How to bring super-tall buildings to life in the Middle East

The GCC is a place of big dreams for architects and designers, as it is home to some of the world’s largest and tallest structures, from the upcoming Mall of Dubai to the soon-to-be-completed Jeddah Tower.
Buildings are not only becoming taller, but they’re also performing better in terms of energy efficiency and indoor comfort. We continue to build what would have been unimaginable a decade ago, thanks to world-class engineering solutions. And besides being more aesthetically pleasing, they’re also more economical and easier to construct these days.

Industry professionals, especially architects, feel less constrained by technology now than in the past – and rightfully so. As consulting engineers, it’s our job to use our technical expertise so that the architect or client’s vision can be realised. Today, we’re able to build extremely intricate tall buildings that tell a story, which leads architects to dream and plan bigger. In turn, the pressure is put on engineers to find workable building solutions to bring an architect’s visions to life.

Our ability to create extraordinary and inspirational projects owes a lot to the collaboration between our design teams and our willingness to cross traditional boundaries. Engineers and architects work very closely and from the very start of any super-tall building project, so it’s an extremely co-creative and dynamic environment to be in.

How tall can we go?
The height of a tower is limited by the attention span of the owner. The Burj Khalifa took seven years to design and build before the owner could see a return on investment. It’s unlikely that owners would wait much longer than say, 12 years, and certainly not 15 years. So the real question is “how high can I build in 12 years?” Even so, 12 years is a long time, as financial conditions can vacillate. This will limit investors’ appetite for risk.

All future super-talls will be looking at a similar time frame as the Burj Khalifa’s seven years – even if engineering advances shorten that time, it’s unlikely to be a dramatic difference.

How fast can we go?
Hence, for mega-projects achieving a reliable speed of construction is crucial. I was the chief engineer for the Burj Khalifa and one of challenges was to explore all possible ways to pick up the pace. For example, we favoured a simple design, where construction crews were able to repeat the same jobs on every floor. Once they achieved a level of familiarity with their tasks, the speed of construction per floor increased.
Construction work can also take place on two levels, as was achieved in the Emirates Towers in Dubai. Lower levels tend to be more complex than those higher up; so if we can create two construction “fronts”, then work on the upper front can continue while work simultaneously occurs on the more difficult podium levels.

Design-wise, the Burj Khalifa uses a hexagonal core which reinforces the three buttresses that form the distinct Y-shaped cross-section of the building. It offers better lateral strength and many future super-tall building will replicate this. Also, the Y-shape allows the building to be opened in stages and ensures that all units have access to the stunning view, making tenancy more attractive, which adds value for the owner.

In essence, designing super-tall buildings is as much about designing business models as it is about engineering craftsmanship.

This was written by Dr Andy Davids, a design director at engineer consulting company Aurecon who’s been responsible for some of the Middle East’s most well-known towers, including the Burj Khalifa. He is working on The Tower at Dubai Creek Harbour, currently being designed by world renowned architect and engineer, Santiago Calatrava

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