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Basra's plan to build the world's next tallest tower: Is this the MidEast's most ambitious or most foolhardy project?

With Dubai's Burj Khalifa and Jeddah's 1km Kigdom Tower, the region is no stranger to towering ambitions. However, the next candidate attempting to claim the title of the world’s tallest building is the seemingly unlikely Iraqi city of Basra. We look at the merits of the project and the general challenges facing the region’s bid to build upwards

Basra's plan to build the world's next tallest tower: Is this the MidEast's most ambitious or most foolhardy project?

For many people the name Basra conjures up TV news bulletins of the various conflicts that have raged in Iraq’s second-largest city. But it was not always known for its violent legacy. Basra played an important role in early Islamic history, was part of the historic area said to be home to the famous Sinbad the Sailor and has been suggested as the location for the biblical Garden of Eden.

In a bid to redraft more recent global perceptions, despite ongoing conflict in the country, Basra’s officials recently unveiled out-of-the-blue plans to build the world’s next tallest tower, overshadowing the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the under-construction 1,000-metre Kingdom Tower being built by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah.

Basra’s 1,152-metre skyscraper, named The Bride after a local nickname for the city, has been met with plenty of scepticism. But project manager Marcos De Andres, a director at British firm AMBS Architects, insists it has merit.

“As it is located in Iraq, the project was highly confidential for security reasons, until recently,” De Andres, who was born in Madrid and previously worked on large-scale projects in the UK for Fosters+Partners, says as he lays out the pitch for the seemingly improbable plan.

“The Basra Province in South Iraq has remained very quiet and removed from political and religious tensions. Having the bulk of Iraq’s oil reserves, it is becoming one of the fastest growing business centres in the world [and most expensive per square metre].

“The new downtown master plan was commissioned by the Basra Governorate with an aim of maximising the city’s capacity by 2025. Avoiding urban sprawl is a top priority to protect the precious environment and therefore we need to go vertical. The new downtown area will feature a one-of-a-kind landmark to match its importance.”

Thanks to oil, Basra is indeed a prosperous city, with brand new cars all over the roads, a plethora of five-star hotels and a new sports stadium.

AMBS has worked on many of the most significant projects in Basra and Iraq, but its highly ambitious The Bride comes loaded with some obvious obstacles. So, before we get down to the issues of its design innovations and the investment pitch, we discuss with De Andres two concerns that stand out: the oil price and ISIL, which has already claimed parts of Iraq’s north.

Funding for tall towers in the region is apparently available; last month Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding, the investment firm of billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, said its affiliate Jeddah Economic Co (JEC) had arranged $2.2bn in financing to complete construction of Kingdom Tower. But whether investors also will be interested in Basra’s plan remains to be seen.

“The project was [included in] the budget but had to be put on hold because of the oil price. [However], it is not a question of if [it will be built] but when,” De Andres insists. “The new downtown for Basra will happen. Of course, when you are talking about projects of this size many things can happen… but in principle, nothing suggests it is not going to continue when things get a little more normal,” he adds, without elaborating on what would constitute “normal”.

Perhaps a more serious issue is the spectre that is the Islamic militia group ISIL. While it has taken over swaths of Iraq and Syria and carried out revenge attacks across Europe and the US this year, it does remain 600km from Basra. And for that, De Andres, is not worried.

“No, it is not worrying at all actually,” he says defiantly. “As you know, the whole south of Iraq is away from everything that has been happening with ISIL. Also, this is a problem that is going to disappear very soon.

 

“The Bride will have investors. This project has become bigger since all the attention and a lot of big companies are wanting to be part of it. We will resume working on the master plan.”

However, no construction schedule or financial data has been made available.

De Andres says his experience working on the Basra Sports City, one of the largest developments of its kind in the world and funded by the Ministry of Youth and Sports, proved Basra’s authorities were capable of committing to and executing significant projects.

“Our previous experience [working with the government] has been great,” he says. “We got involved in the building of the sports city in Basra, which has a stadium with a 65,000-seat capacity. At the time, no one had such a thing in the city… and the actual constructor had no experience in building stadiums, so it looked very unrealistic at the time. [But] it was built, finished and done. Years later, it is there and everyone can go and see it. If that happened, when it was more difficult than now, why can’t it happen again?”

But beyond the political and oil price challenges, The Bride’s unique and forward-thinking design and engineering may also pose problems.

“The Bride will be the first truly vertical city in the world. It will also be the tallest structure there is and will break new ground in all disciplines of engineering, from structures to vertical transportation and services,” De Andres says.

“In a vertical city you need to have the possibility of getting to your place of work, or where you can relax, or to the ground floor in less than 10 minutes. It would be stupid to superimpose a vertical city in the middle of a big city. The idea is you can actually avoid having to travel for an hour to get to your place of work or to the countryside.”

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York has also forced The Bride’s designers to consider sophisticated security.

 

“This project forced the design team to go back to the very fundamentals of architecture and engineering. The brief developed into four conjoined towers creating a more logical and stable structure with multiple access and escape routes via horizontal and vertical circulation,” De Andres explains. “Tower 1, located on the south side, is the tallest. It is shaded by a glazed canopy known as ‘the veil’. The towers are connected at many levels creating ‘sky gardens’ and ‘sky squares’.”

Bridges linking the four towers horizontally will create multiple escape paths to help traffic flow easier, De Andres says.

“Supertall towers are inefficient. To achieve their height and stability they need to be very deep at the base with a very thin top that isn’t functional. The Bride keeps a constant [depth] from top to bottom [for all four towers and] maximises space efficiency to reduce the cost,” he says.

“Furthermore, The Bride is designed to be a round-the-clock city, with offices, hotels, whole neighbourhoods, commercial centres, sky-squares, parks, gardens and its own rail network.

“It is expected that revenues will far exceed the costs.”

Its design therefore already puts it ahead of Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, where the top 85 floors will remain unoccupied because they are too narrow for apartments or offices, international reports have claimed.

With inhabitants living, working and operating within the four towers, De Andres claims it will feel more like a village.

“That is one of the main fundamentals. People think vertical living will be like living in a space station where you get your food from robots; it will be the complete opposite, it will have a village feel, you will know the guy serving your coffee and your neighbours next door as the distance to work is shorter. It will mean no longer travelling for an hour to your place of work.”

His notion is supported by Mark Lavery, an expert on tall buildings at Dubai-based consultancy firm BuroHappold Engineering. Lavery says the concept of such integrated developments is a growing trend.

“It is something which has been considered and I know there have already been designs on the drawing board for similar concepts. I was involved in a tall tower six to eight years ago and the concept was to have mid-level areas where there would be shopping facilities for the residents to come down and have access to. It is something that gets overlooked but it’s a way to create a sense of community and enable people to get together,” he says.

 

Lavery has been in the region for nearly a decade and worked on designs for about 35 iconic projects, including the 1-km tall Nakheel Harbour and Tower, which was launched (and later cancelled) by the master developer in 2008 shortly before the onset of the Dubai property crash.

Lavery says The Bride is a positive development for the industry. “You’d have to say it’s a positive. If they have the capability and backing to do it then why not? It has always proven to be a positive uplift for any city or region when they manage to get these things off the ground.”

He says the number of tall towers has been accelerating in recent years and the Middle East is playing a significant role. “There has been a real trend since about 2005 or 2006 when they really started going with tall buildings,” he says. “There has been a real acceleration and really looking at it, I don’t see this trend stopping. We might have slower periods, inevitably, but we are going to still see that trend.”

BuroHappold Engineering itself has “a lot of stock”, with several buildings under construction in Riyadh, a tower in Kuwait and another in Abu Dhabi, Lavery says.

Dean McGrail, director of property and buildings at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff in the Middle East and the UAE representative of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), agrees the market for skyscrapers is booming.

“It is estimated that by 2050 a staggering 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, so the demand for tall buildings either under construction or planned is therefore on the increase,” he says.

“According to the CTBUH, 2014 was the “tallest year ever” — 97 buildings of 200 metres or greater were completed across the globe with a sum of heights of 23,333 metres, breaking the previous record from 2011, of 81 buildings completed and a sum of heights of 19,852 metres.”

McGrail expects investors will be attracted to The Bride because it will be so much taller than competitors in Jeddah and Dubai.

“If the Burj Khalifa wasn’t the tallest building in the world would it have the same global recognition or have created the same level of investment into Downtown Dubai?” he says.

Regardless, he does point out some fundamental challenges involved in pushing humans further into the sky to live.

“The challenges of lifting people and materials remains when the building is completed; current elevator technology is limited to around 500 metres, as any higher and the weight of the cable carrying the elevator car becomes too great. However, in 2013 Finnish elevator manufacturer KONE announced the introduction of Ultrarope, a new lightweight material which could enable future elevators to travel up to 1km, twice the distance currently feasible.

“Aside from elevators, the design challenges associated with tall buildings are numerous: the temperature differential between the top and bottom of the building could be up to 5 degrees Celsius, causing the movement of large volumes of air through the building; the structure needs to be designed to withstand wind load and seismic conditions; the water, electricity, heat and cooling systems need to span hundreds of metres; the building façade needs to be cleaned; and if there is an emergency situation in the building how do you ensure the safety of the building occupants?”

So does that mean there an optimum building height?

“Research has been undertaken on this subject and formulas have been developed to determine optimal building height,” McGrail says.

“However, very simply speaking, the optimal building height is purely a question of economics and the primary driver for the person or persons responsible for developing the tower. For example, the optimal height for a residential tower in Hong Kong will be significantly different from the optimal height for a tower developed to create a centrepiece for a new city in the Middle East.”

The Middle East is aiming for The Bride to become the next big centre showpiece for the region. But will she be left standing at the altar or will Basra enjoy a glorious honeymoon period and live out a happy life? Only time will tell but relations certainly don’t look smooth at present and this arranged marriage will need to be more than one of convenience.

 

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Mohammed 3 years ago

Good read! This project could very well be the saviour, not only to the investments in Basra but to whole of Iraq as well as this could very well be the ticket to a flourishing economy thanks to the recognition and the investments it will get considering its the first of its kind.

Will 2 years ago

What a build this will be. you could replace a entire city with about 10 or maybe even 5 of these.