Dubai claims world's tallest skyscraper: Technological feat or folly?

Dubai's inauguration of the world's tallest skyscraper is supposed to be a symbol of a new chapter for the debt-ridden country. Is the Burj Dubai tower a technology feat with "wind sourced" sustainability features or folly?

Dubai's inauguration of the world's tallest skyscraper is supposed to be a symbol of a new year and a next chapter as the country hopes to emerge from its financial mess.

Source: SOM

However, the Burj Dubai tower---a technological marvel that is at least 160 stories high and designed to be a vertical city---is also a symbol of what's wrong with Dubai. The problem: Dubai has focused on the flash and not the substance of economic diversification. Dubai is a business-friendly commercial hub that got drunk on cheap loans and heady growth. Sans money from oil, Dubai bet big on commercial real estate and projects that just don't make a ton of sense.

Now Dubai is on the financial ropes and being propped up by Abu Dhabi, which has oil money and economic diversification plans. In late 2009, Dubai said that it would revamp its Dubai World conglomerate and would need new terms on its $26 billion in debt. Abu Dhabi gave its neighbor a $10 billion bailout.

According to the Associated Press, developers of the tower spent about $1.5 billion on the project. Is that the best use of capital? What's the economic value of having the tallest building in the world?

Those questions can't be avoided. Wikipedia has a good overview of the project, which kicked off in 2004. As far as construction and design goes, the Burj Dubai tower is quite the conversation piece. It's also a distraction from larger problems.

But while we're in the neighborhood, let's look at some of the key items about the tower from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the Chicago architectural firm behind the tower's design.

From SOM's discussion of the project:

Designers purposely shaped the structural concrete Burj Dubai—“Y” shape in plan—to reduce the wind forces on the tower, as well as to keep the structure simple and foster constructability. The structural system can be described a “buttressed” core. Each wing, with its own high performance concrete core and perimeter columns, buttresses the others via a six-sided central core, or hexagonal hub. The result is a tower that is extremely stiff torsionally. SOM applied a rigorous geometry to the tower that aligned all the common central core and column elements to form a building.

And on sustainability:

When designing the Burj Dubai, the design team looked to the sky for sustainable elements. In the extreme hot and humid climate of Dubai, the temperature between the ground (46.1ºC or 115 ºF) and the top of the building (38ºC or 100ºF) can vary up to 8 ºC (or 15º F). Satellite data was used to predict the humidity drop with altitude (up to 30% reduction in humidity between the top and bottom of the building), and analysis was performed to study the air density drop up the building (up to 10%). SOM’s “sky sourced” sustainability innovations will result in substantial energy savings.

The Burj Dubai also has one of the largest condensate recovery systems in the world, capturing up to fourteen Olympic size swimming pools of water per year, and one of the highest chilled water pressures ever used in a building to maximize efficiency. The tower is one of the first to utilize an active stack effect control in a super tall building to minimize energy loss.

On the design front, the Burj Dubai tower has some interesting features. However, you have to wonder if this tower symbolizes a new era or the old debt-ridden one for Dubai. As for sustainability for the economy and environment, the better choice may have been to refrain from the tallest tower wars.

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