (57,600 m2), 10-story intelligent skyscraper was planned and constructed with innovation and efficiency at every stage, from conception to occupation. The top-down method was used to complete the building in 2018. The facility is a portion of a complex that houses more than 3,500 people and includes:

  • Both conventional offices and collaborative team spaces
  • facilities for research and development, including clean rooms
  • areas with amenities for lifestyle and recreation

By erecting each level at grade and raising the fully covered floor to its final height before locking it into place, the team accomplished its goals of boosting safety and lowering the schedule.

Although the concept of opening up conventional office layouts is not new, the strategy allowed for the removal of columns throughout the entire building, providing the following advantages, according to LIFTbuild:

  • Structural barriers are few, allowing for greater freedom in space configuration
  • Most workstations possible on the floorplate
  • Collaboration and communication are improved, allowing for a more accessible exchange of ideas across different employees and departments.

5. St. Antoine Development, Detroit, Michigan

LIFTbuild: New game-changing construction system in skyscraper industry
Artist's impression of St. Antoine Development.

The Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center, completed in 1929, is right next to the St. Antoine Residential Development, situated on a master-planned location on the Brewster-Douglas property. Plans for the redevelopment of the area aim to renovate the leisure center into a restaurant, brewery, and conference venue while maintaining its historic charm.

The St. Antoine Development, which consists of two more midrise residential towers and a parking facility, is included in the site's preliminary designs.

If LIFTbuild's proposal is accepted, residents of St. Antoine will have access to 124 units of noteworthy architectural status and a host of facilities. In addition to having 18,000 squared-foot (1,672 m2) of practical business and retail space, the first level is close to Eastern Market. For tenants and visitors, a 5,000 square-foot (464 m2) rooftop terrace with chairs, fire pits, and social areas offers a clear view of the downtown Detroit skyline via the sports district. On the east side of Midtown, an area of rapid growth and renovation, the design creates a focal point as a tall skyscraper.

The outside of the building is designed in a contemporary, international style influenced by Lafayette Park in Detroit. The outer skin will be made up of several off-site produced modular parts that will be transported in 15-inch (38 cm) span sections and then clipped and hung on the building's façade. To create a system unique to the LIFTbuild structure, LIFTbuild is, in its own words, reinterpreting the conventional curtainwall structure.

In this system, the outer curtainwall will support itself and fastens to the floorplates.

The project represents the revitalization of a section of Detroit that had been largely ignored and the beginning of a fresh, cutting-edge approach to building that represents vertical manufacturing right in the middle of the Motor City.

"Our team’s research, development, and processes visualize St. Antoine utilizing a pure LIFTbuild approach through all aspects of coordination with our prefabrication, modularization, and key design-assist subcontractors to maximize the schedule from groundbreaking through completion, beating any traditional schedule in construction. As the floors move up into place, 80% of the interiors will already be complete," explains LIFTbuild.

And that is your lot for today.

Undoubtedly, the Exchange building is certainly an exciting diversion from traditional high-rise construction, but will it upturn, so to speak, general construction techniques wholesale? This will ultimately come down to the economy of scale.

If the technique is more beneficial and cheaper than traditional construction methods, it will likely make big inroads. If not, it will probably remain a specialist construction method for ad hoc situations like the challenging site in Detroit.

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