This is the text of a phone interview with Bill Baker, structural engineer on the Burj Khalifa and partner of S.O.M, on the day after the Burj Khalifa was inaugurated.
What was the launch like?
It was a pretty amazing launch. For structural engineers to see all this fire coming of your building is pretty shocking but it was an incredible event. There was this tremendous sight of sky-divers coming down. I couldn’t tell whether they were jumping off the building but I was told later they weren’t base-jumping. Then there was a light fountains. Then they had the lighting off, then spotlights. Then all the fireworks coming off the tower. It was incredible.
When did you learn that the name of the building had changed from the Burj Dubai to the Burj Khalifa?
Apparently it’s a fairly recent change. I’m not sure exactly when it happened. I found out when they announced it at the ceremony. I knew the height because that’s my field, but I didn’t know about the name, because, well that’s not my field. I’m standing here on the plaza and there’s a plaque which has the date. Monday January 4 on it. It says “His highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Makhtoum Vice President of the UAE , ruler of Dubai, commemorates the inaugaration of the Burj Khalifa, named after the Presidents of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa.’
How did the Burj Khalifa begin?
We were interviewed on March 1st 2003 by representatives of the developer. Emaar came to us because we did the Sears, John Hancock Tower, and the Jin Mao tower. These people from Emaar came to us and we went to NY and met some Canadians that were working for them and they interviewed us. We did a 2 weeks design competition. We won and we were up and running. The selection was relatively fast.
How does the competition design compare with the final building?
There are similarities [between the final design and the competition winning design] but not a lot. They have 3 wings and there are tendencies for set backs in the original design. But the core buttress system alllowed us fleixibilty. It was just as important in construction as in the completed stage, because it is self-stabilising as you go up. Everything holds up everybody else. Totally necessary. Centre core can’t go too much ahead of the wings for reasons of stability.
The shape was refined tremendously however. We spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel in order to achieve the final form. The competition was not overly precise. The height of the tower was around 550m in competition although other iterations had it much lower. Our drawings weren’t matching becuase were doing it quickly for the competition So our idea for the first building was that it was only about 10 m taller than Taipei 101 . Now it is 300m taller in fact.
How high was the building planned to be when you began construction
The plan was around 700m when we began construction but then the clients wanted us to make it taller and it kept going and going. The client just kept asking us to go higher and higher. We got to the point were we had one model and we realised that because of what we’d built already we couldn’t achieve any more.
Did you tell the client you couldn’t build any higher?
We came to arrangement.
What do you think of people that see the Burj as a symbol of folly?
I think all skyscrapers are symbols of hope and dreams and optimism. People who build skyscrapers are optimistic about their times and their future. Skyscrapers are dreams rendered in steel and concrete.
How are the occupation rates?
Actually very good. At the very bottom you have the world’s first Armani hotel. Then from 19 to 108 it is residential. All that residential has been sold several years ago. The top 37 floors are corporate suites with relatively small footplates for individuals who want to office space and almost everyone. There are 160 floors. Every zone has a a mechanical floor. Several bands of mechanical floors which is why the numbers don’t add up!
How long will the Burj’s record stand?
It could last a while or could happen 5 years. There’s nothing under construction that could surpass it. There are several proposals around at the moment which could though. Like what? I can’t really say anything about them or where they are. In general the places are active are China and the Middle East. That’s were the future of the skyscraper is.
Will they use the core buttress system?
Core buttress system is a very good one. We have some other ideas for how we might do something different. If you want to get a great deal higher, you have to look at a adapting the system.
What are you doing today?
I’m attending a conference relating to sustainability and generally trying to recover. We celebrated extensively, me and the gang who worked on the project. We all got together in a bar in the environs of the tower.