For Jay Popp, elevators are a family business. He grew up in Colorado, where his father was an elevator installer, and spent many hours accompanying his dad on construction sites. He claims his career options were open. “The only thing my father didn’t want me to do was construction,” Popp says. “He lost good friends in accidents.” This led Popp to attend architecture school, but after graduation he joined the consulting firm Lerch Bates in its Littleton, Colo., headquarters. Popp has spent his entire career—some 30 years—at the company and today is its executive vice president, international.

The Denver suburb is not the firm’s home because of its plethora of tall buildings; founder Charles Lerch was advised by his doctor in 1964 to leave Chicago for a drier climate. Lerch Bates consults on vertical and horizontal transportation, materials management and handling, and façade access, and has offices in 23 U.S. cities, plus four outposts in India, five in Europe, and one in Dubai.

Although he trained as an architect, Jay Popp has spent his three-decade career at the consultancy Lerch Bateswhich has allowed him to work with designers on many buildings around the world. "That's more interesting than working on the same building for a few years," he says.

Although he trained as an architect, Jay Popp has spent his three-decade career at the consultancy Lerch Bates—which has allowed him to work with designers on many buildings around the world. "That's more interesting than working on the same building for a few years," he says.

Credit: Tim Evans

Elevators, particularly in the United States, are mainstream products designed as commodities. It’s only in Class A buildings—which constitute about 20 percent of the market—that Lerch Bates’ specialized expertise is needed. “You’re looking at performance to get people to their destination in a specific time and image,” Popp says. These higher standards involve heavier finishes that demand modifications to the lifting equipment. Special attention is required, but it comes at a cost, he notes, and “you need to monitor the construction.”

Worldwide, there are eight major elevator makers, and Popp has worked with them all: Kone, Otis, Schindler, and ThyssenKrupp, the typical players in the U.S. market; Fujitec and Mitsubishi, which have a limited stateside presence; and Hitachi and Toshiba, which work everywhere except the United States. Toshiba led the effort for Taipei 101’s elevators (currently the world’s fastest), one of Lerch Bates’ signature projects. Others include the Burj Dubai, Shanghai’s CCTV building, and the Northeast Asia Trade Tower in South Korea. Recent stateside projects include the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Los Angeles’ LAC+USC Medical Center. In 1999, the firm modernized the elevators of the John Hancock Tower in Boston.

Lerch Bates is typically hired by the architecture firm, although sometimes the developer or—rarer still—the general contractor may be the client. “At minimum, we get in at schematic design level,” says Popp, when the number of floors, floor plate sizes, and tenancy types are known. The consultants make inferences about population (the percentages of occupants that need to be handled in a defined period of time) and what the appropriate waiting times will be for that type of occupancy. “You have to get people from the lobby to their office in a reasonable period of time,” he says, which means juggling the number of elevators, capacities, and speeds to avoid lines in the lobby.

Today’s most interesting elevator development, according to Popp, is destination control. “For a hundred years, you arrived in the lobby and pressed an up button,” he says. “All the elevator could do was react.” Now, in hundreds of buildings around the world, visitors can register their destinations in the lobby, and an optimization algorithm determines which elevator to get in, grouping people to make fewer stops. As a result, each elevator’s handling capacity is increased, and there are more round trips in a given time. Another new approach is Twin, an engineering breakthrough by ThyssenKrupp currently in place in a handful of buildings, in which two cars travel within one shaft, independently of each other.

Working around the world, one of Popp’s biggest challenges is dealing with cultural differences. In North America, speed is the most important factor—getting people to their destination floor as quickly as possible. But in Asia, especially in Japan, ride quality is paramount. People there put a lot of emphasis on that smoothness, absolute quiet, and precision in the ride—not unlike in the best Japanese automobiles. It’s not that American clients aren’t interested, it’s that the technical requirements to achieve these qualities require additional space in each elevator shaft—which would sacrifice rentable floor area. Different attitudes toward personal space also help determine the size of elevator cabs in various markets. “Asian culture will load a car to capacity,” Popp says. “In North America, we never do that.” Most U.S. elevators in Class A buildings are large enough to accommodate 21 people, but Americans are seldom willing to squeeze in more than 12 or 14 people.

“I enjoy pushing the limits,” says Popp of his work. Today’s fastest elevators are the sky lobby shuttles at Taipei 101, which race upward at about 3,300 feet per minute. Current technology limits shaft height to around 2,600 feet, and for now, the tallest elevators in place are two service lifts at the Burj Dubai, which travel about 1,770 feet. When working at these extremes, the physical reactions of occupants need to be considered.

But it’s the bottom line that keeps the highest-flying elevators from soaring too fast or too high. Lerch Bates’ schemes are limited by “the point where they’re not willing to add zeroes to the check,” says Popp.