Building interviews the structural engineer who worked on the Burj Dubai in the week it officially opened

Bill Baker, a partner at SOM, talks to Building about his role as structural engineer on the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, the tower formerly known as the Burj Dubai.

In the week in which it opened in Dubai he describes how the original design changed, the client's desire to keep increasing the tower's height and the slightly alarming fireworks display at the launch party. opened this week in Dubai.

How does the competition design for the newly-named Burj Khalifa compare with the final building?

Burj Dubai
Credit: Reuters

There are not many similarities between the final design and the competition winning design. They both have three wings but the shape was refined tremendously. 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 because 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 an 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 long will the Burj’s record stand?

It could last a while or could in happen five 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 for the world’s next tallest tower?

Core buttress system is a very good one. It is 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. But we do 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 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 were the fountains. Next they had the lighting off, then spotlights. Then all the fireworks coming off the tower. It was incredible…