In a country with many architectural marvels, the oddly shaped - or just enormous - glass exteriors pose a huge challenge: cleaning. Rope-climbing experts go where window-washing gondolas simply can't.
Breaking the pane barrier
ABU DHABI // The world's tallest skyscraper. The world's highest hotel. The world's most-inclined tower. To those on the ground, the UAE's ambitious architecture evokes marvel and amazement. But for those responsible for maintaining them, these extreme buildings instead pose a lofty problem: how on earth do you keep them clean? The answer, in short: ditch the window cleaner's traditional steel basket. As structural engineers dream up ever more oddly shaped towers with awkward, hard-to-reach angles, professional abseilers, experts at scaling surfaces using ropes, are being called upon to maintain the gleaming facades. Atop the windy peak of the Burj al Arab, more than 300m up, cars are ants and Dubai's roads appear as chalk lines to Benj Cortez, the rope access manager for the Dubai-based abseiling company Megarme. "Sometimes we are higher than the clouds," said Mr Cortez. "If you are on top of the pinnacle, you will see the world, and everything is so small." Mr Cortez, 41, from the Philippines, has scaled more than 30 of the country's best-known buildings in his 15 years of service. Strapped into a harness suspended by steel cables, he has sprayed down the mast of the Burj al Arab, repainted the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, replaced light bulbs on the Emirates Towers and rappelled from the Raffles Hotel's 19-storey glass pyramid. But although business is brisk, the anything-is-possible attitude of architects is testing Megarme's 200 or so rope-access technicians. "We have the architects coming to us and saying, 'this is what we want to build; can you tell us how to clean it?'" said Daniel Gill, the company's civil projects manager. "In recent years, [the designs are] all getting more and more abstract." Unlike traditional vertical structures, the new high-rises sprouting in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are inaccessible to maintenance workers, at least by a standard window-washing gondola. The structures include protruding lounges, curved surfaces, slopes, unprecedented heights, even a hollowed-out centre.
"The way that the designs are going, it's only getting worse," Mr Gill said. Take, for instance, the planned 22-storey Opus by Omniyat Properties: "It looks like your standard square building, but then it's like somebody's taken a bazooka and blown a hole in the middle of it," Mr Gill said. Megarme is consulting with the Opus planners on an "anchorage concept", whereby climbers can roam the cube's exterior by latching on to sockets fixed to the cladding. A similar scheme has been developed for Abu Dhabi's anticipated 160m Capital Gate tower, constructed to be "four times more crooked" than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The building, which is past the halfway point of its glazing, rotates with height and is meant to appear differently from all directions. Its 18-degree westward incline could have posed a logistical nightmare. "We had a long discussion with the client about strategies to clean the building," said Tony Archibold, the project lead on the Capital Gate. "It became apparent that a standard building maintenance unit wouldn't cover it." Instead, Megarme recommended fixing hidden "restraint points" to the 728 diamond-shaped panels making up the glass exterior. "So what happens is the abseiler goes down [and] he's got a series of pins on the rope and he can just pin himself in," Mr Archibold said. "He's stitched to the surface of the glass. The pins act as guides to his rope and he has complete freedom of movement." The building has roughly 47,000 square metres of glass, which will need washing about four times a year. In this case, Megarme has been involved since the early concept sketches, although the maintenance contract has not yet been awarded. "These shapes are becoming more and more problematic in the sense of how you clean them," Mr Archibold acknowledged. "Buildings are pushing the boundaries, so abseiling is a new industry here in some ways." Megarme started in 1993, primarily to assist the offshore oil and gas sector with welding, painting, electrical work and inspections of rigs requiring rope access. It was not until the last seven years that civil projects began regularly seeking their expertise, said Billy Harkin, the company's managing director. That sector now accounts for about a third of the firm's business. "Dubai became what it became and then things really kicked off," he said. "You look at the unique, high-profile buildings, and we've been heavily drawn into them. It's quite lucrative work and it's here on our doorstep." The climbers earn more than their ground-based counterparts for their work, he added. "Let's say we have an abseiler who's a welder," Mr Harkin said. "He would be paid double what he would be paid as a welder on the ground to be a welder on a rope. They'd double their trade by adding the rope-access skill." At present, a team of 80 climbers are suspended over Yas Island's Marina Hotel to fit some 4,800 LED panels on an enormous display.
Next week, another crew will hose down and squeegee windows on the "armadillo-shaped" stations for the Dubai Metro. "The projects get a little wacko, but nothing surprises us anymore," Mr Harkin said. One memorable view, however, was 709m above ground on the Burj Dubai. Not long ago, Mr Harkin accompanied Mr Gill and the building's senior project manager to the base of the building's spire for a site inspection. "Put it this way: We were looking down on helicopters," Mr Gill said. "We were staring down at the 58-storey Millennium Tower." From that elevation, Mr Gill noted, abseilers would be required to shin up another 109m to clean the spire, which is unreachable by ordinary window-washing cradle. Some brave soul will also need to replace the light bulb at the tip, and 21 aircraft warning lights and aesthetic filaments will have to be accessed by rope-works. The apex is said to sway about 1.5m in the wind. Megarme is confident it will win the Burj Dubai's maintenance contract. The company's safety record has been "impeccable", he said, with no major injuries so far. All rope-access technicians are trained from scratch and hail mainly from India and the Philippines. A few are Bangladeshi. Roughly one-third come from Nepal. "We tend to take the Nepalese guys, given their mountainous backgrounds," Mr Gill said. For protection from the sun, the technicians don shades and white "moon suits". They also wear hydration packs supplying an electrolyte sport beverage. Morning jobs are conducted on the west façades of structures to minimise exposure to the sun. Such trade secrets will be the subject of a lecture next month in the UK, where Megarme has been invited to address the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association on their experience working with some of the most complex building designs on the planet under extreme conditions. As for future projects, the company has its sights on the proposed US$13.6 billion (Dh50bn) Mile-High Tower in Jeddah. If constructed, the planned 1.6km building would be twice as tall as the Burj Dubai, taking extreme cleaning to new sky-piercing heights. Mr Gill is looking forward to it. "Nothing's ever straightforward here, but I guess that's the nature of our industry," he mused. "We have to love the challenge."