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The history of tall towers in Dubai began with the construction of the 149m Dubai World Trade Centre in 1979. At the time of completion, it stood as the tallest building in the Middle East.
Dubai is now home to 20 of the world's 100 tallest high-rises, with another half dozen or so appearing on the list of 100 tallest buildings under construction.
These numbers, from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, put into a global context a fact that manifests itself when driving along Shaikh Zayed Road: Dubai is home to a growing collection of impressive high-rise towers.
Such concentration of tall buildings has come about thanks to a set of favourable dynamics at play in Dubai, and which have transformed the city into an emerging centre of high-rise projects and the engineering that makes them possible.
''I think it starts from the willingness of Dubai to embrace high-rises and high-rise communities as the backbone of the city,'' says Steve Harrison, Design Director for Structural Engineering at Atkins, a design, engineering and project management consultancy.
Harrison says the Dubai Municipality has been very supportive in adopting technologies and advancements in construction engineering.
''The willingness of the municipality to push the boundaries helped,'' he says. ''It is very comfortable and open to the development of compliant designs that follow international best practice.
''Over the past ten years Dubai has identified key communities which it has built around a high-rise platform. To meet the aspirations of the emirate, they need to keep the city relatively compact. It's been done around major arteries and with a view that there are only so many highways in place, so you need to keep the community close to these transport links.''
From these starting points, Harrison says some of the most recognisable buildings, including the Atkins-engineered Burj Al Arab, have emerged and helped promote Dubai on the global stage.
''Dubai now has world buildings,'' he says. ''They were not necessarily developed for that reason — the Burj Al Arab was not developed to be a world building, but the world has embraced it. You can put up a picture of the Burj Al Arab and people will identify it and know it's Dubai. The emirate has gained indirectly form its aspirations to develop.''
Harrison says the building engineering business is on the rise, noting that Atkins is working on a number of towers currently in the construction phase.
''It is great to see, as it shows activity in construction has kick-started again in Dubai,'' he says.
Among these projects is one that is once again pushing the engineering boundaries. The P17 tower will be a 370m mixed-use office, hotel and residential development of 80 stories. However, there is a catch.
''We think it will be most slender tower in the world,'' says Harrison. ''It is only 30m wide, so it has a slenderness ratio of more than 12:1. The Burj Khalifa is only 8:1.
''It is almost an engineering-led rather than an architecture-led project, which is what you find in high-rise projects. Architects have the vision and the aspiration, but engineers turn that aspiration into reality, in a collaborative environment.''
Meanwhile, the skills the company has developed by working in the region are now in demand elsewhere. Harrison says Atkins' Dubai team, which has worked on more than 50 tower developments in the region, is lending support to colleagues in London as the UK capital has revealed plans to develop a number of high-rise towers.
Convergence of expertise
With Dubai growing steadily into a centre of high-rise buildings, the skill sets of those building professionals here are growing as well, further motivating Dubai to push the boundaries of high-rise technology.
''It is an exciting place to live and work in,'' says Bart Leclercq, Senior Technical Director of WSP, a professional services firm. ''People want to be part of the action. There is a large number of world-renowned engineers, architects and consultants based here who are all vying to contribute to the creation of this amazing, ever-growing city.''
As well as the favourable economic conditions and a decent talent pool, Dubai's geography has also helped engineers with their work.
''Dubai's location makes it possible to build the structures that make its skyline so memorable,'' explains Leclercq. ''The soil conditions, with the dense sand, are very good and the low seismic activity means that foundations are usually relatively straightforward to design and construct.
''On top of this, Dubai's locally based architects, contractors and engineers are well experienced and because of this, they understand the conditions, materials and codes that have to be incorporated in the design.''
As with other international companies working in the region, WSP has a global portfolio of high-rise projects. The company has worked on Europe's tallest building, The Shard in London, and the Freedom Tower in New York.
In Dubai, it designed the as yet unbuilt Nakheel Tall Tower, which was planned to rise 1km. The engineering solutions WSP provided when working on the Shard resulted in four additional leasable floors within the same building volume.
Base jump platform
''This was achieved by playing with the stiffness and the weight of the building, eliminating the need for a tuned mass damper and by rationalising the floor-to floor heights to maximise the number of floors within the building,'' explains Leclercq.
The company is bringing its international expertise to bear on several high-rise projects in Dubai, but its recent work was something out of the ordinary.
''Our most recent project in Dubai, although small in scale, was very exciting to work on as it was located at the top of the Burj Khalifa's pinnacle,'' says Leclercq. ''We designed the platform that facilitated the world-record base jump in April.''
Also contributing to the accelerated high-rise development is Dubai's role as an industrial hub, which ensures easy transport of materials and plentiful supply of locally sourced concrete.
These conditions have encouraged the construction of a large number of tall towers. But what lies ahead now that market is picking up?
''We forecast growth for medium-rise buildings of 30 storeys and above,'' says Grant Gowen, Director of Buildings at Hyder Consulting Middle East.
''There is currently an opportunity for building more hotels in Dubai, especially in the three- and four-star range, to accommodate the anticipated requirement for the World Expo 2020.''
Hyder's first project was the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in 1996. Architect Hazel Wong designed the tower, while Hyder designed the structures and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Hyder also worked on the Burj Khalifa.
''Emirates Towers is not only a good example of engineering, but also a great practical example of a project that was delivered on time and within budget,'' says Gowen. ''A non-adversarial approach to the design and construction occurred on this project. All involved were really on the same side with a common project delivery goal, instead of the more traditional adversarial approach of contractors and consultants in conflict most of the time.''
More lessons to learn
Gowen says there's no doubting the difference good engineering can make on a project. ''Good engineering design will significantly benefit tall towers in both time and cost of construction,'' he says.
Engineering is an area of continuous development, where advances can come in steady stream. This means that as new towers are developed to embellish the Dubai skyline, they will be improved by the lessons learned from the buildings that have preceded them.
''We are now considering performance-driven design, the effects of climate change, sustainability and carbon footprint and using materials that are more corrosion resistant, with less ongoing maintenance,'' says Gowen.
''Building information technology is now being used more and more, not only as a design tool, but by the building owner and operator as a facilities management and maintenance tool.''
Dubai's desire to place itself in the spotlight pushes boundaries and challenges conventions. Given the opportunity, engineers will push the envelope and tap into new technologies and materials.
''Engineering high-rise buildings is half art, half science — an artful application of science empowered by experience,'' says Leclercq. ''It gives any engineer enjoyment that you may not have in other fields of endeavour, as you can see the results standing tall and proud.
''A project is like a new big puzzle to solve and at the end there is a sense of accomplishment and pride.''
Get a glimpse on Dubai's obsession with skyscrapers
Source: Stuart Matthews, Special to Property Weekly