x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The ascent of a new colossus

Burj Dubai takes its place today as the world's tallest free-standing structure after architects were presented with monumental challenges that are now solved.

Workers at ground level place ornamental plants outside the Burj Dubai ahead of its official opening today.
Workers at ground level place ornamental plants outside the Burj Dubai ahead of its official opening today.

DUBAI // Numbers, mind-boggling numbers, tell the story of Burj Dubai, now the tallest free-standing structure in the world.

From its 192 piles, each 43-metres long, driven into the bedrock, to the 4,000-tonne spire reaching more than 800 metres into the Gulf sky. From the 12,500-cubic-metre mat, three metres thick, to the last of the 160 floors that rise above it. And the 1,044 residential apartments, 160 hotel rooms and suites, 3,000 underground parking spaces, 49 floors of offices. All come together in dazzling synchronicity to form the elements of a structure that can be seen from a distance of 95km.

Dubai's once-imposing World Trade Centre, a 37-storey tribute to an earlier era, is to the Burj Dubai as a sand castle is to the Great Pyramid of Giza. As is the case in every mammoth construction project, building the Burj Dubai presented unique challengers to architects, engineers and thousands of tradesmen and labourers. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), a Chicago-based engineering and construction firm, designed the Burj Dubai. One of its main challenges was the zephyrs that bring relief to a parched peninsula: wind.

"It's the forces of nature," William Baker, a partner at SOM told The National. "You've got wind, gravity, seismic ... but it's the wind that is everything in a tall building. "When the wind comes, it has to go around the building and will do so in an unstable manner, as it will constantly try to rock from side to side." The solution SOM hit upon came after exhaustive tests in a wind tunnel. "We kept shaping and re-testing until we essentially confused the wind," Mr Baker said.

The site's proximity to the sea meant a serious risk of corrosion to the tower's foundation from salt water. The answer: special protection that turned the metal into a positively-charged, salt-resistant electric cathode. The Burj stands upon far sterner stuff than the soft desert sands would suggest. "We're actually sitting on rock, believe it or not," Mr Baker said. "It's good stuff. It's basically dust-size pieces of seashells and it naturally [bonds] the stuff together, kind of like a sandstone. So it's actually pretty good material we're sitting on; it's just below the sand."

With every rising floor, the pumping of concrete from ground level became an ever-more-onerous task for the South Korean firm Samsung Engineering & Construction, which built Burj Dubai in a joint venture with Besix from Belgium and Arabtec from UAE. At the completion of the construction, 330,000 cubic metres of concrete were used, some of which had to be pumped as high as 605 metres above the ground.

The two biggest risks to the quality of the concrete being used were the enormous pressures that occur at such heights, and the unforgiving summer temperatures. To overcome this, the builders poured the concrete at night, with ice added to the mixtures to further enhance the consistency of the concrete as it set. The designers were keen to point out that despite the incredible volumes of concrete used, as well the 31,400 metric tonnes of steel reinforcement bars, the building is, in fact, environmentally friendly, according to George Efstathiou, another partner at SOM.

"We've been doing energy-conscious design for 40 or 50 years," he said. "When you look at a super-tall building like this, people will say it's not green. But it's very green when you think about it. "Where else can you live, work and play in one building without getting into a car and driving halfway across the city?" The 28,261 glass cladding panels that make up the exterior of the tower and its two annexes were specially designed to minimise heat transmission and save energy meaning less power wasted by the air-conditioning system, which will also help recycling.

Mr Baker said the tower's air-conditioning system "will harvest about 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year", which will be used for the landscaping. "The building has got a super-energy efficient skin on it. The vertical blades actually help shade the glass," he said. The first 37 floors of Burj Dubai house the keenly anticipated Armani Hotel, the interior of which was designed by the Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani.

Mr Efstathiou said SOM's relationship with the Armani company was open and easy. "We didn't have to co-ordinate with them, we gave them the empty shell and they pretty much fitted it out themselves," he said. "We did some minor co-ordinations here and there, but nothing major. We designed all the interiors in the Burj Dubai, the only thing we didn't do was the Armani Hotel." It is a point the Italian designer is keen to stress.

"Every component has been carefully conceived to create an exquisite and intimate lifestyle experience," Armani said in a statement. "With this hotel, I am bringing the 'Stay with Armani' promise to reality." There will be no Atlantis-style celebrity opening, at least not tonight; the hotel is not ready to receive its first guests until March, at the earliest. The 144 one- and two-bedroom Armani Residences which occupy levels nine to 16 will, however, be the first apartments to be handed over, in early February.

The remainder of the 900 residences and the Corporate Suites will be handed over in March, as the not-inconsiderable task of furnishing the interiors is carried out. The designers also ensured that those interiors reflect Middle Eastern culture. Nada Andric, SOM's award-winning interior designer, said in a statement that the "palette" of colours and materials on display inside Burj Dubai were "inspired by the region's fine sand and the tradition of pearl harvesting, which are offset by the indigenous dark hues of wood".

Ms Andric said the arrangements in the building's common areas were animated by "cursive Arabic writing as rooms flow elegantly in an intelligent interplay of light and shadow". Burj Dubai features sky lobbies on levels 43, 76 and 123. These spaces offer fitness and spa facilities. The lobbies on levels 43 and 76 each have a swimming pool and a recreational room for receptions and other gatherings.

Getting residents and visitors quickly around 160 levels presented designers with another formidable challenge. Thanks to Burj Dubai's "intelligent elevator installation", 57 elevators and eight escalators are in place to meet internal transportation needs. Befitting the world's tallest building, the elevators are the highest of their kind. The main service elevator, at the core of the building, has the world's highest elevator rise, 504 metres dwarfing that of the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, which features an elevator with a 448-metre rise; and that of the Empire State Building in New York, which has a 381-metre rise.

The elevator's speed of nine metres per second means it can cover that 504-metre rise in under one minute 56 seconds, to be exact. In a statement, Abdulla Lahej, executive director, Dubai Project Management, for Emaar Properties, said "Burj Dubai is envisaged as a work-live-play environment a vertical city for all practical purposes." Mr Lahej said the building's "advanced elevator technologies" would make for a safe, efficient and convenient method of movement among the tower's homes, offices, corporate suites, luxury hotel, retail outlets and fitness facilities.

It is "designed for a seamless performance", he said. To move easily to such spectacular heights, elevators have been placed in different zones, with each elevator zone serving different audiences: visitors, office workers, hotel guests and residents. At level 124 is the jewel in the crown of the tower: "At The Top, Burj Dubai" the world's loftiest observation deck with an outdoor terrace. The deck has floor-to-ceiling glass panels, providing unobstructed, 360-degree views of Dubai and beyond. Visitors who feel bold can venture outside on to the open-air terrace to take in unparalleled views of the city.

According to Emaar, special telescopes will provide virtual time-travel visions of panoramic views, allowing visitors to see the city's skyline in close-up, real-time views but also images of the city's past and future. Beginning tomorrow, a child who was not even born when Burj Dubai's construction commenced in September 2004 will be able to stand on the 124th floor and peer down at the city's skyline. If that child looks hard enough, he or she might even be able to spot that original Dubai beacon from all those years ago, the World Trade Centre.