Building Towards the Sun: Vertical Construction in the Middle East

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By Luke Carothers

Led by cities like Dubai, the Middle East has seen an enormous growth in large scale construction projects over the last twenty years, particularly in the realm of skyscrapers.  Iconic structures such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Ethiad Towers in Abu Dhabi have become synonymous with the vertical expansion of Middle Eastern skylines.  Abdo Kardous, President of Hill International Middle East, says the increase in tall building projects in the area is a result of two factors: population growth and wealth gained from oil.

In recent decades, several cities in the region have exploded in population, particularly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  In 2000, Dubai was home to less than 900,000 people; today, Dubai is home to more than 3.3 million people.  Kardous also points out that, unlike in places like the United States and China, there is little to no developed rural land surrounding these cities. Whereas in China, the US, and other similar countries populations migrate from rural areas for work, the working population of many Middle Eastern cities is located within the city itself. This places an even greater emphasis on housing development within the larger cities, which is a viable use for high rise structures in urban areas.

Silhoute Towers

Combined with capital from the oil industry, population growth is fueling an expansion of real estate investment within the region.  This influx of real estate development is further influenced by the availability of buildable land, the lack of which has driven the price of land steadily upward.  According to Kardous, this has caused developers to develop their properties vertically to maximize the available space.  In addition, thin, vertical structures are a viable option because there are little to no seismic considerations that have to be made.  Even in the areas where there is seismic activity, it is to a much lesser degree than areas such as the West Coast of the United States.   Kardous also believes there is another aspect coming into play that is fueling vertical expansion beyond what the economic factors dictate–prestige.

The desire to create a landmark structure is demonstrated by projects like the aforementioned Burj Khalifa, which is almost 200 meters taller than the second tallest building in the world, Merdeka 118 in Kuala Lumpur.  The construction of the Burj Khalifa, despite numerous setbacks, resulted in an iconic landmark at a staggering price.  Aside from cost, there is also instability in some of these projects as a result of shifts in international markets.  If international economic markets experience low or stagnant rates, these projects are often affected by way of project delays and cancellations.

In addition, there are several considerable challenges associated with construction in hot climates that projects must contend with while remaining safe and on-schedule.  According to Kardous, the use of concrete is among the most important considerations for high rise projects in the Middle East.  Projects must find ways to keep their ready-mix concrete below a certain temperature.  One of the more creative solutions includes using ice to cool the water that mixes with the concrete.  To ensure that these solutions are practical, there is considerable logistical planning that needs to take place.  This means planning to ensure that there is sufficient time to transport the concrete from the production facility to the construction site as well as enough time to pour the concrete.  This becomes critical when it comes to pouring concrete to the project’s upper stories.  As such, Kardous notes that the efficient planning not only places the production facility as close to the construction site as possible, but also that the concrete’s transportation route avoids delays from cities and densely trafficked areas.  Once the concrete reaches the construction site, these logistical considerations must also contend with the further challenge of pumping concrete higher and higher as the building extends vertically.  The extra time afforded by this planning is especially crucial for projects that reach 300 meters or higher, where Kardous notes that additives must be mixed in with the concrete to keep it malleable.

Another challenge to tall construction projects is the vertical transportation of both workers and materials, which can become one of the biggest time consumers on these construction projects.  Again, this involves considerable logistical planning to ensure that construction activities such as inspections and maintenance are ordered in such a way that they do not require multiple trips up and down the structure.  When it comes to the vertical transportation of materials, Kardous says there are never enough tower cranes and hoists for the project, but, by optimizing their usage, materials can be efficiently transported to their appropriate levels.  This optimization usually comes by extending the usage cycle of the lifting equipment from a standard 8-hour work window to a full 24 hours.  While this results in longer hours for contractors and workers, it ensures that materials are moved efficiently and the project is completed on time.

Sky Sun Towers

However, even with potential complications with these prestige-driven projects as well as challenges building in the hot climate, more and more tall buildings are being constructed throughout the Middle East.  Led in part by firms such as Hill International, tall buildings such as the Silhouette Tower in Doha, Qatar where they provided construction and project management services.  Kadous believes that this trend will only continue.  Currently, the UAE is leading the way in terms of vertical building with both Dubai and Abu Dhabi leading the way for the Gulf Region. 

Sky Sun Towers

Kardous believes that in order for this trend to continue, there needs to be an emphasis on both safety and fire protection.  To place a stricter emphasis on safety, there are a few smaller categories into which the subject is divided.  Life safety focuses on the means of egress for the occupants of any building or project.  This means paying attention to the distance between occupants and their means of escaping in the event of fire or structural damage; it also means including design elements such as refuge floors into buildings.  According to Kardous, life safety is directly tied to both the building codes of each country as well as the capacity of the local authorities.  Wherever a high-rise building is proposed, the local fire department must have the ability to help the people on the highest floors in the event of a fire.  In some places, this greatly limits the available height of new building projects.  Once a focus on life safety is established, then the next area of focus becomes protecting the building and its systems.  Once all the occupants are safely evacuated, the emphasis becomes protecting the structure, systems, and installations within the building.  Although there is a focus on these safety elements during the occupation of the building, Kardous believes that there needs to be a greater emphasis on providing fire safety during the construction phase where there are additional dangers from things like welding and electrical work.

There appears to be no slowing down when it comes to the pace of new vertical construction projects in the Middle East.  As more projects are scheduled and completed, there will not only be challenges associated with construction and logistics, but also with the use of these buildings.  How this challenge is met will define the landscape of how these projects are handled in the coming years.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

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