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First law of tallest towers - If you build one, they will come

Companies that participate in the construction of record breaking buildings seem to do rather well. Otis is now the elevator maker in the world.

You would think that inventing a device to stop a lift plummeting dozens of floors to an inevitably fatal end in the event of a cable snapping would be enough to ensure a company's commercial success.

But it was not enough for Elisha Otis, who invented such a device in 1853. It seems there were not enough tall buildings with elevators in them at the time and nobody cared enough about the welfare of miners who used lifts to get up and down deep coal shafts to bother installing the expensive fail-safe mechanism.

All that changed about 30 years later for Otis, though, when the architects of the Eiffel Tower in Paris opted to install his state of the art lifts in what was then the tallest structure in the world.

After that, it seems, you couldn't scale the heights of a record-breaking tall building or tower in anything other than an Otis lift.

In 1931 the Empire State building installed 73 banks of Otis elevators in what then became the tallest building on Earth.

As did the World Trade Centre in New York, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and our very own Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But when it signed on to provide the vertical transport in the Eiffel Tower, Otis, unwittingly, became the inaugural member of an elite and very lucrative club.

Companies that participate in the construction of record breaking buildings seem to do rather well. Otis is now the lift maker to the world.

In effect these incredible projects are nothing more than mammoth advertising hoardings to which every tradesman from pipe fitters, to brick layers, concrete mixers and glaziers clamour to hang a shingle.

As much was evident in Dubai last week when Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre announced that one of the towers he is planning to build at the heart of a proposed expansion of the free zone will hopefully be the world's tallest commercial building.

Even though there are currently at least four other partially built world's tallest commercial towers as far afield as Beijing, Shenzhen, Taipei and downtown Manhattan, the announcement of a fifth contender caused quite a stir.

When the DMCC free-zone expansion was first revealed there were no plans for a record breaking tower.

The story was simply one of strong commercial interest in the office space available at the DMCC and the executive chairman's decision to expand in anticipation of greater demand in the future.

In fact, there are those who thought it was a negative story. Given that there is so much empty office space already available in Dubai, critics asked, why would anyone want to build more?

But after a couple of quiet weeks the DMCC put out a press release that was scant on detail other than one hard fact and one bold claim.

The hard fact related to the free zone's balance sheet which, the press release claimed, was in robust shape and free from debt.

The bold claim was the addition of the world's tallest tower at the heart of the expansion that had previously been announced to very little fanfare.

Almost immediately a Finnish company called Kone, a maker of elevator cables, phoned Malcolm Wall, the DMCC chief executive with an offer.

The company had just launched a new carbon fibre cable known as "Ultrarope" exclusively for use in very tall buildings. They offered use of the new product at cost, just for the opportunity to be associated with a record breaking tower contender.

And Kone were not alone. Steel makers, cement mixers, architects, all kinds of companies were offering their services at cost, presumably with a similar idea as Kone.

The bankers were the same.

When the project was initially announced, three banks came forward with proposals to finance the business park.

As soon as the record breaking tower was mentioned another dozen called the DMCC in a day.

Until recently it was a mystery to me why so many of the world's tallest towers were built in bad economic times.

The Empire State was topped out in the Great Depression, The Burj Khalifa two years in to our recent downturn.

Clearly there is something of a lag between the top of the market largesse that accompanied their conception and the subsequent depression that accompanied their completion.

But the point is that the companies who built them did not give up. They persisted as the bad times bit deep and finished them despite the downturn.

These projects are showrooms of ambition. Loss leaders that have helped a lucky few to dominate a niche in construction that is growing by the day.

We should follow their lead and climb out of this seemingly endless global downturn using a ladder of bold ideas. Or we could always take the lift.

 

jdoran@thenational.ae

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