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Thursday, July 25,2013

China building world’s tallest skyscraper — in record time

By Paul Danish

According to the ConstructionWeekOnline website, Broad Sustainable Building, a Chinese company, has broken ground for a new high-rise it is building in Changsha, China.

Not exactly the world’s most exciting news story, huh?

OK, describing the project that way is kind of like describing Mao Zedong as a Chinese agrarian reformer.

When complete, Broad’s building, which is named Sky City, will stand 838 meters (2,749 feet) and 220 stories, making it the tallest building in the world (10 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai). It will contain 1.05 million square meters (more than 11 million square feet) of above-ground space. And it will be built in about 10 months.

About half of the construction time will be devoted to building the foundation and the underground parts of the building. The 220-story, above-ground parts of the steel frame structure will be assembled using modular construction methods that Broad has developed — in as little as 90 days, according to some accounts.

Broad’s modular building technology is the biggest construction news to come out of China since the completion of the Great Wall. If it succeeds, it will transform the way cities are built everywhere.

Personally, I have doubts about the desirability of living and working in high-rises. Still, you have to admire the sheer audacity of Broad for attempting to put up the world’s tallest building, from start to finish, in less than a year.

This sort of a project used to be an American thing — before we turned the country over to trial lawyers and nanny statists. If that judgment seems overly harsh, consider the case of Freedom Tower, which is being built on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in Michael Bloomberg’s New York. Construction of the 104-story, 1,776- foot tower, which started on April 27, 2006, has been going on for more than seven years. The planning process before that, which started with a failed architectural competition in 2002, took four years. The building is scheduled to open in 2014, 12 years after the project began. Estimated cost as of last May was $3.9 billion. Estimated cost of Sky City is $850 million.

So all honor to Broad for doing what we used to do routinely. It deserves to be cheered on.

Broad’s audacity extends beyond attempting to build the world’s tallest building in record time. The company is attempting to redefine urban design and urban life — and set new standards for green construction in the bargain.

Sky City is intended to be more than an office tower. Broad designed it, as its name implies, as a city of 30,000 in a single building. The 11 million square feet will include residential units of up to 3,000 square feet, as well as low-income units, office and commercial space, shops, restaurants, a hotel for 1,000 guests, public areas, recreational facilities, performance and meeting space, schools, a hospital and landscaped terraces.

Broad is building Sky City on a 100- acre site by a lake. The building will be surrounded by wooded open space, parks and water.

The company claims that the typical resident of Sky City will use only 1/100th as much land as a conventional urban dweller, and will have a carbon dioxide footprint of two tons per year, compared with 5.5 tons for a conventional city resident.

To be sure, the city-in-a-building concept has been around for decades. Broad’s project may be the most serious attempt ever to build one, however.

What are Broad’s chances of successfully pulling the project off?

Better than you might suppose.

The modular construction methods that make the project possible have been proven. Broad has put up a 15-story hotel in six days and a 30-story one in 15 days, using the techniques. (Time lapse videos are available on YouTube; they’ll leave you slack-jawed.)

In other words, the necessary construction technology is in hand.

So what could possibly go wrong? Gad, what couldn’t. Design flaws, material flaws, human errors, unexpected delays, bureaucratic sticks in the wheels, market surprises (China is badly overbuilt, for instance), unknowns, you name ’em. The risks are there.

I suspect the biggest risks will involve getting the interior spaces and human factors right. If they aren’t right, it is entirely possible that people will reject the concept of living in a city in a building and won’t come. If things like city governance and policing haven’t been thought through properly, the city could become dysfunctional.

Hopefully Broad’s staff haven’t been dazzled by its construction technology to the point where it has slighted the human dimensions of its project. Hopefully it has designed a building with interior spaces that can be quickly reconfigured to respond to the ways people actually choose to live in and use the building after they move in.

If the Sky City project succeeds, chances are Broad’s payoff will not come from selling the world’s tallest buildings, but from selling the world’s fastest buildings, and at dramatically lower costs than today’s conventional ones.

Imagine CU putting up new buildings, red sandstone included, in a matter of weeks instead of years, for instance.

Like Google’s self-driving cars, Broad’s technology could transform life as we know it. It’s odd that hardly anyone has noticed it up to now.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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Nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to China!


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