Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Burj Dubai Sky high limits

Like needles puncturing a pincushion blue sky, super skyscrapers are redefining the skyscape of the Gulf.

They are twice and three times the size of the giants of the 20th century. Scrapers that used to send us spinning with awe like the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower will be dwarfed by these giants. First there is the Burj Dubai, estimated by some to be targeted at 818 metres, though developers refuse to confirm how high they plan to go. Then there’s the Mubarak Tower in Kuwait’s Silk City aiming for 1,001 metres. Next the Al Burj Dubai, which some say will be higher still, but a final figure has yet to be agreed. And now there’s talk of a mile high tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, soaring 1,600 metres into the atmosphere.

It’s not about space, says the architect Hamid Kia, of RMJM Hillier. “It’s about symbolism and power. Building tall is impressive. Stand on the 160th storey and look out at the world, the clouds beneath you and I promise you get a feeling like none other. It fills a human emotional need. You are standing in the next best place to space – at the outer frontier.” Some say the skyscraper is a modern expression of the age-old symbol of the world centre or axis mundi: a pillar that connects earth to heaven and the four compass directions to one another. The construction engineer Dr Andy Davids of Hyder Consulting says it is certainly a very peaceful place to be. He is one of the people responsible for ensuring that the Burj Dubai not only goes up, but stays up. He believes that the Burj is helping to mould a skyscape for Dubai that will one day be as well known as that of London, Paris or New York City.

Like the domed bubble of St Paul’s Cathedral, the iron fretwork of the Eiffel Tower or the scalloped point of the Empire State Building, the Burj will be a landmark defining Dubai for generations to come, he says. “All these extraordinary buildings – St Paul’s, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building – faced varying forms of criticism but they have survived to become international landmarks. “These super scrapers are never going to be built in London and probably not in any city in the West, but they will define parts of the Middle East,” Davids says. “There is a lot of nation building going on here.”

He feels no sense of vanity, but a sense of privilege in being a key member of the team that is helping to create the build image for Dubai and other Gulf cities. “Why build so high? Why climb ­Everest or fly to the moon? It’s just in the human psyche. It is the way humans are wired and there is nothing wrong with that.” The challenges that face him and other super scraper engineers are different to those developing more modest buildings.

First there is the challenge of moving a huge team of workers around the building – more than 4,000 people are involved in building the Burj. “The technical challenges are orders of magnitude because of the amount of materials needed. “Each one of these super skyscrapers is a bespoke building. The secret of any huge project like this is to break it down into manageable pieces and then endeavour to get the world’s best people to deal with each one of the challenges that they are expert at,” says Davids. “The key is to keep it simple, but each of these super tall buildings requires as much care and craftsmanship as any iconic building.”

The limits to how high a building can be built are not technical but practical. “It’s primarily an economic figure based on the speed at which each floor can be built. The economic difference between three days and five days when you are building this high is huge. And its not just economics, there is also a sunset on the time a developer is willing to spend on one project. We are not the pharaohs building pyramids.” Super scrapers are the order of the day according to Richard Thompson of Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) which is hosting its second “Building Tall” conference in Dubai today and tomorrow. “These iconic building projects have established the Middle East as the world’s most pioneering market for tall buildings. They are symbols of the ­region’s dynamism and are attracting experts from all over the world and equipping them with a unique skill set and ability”

The technology for building tall has been in existence in principle for nearly 80 years. “Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the possibility of a mile high building in the 1930s,” said Kia. “It is practicalities like lift speed that stopped them being built before. Now we have double decker and super speed lifts and the sky is the limit.” Davids says that people will stop building higher when they no longer feel comfortable. “To build these buildings we have to take heed of the environment far more than we did before. They call for huge respect for nature and the atmosphere. We have had help from people like NASA with research into the way the wind moves around the earth and acts on different structures.

“We have had to look at other sciences and engineering disciplines. And at a certain height there is the possibility that mankind will feel uncomfortable – the station tubes in the human ear are sensitive to height and movement.” Would he like to live on the 160th floor of the Burj Dubai? “I’d love it but it may not suit my current lifestyle with young children. Let’s put it this way, I love Ferraris, too, but I own a Land Cruiser.”

No comments: