x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A tall order to keep the tower clean

It took more than three months to scour the construction grime off the world's tallest building, which has enough glass to cover 14 football pitches, more than 20,000 cladded panels and stands 818 metres tall.

A window washer from Gecko works on the Burj Dubai tower, the tallest in the world at 818 metres.
A window washer from Gecko works on the Burj Dubai tower, the tallest in the world at 818 metres.

As the towering Burj Dubai glistens in the winter sunshine, spare a thought for the team of fearless men whose unenviable task it has been to clean the massive glass facade ahead of the tower's grand opening tomorrow.

Teetering on platforms suspended by ropes and pulleys, the men have spent the past three months scrubbing, polishing and wiping the windows of the world's tallest building to remove every trace of dust and grime. It has been no mean feat. Burj Dubai's surface is made up of 28,261 cladding panels, enough glass to cover 14 football pitches. And at 818 metres tall, this is no task for anyone who suffers from vertigo.

James Bunn, an operations manager at Gecko, the company contracted to give Burj Dubai its first "build clean", said the job had not been without challenges. The first task was to remove stubborn stains left by building materials and which had become ingrained on the window panes. "The build clean is what you call a building's first clean, so there are different sediments left on the windows, like plaster. When that is done, it is then a window clean, which is a lot easier," Mr Bunn said.

Burj Dubai which will officially open on the anniversary of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE, becoming Ruler of Dubai boasts 160 storeys. Yet no part of the tower has a straight 818-metre drop; the longest is 390 metres. This dizzying thought does not concern Mr Bunn, although he acknowledged that strong winds almost a kilometre above the ground can be a problem. "It is daunting when you are looking down 390 metres, but you get used to it. I have to look down to make sure the rest of the team are OK and doing their job," he said.

"The height doesn't bother me: it is the same being 20 metres up or 800 metres. "One day we were setting up to clean one side and then a wind picked up, which was too strong. So we had to take everything back up and as a result wasted an entire morning setting up the gear." The workers regularly found themselves above the clouds. "It is like a big blanket of snow below when you're up there," Mr Bunn said.

Working from the top to the bottom, it took the company three months to give Burj Dubai the sheen it enjoys today. Teams of 12 men would suspend themselves every day from one of the 11 platforms on each of the tower's three sides. On the ground, more than 10 men would operate machinery while another team would supervise the ropes above them from the platforms. Mr Bunn would keep track of the team's progress on a diagram of the building, colouring in parts of the tower that had been cleaned. The drawing now hangs in his office with all sides coloured in. "As you can see, the different shades of yellow showed the different times it was complete and you can see how we moved around the tower," he said.

Soon, the building will be a hive of activity with office workers at their desks and guests of the luxury Armani Hotel milling around inside. Mr Bunn assured future occupants they do not have to worry about window cleaners peering in at them. "You can't see in unless you try very hard. Also, I have tried to get the attention of guys inside by banging on the windows and they didn't know I was there," he said.

Gecko is no stranger to working at altitude: it recently replaced an aviation light in The Address hotel in downtown Burj Dubai and is contracted to clean the exterior of the Rose Rayhaan by Rotana, which bills itself as the tallest hotel in Dubai. Needless to say, working at such perilous heights makes safety paramount. Hairline fractures in any of the buckles or abrasions to the ropes can develop and easily worsen if weight is added.

"We inspect everything. If there is any damage to any of the gear, we just throw it out," Mr Bunn said. Now that the "build clean" is complete, Burj Dubai will not require such an intense scrubbing in the future. But someone will be responsible for maintaining the lustre the tower now enjoys. eharnan@thenational.ae