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Insurers and skyscrapers

column-dennis funaTHE history of the evolution of insurance companies and the early construction of skyscrapers are somehow intertwined. In fact, American industrialist Henry Ford, in contemplating the high-rise buildings of New York City, once remarked: “This has only been made possible by the insurers. They are the ones who really built this city. With no insurance, there would be no skyscrapers. No investor would finance buildings that one cigarette butt could burn to the ground.”

However, more than making it possible to build high-rise buildings in New York, insurance companies have also left their indelible mark in the history of skyscrapers by the buildings they have constructed for themselves.

The Equitable Life Assurance Building, on 120 Broadway, New York, was completed on May 1, 1870. Considered as the “world’s first skyscraper”, the building served as the headquarters of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States. Other than its towering height—130 feet (40 meters)—the structure is also noted for being the first tall building to install a passenger elevator. The building was designed by architects Arthur Gilman and Edward Kendall, while the elevators were made by Elisha Otis Co. On January 9, 1912, however, the building was destroyed by fire. The Equitable Building was then built on the same site in 1915.

The Home Insurance Building in Chicago would later seize the title of “the world’s highest skyscraper”. Built in 1884 using the design of architect William Le Baron Jenney, the 10-story building stood at 138 feet (42 meters). An additional two stories were added to the structure in 1890. Based on current US standards, the building would now be considered a relatively small one, but back then, it was one of the tallest and finest man-made creations that graced the Chicago skyline.

In addition to its astounding height, the building was also groundbreaking because it pioneered the use of structural steel in a metal-frame design. While an earlier building—the Ditherington Flax Mill—had used structural steel as frames, it was only five stories high. The Home Insurance Building was eventually demolished to make way for new development. Today the Bank of America building, built in 1931, stands on the site.

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Tower was built on Madison Avenue, New York, in 1909. At 50 stories and 700 feet (210 meters) high, it was the world’s tallest building at the time. It was built intentionally to impress the public with its beautiful architectural design and to celebrate the successes of Metropolitan Life, which had a staff of 2,800. Inaugurated with much fanfare, the building was even featured in the leading science magazine Scientific American, which described it as having “extensive Early Renaissance-styled detailing, with the more modern additions of huge clock faces, electric flashlights for nighttime illumination and an observation deck at the top.” In 1909 it had “the latest ideas in ventilation, air-conditioning, sound deadening, artificial lighting, intercommunicating pneumatic tubes, telephones, call bells, unit operating clock systems, [and] special elevator and escalator installations.”

Insurance companies seemed to have spared no expense in constructing their buildings. Even the American Insurance Union Tower, built in 1927, cost as much as $8 million, which is equivalent to $1.2 billion in 2010.

Buildings in the Philippines

IN the Philippines the 48-story Philamlife Tower, on Paseo de Roxas in Makati City, is currently the seventh-tallest building in the city and the 14th tallest in the Philippines. It was built by Philam Properties Corp., a subsidiary of the Philippine American Life and General Insurance Co. (Philamlife), and was designed by the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Llp., in collaboration with W.V. Coscolluela & Associates. The general contractor was EEI Corp.

Philamlife Tower is renowned for being an “intelligent” building, or an automated building with centralized control of vital facilities, including ventilation and air-conditioning. It features impressive large column-free floor plates and a unitized curtainwall of glass, aluminum panel and granite, as well as horizontal sunscreens, vertical fins, light bullnoses, crown lighting and balcony trellises.

At the lobby, one can wonder at the mirror stainless-steel shopfronts, capped with functional sculpted canopies in hairline finish. There is also provision for 24-hour air-conditioning and 16 high-speed elevators. There are eight corner offices on every floor, and the tower also boasts of a helipad.

As if these features are not impressive enough, the building also houses the so-called Tower Club, an exclusive private business club that caters only to the cream of the crop of the corporate world.

The Insular Life Assurance Co. built its corporate office on Ayala Avenue in Makati in 1962, known as the Insular Life Building. Back then, it was the first building in the country to exceed the 30-meter height limit. It was designed by renowned architect Cesar H. Concio Sr., the father-in-law of ABS-CBN Corp. President and CEO Charo Santos-Concio. Insular Life, however, has transferred its headquarters to the Insular Life Corporate Center in Filinvest, Alabang, Muntinlupa City.

Sun Life Philippines built its Sun Life Centre at Bonifacio Global City and inaugurated it in 2011. It is certified to be a “green” building under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, system, a building-rating system that was adopted by the US Green Building Council. It features a double-glazed, low-emissivity glass that allows daylight to come in while blocking outside noise and heat, helping reduce harmful emissions and minimize the use of cooling devices. The building’s “green roof” is also an impressive piece of technology that allows the harvesting of rain water for nonpotable usage. More than these, it also addresses the “sick-building syndrome” by allowing the passage of natural air in its ventilation system.

For over a century, the race to build the highest and the most impressive skyscraper has become a fierce competition within the insurance industry, locally and internationally. Hence, at this rate, it should come as no surprise if, one day, the Insurance Commission joins this aggressive race to reach the skies.

Dennis B. Funa is the Insurance Commission’s deputy commissioner for legal services. Send comments to [email protected]

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