Burj Khalifa: We speak to the people who made it possible
The architect: George Efstathiou
We understand the building is inspired by a desert flower. Was it influenced by anything else? The building is shaped like a Y, because this is a good model for residential layouts: it allows the maximum amount of perimeter for windows in living spaces and bedrooms. Tall buildings must be very efficient in their planning so that costs can be kept down. The pointed ends of the Y also resemble Islamic archways and there is Islamic patterning in the paving and floor patterns.
What was the most difficult thing about designing this building? The forces of nature. Gravity, seismic waves (earthquakes), the wind, and the heat and humidity of the Dubai environment posed issues. The biggest single issue on a tower half a mile high is the wind. The tower shape and surface texture is designed in a wind tunnel to mitigate the wind and the forces they impose on the tower. Unequal pressures on either side of the building cause it to sway from side to side. We tried to minimise this sway in structural optimisation programmes, because the movements can be perceived by your middle ear if not handled properly.
Which other Dubai buildings do you like? In Dubai, I believe that Infinity Tower, also designed by my company, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill [SOM], at Dubai Marina will become one of my favourites when it is completed. Rolex Tower on Sheikh Zayed Road is another building I like. They, along with Burj Khalifa, have the attributes of modern architecture that will allow them to stand the test of time.
What kind of house do you live in? I just won an interior design award for my apartment. If you were to categorise it, I guess you could call it classic modern with a touch of minimalism.
Critics have said it’s not environmentally friendly to build the world’s tallest tower in the middle of the desert. What do you say to these accusations? SOM has been practising energy-conscious design for almost 50 years. We have employed these finely honed techniques in Burj Khalifa to minimise its energy use. We have designed a very high-performance wall to keep out the desert heat and humidity. Burj Khalifa is part of a district cooling plan: we harvest condensate water on chilled pipes that essentially extract 15 million gallons of clean water from the atmosphere to irrigate the landscaping on the site; we ‘sky-source’ air from the upper elevations of the tower where the air is cooler and cleaner and draw it down into the building. Burj Khalifa predates the ‘green movement’, but we have taken measures to conserve energy. Until technology catches up with our desire to have green buildings, we can only do so much. Many of the steps are small, but when added together have a marked impact on its consumption.
Are you afraid of heights? I’ve become accustomed to being up high. When we were visiting Burj Dubai under construction, riding an open-air personnel lift hanging off the building made my heart pound with excitement. It was like a thrill ride at a theme park.
Will you be having a little time off now? What will you do to relax? There is never time to relax. We are out there searching for our next special client to help them realise their dream.
The construction worker: Illaya Raja
‘I am so happy to be working on the Burj project. I’m putting the marble on the floors, both inside and outside. I’ve been working on the Taj Palace hotel on the Palm Jumeirah too. I came over here from India just over two years ago – I live in Al Quoz with the rest of the labourers. Everyone at the camp watched the fireworks together from over there last week. I thought they were amazing.’
The interior designer: Nada Andric
What are the interior design highlights of the building? What sets it apart? Burj Khalifa tower is a metaphor for growth. Its continually rising vertical shafts form a soft, organic geometry that is reminiscent of the written language of Dubai. Only a handful of materials were used throughout the residential areas, all inspired by the heritage of the land. For example, the pale-hued venetian stucco resembles the colours of the sand and the pearls harvested in the region for centuries. As the tallest living and working spaces, the interiors of the highest floors of Burj Khalifa take ‘celestial’ influences, with spaces that resemble stationary spacecraft. Inside there are also nearly 1,000 pieces of international and regional art.
The technology bod: Guillaume Bernier
‘[Exhibition design team] Gsmprjct°création, in consultation with Emaar, designed the entire At The Top experience. My team from Gsmprjct°technologie was responsible for the technology behind the telescopes. It took us three years to come up with the prototypes, which we originally tested on the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada. I wasn’t scared of the height when I first went up to the deck. I was more focused on what we needed to do.’
The head of security, health and safety: Mohammed Moizuddin
What has been your biggest security challenge while building the Burj? In Europe and the US, health and safety legislation is very strong, unlike here. So I try to work to the international health and safety management standards. This is very tough, because most construction workers here are illiterate. They are only looking for some money to send back home. I work closely with Dubai Municipality and the Ministry of Labour. I train everyone, from the managers to the labourers.
What are the key ways to save lives on a construction site like this? Communication. Most of the construction workers come from poor families, so I need to make them understand the rules rather than be afraid of us. I’m not a policeman. But I need to make them understand that if something happens to them, no one will be more affected than themselves and their families.
How much training do the workers have? First, everyone has to submit their passports and visas to make sure there are no illegal people on site. Then everyone has a minimum of four hours’ training before starting work. This gives us time to explain their duties, safety requirements and the risks related to their jobs. Then each worker has technical training tailored to their various jobs. If they are working at height, we enforce a zero tolerance policy for falling: they have to use the double-clip system. Every 50 workers have their own trained first aider, and there is a dedicated team of paramedics at the building. Before starting work every day, workers have to do a minimum of 15 minutes’ training before starting their shift. If the supervisor does not enforce this, we take disciplinary or legal action against them.
Have you fired a lot of people? Yes. I have a zero-tolerance policy on smoking. If people smoked on the construction site, it could be disastrous. We explain to each person before they start that if they smoke anywhere other than in the designated areas, they will be fired without notice. More than 100 people, including the MD of a company, have been fired because of this rule. The MD went to the Ministry of Labour and Municipality and appealed, but they told him he had to comply. We hear you’ve also set a world record of your own… Yes – 23 million hours of labour without injury. Somebody slipped while they were walking, so we lost a couple of hours. We achieved this result by reducing paperwork and studying people’s mentalities. We made sure all training models suited them, rather than simply sticking on a video from the UK.
How many deaths were there? One. Everyone thinks that so many people died. I heard some say 250 had died due to oxygen deficiency! No! There is a difference in temperature at the top of 5-6°C. Any fatal accident is a police case. We just cannot hide information like that. Did you organise the safety and security for the fireworks? The Civil Defence took care of that – we gave them full assistance. We restricted many areas due to the explosives. There were no incidents or fires. At the beginning I was inside, then I went outside. Only the firemasters and fighters were inside. It was very noisy!
Model behaviour Construction workers were invited to make models of the Burj, and each month the winners were given a stereo or TV.
First ones in
Dubai resident Susan Woodcock, American, with her aunt Judith Birley, 72, and uncle John, 76, British John: ‘We were just here on a stopover to a wedding in Australia; it was pure coincidence that we were here for the Burj opening. We bought our tickets the day before, then queued for 30 minutes.’ Judith: ‘I think it’s just amazing – all of it. I’ve been in awe since I walked in. I loved the presentation showing that it’s based on a desert flower. And it’s so cheap!’
Blanca Cobo, 25, Spanish ‘I’m here visiting my sister. I think it’s a beautiful architectural masterpiece. It’s a little pretentious, like a lot of Dubai, but it’s the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. I can’t even compare it to that from the Empire State Building.’
Bedriya Albulushi, 27, Emirati ‘I am very impressed with the view. It’s been built so fast – six years, I think. And the fireworks were great. We came over from Abu Dhabi to experience it all.’
Mary Gaturu, 27, Kenyan, gift shop worker ‘I was here on holiday and I heard about the vacancies in the Burj. I had two interviews and got the job! It’s been very busy so far; there’s been a great atmosphere. We haven’t been told what’s happening with the Burj Khalifa branding. At the moment people are snapping up everything with the Burj Dubai logo as souvenirs.’
Alexander Gorab, 6, and his sister Hannah, 4, Canadian Alexander: ‘I like it here, but I like the CN Tower better. We got to have lunch at the top in a rotating restaurant there.’
Ma Ye, 26, and Leo Wu, 35, Chinese Leo: ‘We’re here on business. The view is beautiful; I bet it looks even better at night.’