An Elevated State of Mind

An Elevated State of Mind
Malwina Gudowska | Photos: Randy Gibson | Dec.09.2011 | comments 2

They’re not exactly stairways to heaven, but elevators do make highrises possible, save us a lot of effort and even serve as travelling laboratories for those who want to observe how humans act in confined spaces.

Elevator etiquette is a study in human nature. There’s the considerate elevator shuffle—first person in presses the button then moves to the back. If she lives on a high floor, she will retreat to the far right corner of the cab to make way for more button-pushers. Starting from that corner, a flow will be established. After the first passenger exits, the next departing passenger will move to the front, while those who live on higher floors will slip toward the back. Disturbing the proper flow is frowned upon.

Then there are the determined, insistent button-pushers. These folks get on the elevator and push the button for their floor even when it is already lighted. They’re also the ones who repeatedly jab the Up button when waiting for the elevator to arrive in the lobby. When that blessed event occurs, they then turn their attention to the Close Door button. But here’s a secret: one push is all that button needs or understands—no amount of pushing will make the doors close any faster.

Elevators also offer insights into civility. And here, the findings are troubling: It’s basically every man for himself. Neighbourly hellos and goodbyes in the elevators in my building are rare; eye contact is avoided at all cost. And forget about chivalry—seldom does a man let a woman exit first. I would also wager that the Close Door button is pushed a lot more often than the Open Door one when a harried resident yells, “Hold the elevator.”

Maybe none of the findings of these daily experiments in personal space, courtesy and impatience should be surprising. Elevators merely serve to confine us with strangers. The behaviour we demonstrate in them is more easily observed, but it is not fundamentally different from how we act in our daily lives. Perhaps for this reason, the small spaces of elevators have proved irresistible to writers, and they make frequent appearances in pop culture. From Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator to just about every episode of Grey’s Anatomy to the blood elevator in The Shining, the humble form of vertical transportation has burrowed deep into our collective unconsciousness.


Darryl Cervi has seen countless examples of the elevator shuffle in the 40 years he has spent in the business. But the Alberta area manager for Fujitec Canada Inc. has never seen anything remotely resembling the way elevators are portrayed by Hollywood.

“The scenes you see in movies are absolutely so false and so fabricated,” Cervi says. “Elevators are the safest mode of transportation. In fact, I have even heard they are safer than walking.” To prove his point, Cervi says that he has never heard of a fatal elevator accident in Calgary as a result of what he calls “normal use by the general public,” and only one in which a passenger was injured, although he can’t elaborate on the incident because he wasn’t directly involved in the investigation, he says. (There have been other incidents where passengers were injured, but only because they pried the elevator doors open instead of waiting for a technician, for example. According to Cervi, that exceeds the definition of normal use.)

If you’ve been in a theatre for a screening of Mission Impossible, Speed or any instalment of the Die Hard franchise and heard a man scoffing loudly during the elevator scene, that was likely Cervi. What he finds particularly galling is how these scenes ignore basic elements of elevator design. “The danger of an elevator is falling up, not falling down,” he says, while stressing that even this is a highly unlikely scenario.

The hoist cables—there are at least six, and as many as 10, even though an elevator can function with just one—run from the cab, over a machine that holds the motor and the sheave, or pulley, and then are connected to a counterweight, which is typically equal to the weight of the empty cab plus 40 to 50 per cent of the capacity of the elevator. So if the car capacity is 20 people, the elevator is balanced for 10, meaning that if there are fewer than 10 people riding when something goes drastically wrong, the elevator would go up because the counterweight is heavier. (Low- and mid-rise buildings with smaller passenger demand have hydraulic elevators that use a fluid-driven piston mounted inside a cylinder and don’t need a counterweight.)

There are so many safety circuits, especially in the newer elevators, says Cervi, that if the smallest thing goes wrong—too much dust on one of the parts, something blocking the cab from moving—the elevator will take itself out of service. That is not a bad thing, but it’s hardly the stuff of high drama. And don’t bother trying to open the ceiling hatch like they do in the movies; it’s always bolted shut from the outside and can only be accessed by emergency crews and maintenance workers.

Cervi’s idea of fun with elevators is a bit subtler. When he says, “I’d let you ride on top of the cab, but that’s frowned upon,” it takes me a few seconds to realize he’s joking. He does, however, offer to let me stand underneath a descending elevator. It’s a strange feeling to look up and find an elevator cab coming toward my head. There’s a queasy ache in the pit of my stomach, and it takes everything I’ve got to fight my flight instinct. The elevator stops at Main, mere feet away from the crown of my head, and sits there while I hear the doors open and the people exit. Other people get on, the doors close, and back up it goes into the darkness of the elevator shaft until it disappears.

Cervi is clearly enjoying the show. “You see the buffers here,” he says, “even if the elevator somehow slipped past the last floor, the buffers would stop it from coming into the pit.” Like Cervi himself, the elevator accepts no room for error.

>|< As he gets on the elevator, the man casually swings a blue bag back and forth in his left hand while his right arm is wrapped around a stack of papers and what looks to be a takeout container. I’m not a Tiffany’s kind of girl but I know what a little blue bag means: proposal, make-up gift or an anniversary. I decide he’s going to propose, but this is just a happy scenario I’ve created in my head. It helps pass the time (I live on the 22nd floor of a 24-storey condominium tower, so a lot of my time is spent in elevators) and underlines how modern conveyances have become public stages on which we all perform. Not all the performances are pleasant. There was the time five drunk guys rode the elevator up and down late at night, and I had to twice decline a ride before the second, empty elevator arrived. Once, a couple fought in front of me for 12 floors. And then there are all the times people insist on blaring bad music on their iPods or talking loudly on a cellphone. I thank the reception gods when the call is finally dropped—usually by the fifth floor. And without fail, when I’m in a real hurry, someone will get on at the lobby and ride the elevator all the way to the second floor. I call these tenants the “one stop, reallys?” (When I’m in a real hurry, other terms come to mind.) Once, the “one stop, really?” was a very muscular man who, judging from his attire, was probably riding the one floor to the gym. <|>

Fujitec focuses on commercial buildings with high traffic and the need for high-speed elevators. Its Calgary clients include the newly expanded Calgary International Airport, The Peter Lougheed Centre, the Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Foothills Medical Centre.

The company also has a small share of the high-rise residential market which has different needs than the commercial market. For example, an average elevator in a high-rise condominium travels at a rate of 350 feet per minute and, on average, there will be three elevators in a 30-storey building. In comparison, a 34-storey commercial space would have around 20 elevators capable of travelling 750 to 1,000 feet per minute.

Before deciding how many elevators are needed for a given building, traffic studies are conducted. These take into consideration factors such as the square footage of the building, its capacity and the type of tenant. “Bigger elevators take more people, but a bigger elevator… takes longer to load,” Cervi says. “It’s a real science.”

In Calgary, the Alberta Elevating Devices and Amusement Rides Safety Association monitors this science. AEDARSA inspects elevators every two years (escalators, handicapped lifts, amusement rides and ski lifts get inspected annually) and issues an annual report that details any reported incidents.

Cervi doesn’t need that documentation to identify the biggest cause of elevator malfunctions: passengers who amuse themselves by jumping up and down in the elevator. They represent the greatest nuisance and the source of most calls to Fujitec’s emergency dispatcher.

“If you start bouncing in it when it’s going down, it starts oscillating because, like anything—like a trampoline—when you get the bounce going, it gets bigger and bigger,” Cervi says. “There are encoders on the cables that track the movement of the elevator, and when the elevator is bouncing it will over-speed and then it will under-speed. The equipment is so sensitive that if the elevator starts oscillating, it will shut down.” Usually, the elevator will stop on the next floor and the doors will open but that’s not always the case. According to AEDARSA, between April 1st, 2010 and March 31st, 2011, there were 56 incident reports relating to elevating devices (the organization does not distinguish between the different types of devices) but only 10 of the incidents required medical treatment (the report does not detail the severity of the injury).

Getting trapped in an elevator is not as common as many people think—or as Hollywood would have us believe. In a 38-storey office building with 17 elevators like Jamieson Place in downtown Calgary, Cervi will see, at most, one or two trapped passengers per month. Considering the number of elevators, and the number of people who use them daily, that’s not a lot, he says. “But then again, if someone gets stuck, they tell two people and then those two people tell two people.” From the time a trapped passenger uses the elevator phone to call dispatch, Fujitec will, on average, have someone at the building in less than 30 minutes on weekdays and less than an hour on weekends.

That efficiency won’t come as much of a comfort to someone who has a fear of elevators, however. Although statistics on specific fears like elevators, heights and dogs, for example, are not available, half of all adults report having at least one specific fear, according to Dr. Gene Flessati, a clinical psychologist with Alberta Health Services. He adds that 11 per cent of adults will develop a specific phobia in their lives. (The distinction between the two is that a fear involves a feeling of unease but a phobia entails a change of behaviour—in this case, refusing to ride an elevator.)

“Lots of people would have discomfort in an elevator but only a small percentage of them would be phobic,” Flessati says. A person who is afraid of elevators could also have claustrophobia, a general fear of enclosed spaces, or a fear of heights,
or be suffering from panic disorder or agoraphobia, or, in some cases, all of the above.

The good news, says Flessati, is that specific fears and phobias are easily treatable with, for example, exposure therapy. Once a psychologist identifies what is driving the fear—heights, being trapped, suffocating from lack of air—he can set up a plan to slowly reintroduce the patient to elevators, first by having the patient talk about them, then imagine being in one. The next step is for the patient actually to make his way into an elevator, perhaps first with the doors open, then closed. Once those hurdles have been cleared, the patient can ride up a floor, then the elevator trips can get progressively longer.

Another fear elevator companies and high-rise developers come across is triskaidekaphobia: the fear of the number 13. It’s up to clients whether there will be a 13th floor or not; elevator companies will comply with their wishes. The bad news for triskaidekaphobics is that there usually always is a 13th floor in every building, even if there’s no elevator button for it. It’s usually called 14.

>|< When Artur Kruszelnicki moved into a new 20-storey apartment building last year in Edmonton, he noticed a lot of pretty girls often riding the elevator with him. “I had a strategy,” he says—“get a name somehow in the elevator, then write it down and remember it for the future in hopes I would run into one [of the girls] again.” Because he lived on the fourth floor, Kruszelnicki didn’t have much time, but he worked fast and, for the most part, pulled it off. After a while, however, the novelty wore off and he forgot about his plan, until he ran into the one girl he really wanted to ask out. He remembered her name, asked her out—just as the elevator door was closing—and gave her his number. She didn’t call until after another meeting in the elevator two weeks later, but a date was set. Although sparks didn’t fly and the courting was over after the first date, Kruszelnicki often still runs into her, in the elevator, of course. It’s never awkward, he says. <|>

There’s an endless pit of both pointless and indispensable pop-culture elevator moments, and the fascination with elevators has not escaped the clutches of social media either. Last summer, many in the magazine industry were obsessed with @CondeElevator, where an anonymous Twitterer began posting conversations he or she overheard while going up and down in the elevators of Condé Nast, the New York publishing behemoth famous for magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

It was addictive stuff. Here’s a sample tweet: “Teen Vogue-er to Teen Vogue-er: ‘I don’t understand why she was so pissed. I’d want to know if something made me look fat.’” A mere five days and 36 tweets later, the mysterious mole had nearly 90,000 followers. Media outlets worldwide picked up the story, some pointed fingers, speculating which editor could be behind the Twitter account based on what elevators he or she was riding. (As in many towers, separate elevator banks service different ranges of floors in the Condé Nast Building, so someone overhearing a conversation between Vogue employees must be working on a floor serviced by the same elevator.) But as unexpectedly as it had gone up, the account went down (pun intended).

The last tweet: “Girl of Guy #1 [in elevator alone]: This got really crazy. Love my job. Better stop. #sorry.”

>|< There are fewer than a half-dozen big players in the elevator business. In addition to Fujitec, the companies with expertise in vertical transportation include Schindler, ThyssenKrupp, Krone and, of course, the Otis Elevator Company, which, until about 30 years ago, had the field almost to itself. Most people have stared distractedly at the Otis name while riding an elevator, but that familiar logo is now only seen in older cabs. Today, most clients do not want an elevator manufacturer to brand its product, Cervi says, because it’s a distraction for the building’s tenants, gratuitous advertising for the manufacturer and cause for confusion if the owner decides to use an alternate company when modernizing the elevator in the future. (Fujitec will update Otis elevators for example, replacing the motors and controls with its own product even though inside the cab it still has the former company’s name.) That modernization is almost inevitable. The life expectancy of an elevator is 20 to 30 years; after that, manufacturers recommend completely overhauling the equipment if the elevator is going to be kept in service. But, as with most products, technological advancements have moved at a quicker pace. “There have been so many changes in the industry, the efficiency, the equipment, the dispatching; energy saving is a big thing,” Cervi says. “There is a big move for modernization, especially in office buildings—get the old equipment out, get the new stuff in.” Touch screens are among the latest innovations, and the Fujitec elevators in Jamieson Place have the first examples of these to be seen in North America. Some companies now use Kevlar hoist cable because the fibre, best known for its bulletproof properties, is lightweight and strong. (Fujitec has opted out for now, taking a wait-and-see approach.) With so few players and the continuous technological advancements, the elevator business is a lucrative one. Condominium developers typically spend at least half-a-million dollars on one elevator. Doug Mazurek, vice-president of Cove Properties, whose Calgary condominium towers include Sasso and Nuera, estimates that the base price for a 10-storey elevator is approximately $250,000 to $300,000. Depending on decor details, the cab’s interior can add as much as $30,000 to the cost, and every additional floor above the 10th adds about $10,000 to the base price. Mazurek figures that the company spent around $2 million on three Fujitec elevators in its 33-storey Nuera high-rise. (Full disclosure: my husband works for Cove Properties.) It’s a steep price to pay, but without elevators highrises would simply not exist. For developers, then, efficient elevators are worth every penny. “Elevators are the heartbeat of our operation,” Mazurek says. “It’s the single most important device in that entire building, day to day. Nothing moves without it.” <|>

Can I help you with something?” the 50-something Chapters employee asks me as I use one of the store’s computers to look for books on elevators. “No, I’m fine,” I answer. As the cheerful sales lady walks away, she glances at the screen and smiles. When I look back at the computer, I understand the reason for the smirk. After using the obvious search terms, I had typed in “going down.” The results include, but are not limited to, The Low Down on Going Down: How to Give Her Mind-Blowing Oral Sex, and Going Down: An Illustrated Guide to Giving Him the Best Blowjob of His Life. Oops.

“There has always been something erotically charged about elevators. The tightness of the space, the evocative enclosure, the tension arising from keeping one’s gaze from meeting another’s—all contribute to the frisson that can sometimes accompany a ride, even from the ground floor to the mezzanine,” writes Alan Feuer in an article in the New York Times. As proof, that article featured poems taken from the “Missed Connections” section on Craigslist written by people who had seen, but not connected with, potential soulmates in elevators.

For those who like to read in the grocery-store checkout line, Cosmopolitan magazine recommends having sex in an older elevator that moves slowly, or a freight that’s used relatively infrequently. It seems people are paying attention because, while no one is engaging in shootouts in elevator shafts, some are succumbing to the erotic charms of the elevator.

One of Cervi’s most memorable professional moments came years ago when he was called in to deal with a balky elevator in a building downtown. The client complained that the elevator kept stopping between floors for a prolonged period every night at around the same time. After weeks of trying to figure out what was wrong, Cervi and his team discovered that a lovesick couple from the cleaning crew was deliberately stopping the elevator to renew their acquaintance.

Sometimes, the only privacy two lovers can find is a three-square-metre box. But who can begrudge them that? As maybe not a wise man, but one who has gotten his fair share of action over the years, once said: “Love in an elevator. Livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down. Love in an elevator. Lovin’ it up till I hit the ground.”

Malwina Gudowska © 2011