1 may 08 | Gulf Life

Head in the clouds

The Burj Dubai is the world's tallest structure, a towering icon for the Emirate and a testbed for the giant buildings of the future. Ron Gluckman dons a hardhat to take a look.

Early civilizations staked claims to greatness by erecting huge shrines, towers and pyramids, equating importance, often immortality, with size. Recent years have seen similar spirited one-upmanship, with a new high-rise tower quickly trumping the previous tallest.

That has been the blueprint since Malaysia's Petronas Towers spawned a global competition on completion in 1998. Next to claim the crown was Taiwan's Taipei 101, but immediately new high-rise designs circulated, with plans to go up a floor or two, whatever the cost, to gain bragging rights.

Soaring into the clouds, with no end in sight, the Burj Dubai doesn't merely overshadow contenders, it makes a quantum leap in building height. The Burj - "tower" in Arabic - already tops Taipei 101 by more than 100m, and is 150m higher than the Petronas and Sears towers. In March, Burj reached 160 floors; over 50 percent more than any before, including New York's Empire State Building. By the month's end, the Burj reached 630m, making it taller than any other man-made structure on Earth. More astonishing still, no one knows how tall it will grow.

"We're not commenting, beyond saying it will be the biggest when done," says Greg Sang, projects director for developer Emaar Properties. Eric Tomich, an architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the US firm that designed the tower, promises at least 700m. Lead architect Adrian Smith says a metal spire on top could push it well over 800m.

"The spire will be 40 or more storeys," he confides over dinner. A building's height is judged not only by occupied floors, but elements deemed integral to the overall architecture. "The goal isn't just size; it also creates a sense of completion, a proper pinnacle. The reason is to create a strong and powerful landmark, not just for Dubai, but the entire Middle East."

We're seated on the terrace of a restaurant in a still-growing US$20bn project of hotels, offices and apartment blocks, with a stunning view of the growing edifice. "We said at the outset, this would either be a spectacular failure or success," Smith says.

In the process of becoming the tallest tower on earth, the Burj shattered numerous records. Built with a concrete core, construction material was pumped to new heights. Because the building rose so fast, a special concrete had to be developed, flexible enough to pump up through the hoses but fix quickly. By pumping concrete as high as 600m - 150m higher than ever before - Tomich says the 5,000 workers were able to maintain an ambitious schedule, finishing a floor every three days.

When the building opens next year it will feature the world's fastest elevators, rising or dropping at 18m per second (over a metre per second quicker than the fastest, at Taipei 101). One express lift will zoom directly to office levels at floor 123. That would be a record-breaking ride, except the Burj will also boast a service elevator that runs a total of 138 floors.

From the world's tallest observation deck - on the 124th floor - you can see 80 kilometres on a clear day, and the Earth's curve. "It's cool," Smith says. Already, Dubaians marvel at the daily changes in the building's surreal shadow. "In early morning light, and early afternoon, it's very powerful, with the reflections," he enthuses.

Smith's design features a clever array of clusters that provide a stepped shape; some say resembling wings on this rocket-like building. Besides providing unique sections - for offices, residences and the first-ever Armani hotel, all with their own entrances and elevators - these clusters serve a variety of engineering feats. Most important is to help mitigate wind factors, which are critical to any tall building.

Tests revealed the exact locations where a heightened ledge would disrupt wind from reaching dangerous velocity while skimming over the Burj surface, avoiding the kind of massive stabilizing systems seen in many towers, such as the pendulum in Taipei 101 or skybridge between the Petronas Towers.

But such is the uncertainty of building big. Even Smith, among a handful of the most prominent designers of tall buildings, likens it to a space launch. "Every time we do a super-tall building, we increase our knowledge base by about 10 percent." With the Burj, he found that the temperature at the top was several degrees cooler than at the base. "We could have used that to help cool the building," he notes.

"Buildings are going to have to be more sustainable in the future," predicts Gordon Gill, Smith's partner in the firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill. The Burj features a condensation system that draws water from the dry desert air. It is expected to yield 20-30 million gallons of water annually. "In an environment like Dubai, where every drop counts, this is very important," Smith notes.

The Burj is the anchor of Emaar's US$20bn Downtown Burj Development, which will include apartments, hotels and entertainment venues, plus the world's biggest shopping centre, Dubai Mall. "The tower increases the value of everything around it," Sang says.

He adds that it is simply the latest phase in a timeless race that has gone global. "Where tall buildings are built tends to follow places of economic growth," he notes. "That was the United States in the 1920s. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the time of the Asian tigers. Now, it's the time of the Middle East."

Despite the Burj's huge lead over the competition, Sang predicts it won't be tallest forever. Or even for long. Already, talk of taller towers circulates around the Gulf. Stories appeared in March saying that Saudi Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, owner of London's Savoy Hotel, planned a mile-high tower for near the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

The architects aren't deterred in the slightest. Tomich says Emaar spent on quality to create a landmark for decades to come. "The Burj is already a great building, even if we stopped now," adds Smith. "All that remains is to see whether it becomes magic."

Adrian Smith (right) formed AS+GG after leaving SOM, considered the world leader in tall buildings, and responsible for the Sears Tower and the design of the Freedom Tower at World Trade Center site in New York. Smith designed the Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, which was the China's tallest tower, and third highest in the world, when it opened.

Gill comes from an energy efficiency and integrated urban planning background.

The pair is working on a building in China that aims to be Energy Zero - generating all its own energy - and plan other buildings that will generate power rather than consume it.