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Mon 7 Mar 2011 12:00 AM

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Tall order

Orlando Crowcroft speaks to SOM architect Eric Tomich about the challenge of building the global icon that is the Burj Khalifa

Tall order

As the Burj Khalifa lit up the Dubai sky with fireworks in the early hours
of 2011, the world’s tallest tower was days away from another anniversary – its
first birthday. From his office on the 42nd floor of Emirates Towers,
architect Eric Tomich would not have been able to see the fireworks, because
although the southern side of the twin towers commands excellent views of the
Burj Khalifa, Tomich’s office faces Sheikh
Zayed Road and Dubai Creek.

He loves the Burj, but that does not mean he needs to look
at it every day. “I feel like I hand-built parts of it,” Tomich says, gazing at
the tower from the empty Burj-facing office he had requested for the benefit of
Construction Week’s photographer. He never doubted it either: even when the
economy faltered and construction sites slammed to a halt all over Dubai; even
when the money looked like it had run out; even when everyone said Dubai was
done.

“It had too much momentum. In a way, Dubai’s reputation was riding on the
building. I never ever thought that it would stop, not once,” he said. It had
been a big step for Tomich, a Berkeley-educated architect who has been with
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) for over 25 years, and headed up the
firm’s technical architecture office in London
from 1989 to 2003. He had worked on some big projects in London, including the Broadgate development,
but the tallest tower in the world was for him – as it would be for anyone – a
huge move.

“When we won this competition, I did not think about it for
very long; I just took the job. I thought it would be a fantastic assignment,
and it was,” he recalls. “It is a different environment, a different climate,
but I find the Middle East a very exciting
place to work.”

Since the completion of the Burj Khalifa, SOM has scaled
down its workforce in the UAE, and currently Tomich is the lone representative
of the Chicago-based architectural giant in Dubai. But that was not as much a response to
the global recession as an ongoing business philosophy, he says.

“You do not need an office here to produce the work, but
once you have the job, you cannot build it on e-mail. On the Burj, we had
consultants from everywhere, LA, Sydney, Paris,
UK, Chicago and
at some point we had to come together, and everybody would fly in to have a
round-table with the client. Even with video conferencing, you still need
face-to-face contact. You can do a lot of things remotely, but you cannot do
everything by e-mail.”

Especially with a client like Emaar’s visionary chairman
Mohammed Alabbar, whom Tomich is still quick to pay tribute to one year after
the Burj Khalifa was finished. He describes a man who realised early on that it
was not enough for the Burj Khalifa to be the tallest building in the world; it
had to be the best. From the design down to the doorknobs, quality was
paramount if the building was to be successful in the long term.

“I think he knew that having this icon, creating this shape
on the skyline, it was assured that it was going to be famous. But he also
realised that the experience that people had would be when they were in the
building, approaching it, living and working in it,” recalls Tomich. “He wanted
the best building in the world, and we really drove an agenda of quality in how
we approached finishes and how we made that quality happen. We were very
careful about which contractors were appointed to do the finishing work; we
hand-selected all the materials. We even went to Brazil twice to hand-select the
veneer. We hand-selected all of the stone, the marble, everything.”

Hands-on is an understatement, explains Tomich, when
discussing the construction process at the Burj Khalifa – not simply to ensure
quality, but to make sure that the timeframe was adhered to. When building
tall, he says, it is imperative for design, construction and fit-out to
overlap, requiring a good deal of forward thinking.

“The only way you can do a building like this is with a
fast-track process. So we issued the piling and designed it for a future
building. We issued the foundations for what was to come, and we issued the
superstructure, assuming that we would find ways to fit,” he says.

“But you have to make those decisions in the right way, so
that the superstructure you issued will take the cladding, support the MEP and
take all the dead loads. So we issued progressively, and that allowed the
client to give it to the contractor and continue to build while we were still
designing. That compresses the time, and you get the building sooner and you
get the revenue sooner too.” Both these instances, says Tomich, underline the
importance of nipping problems in the bud from the word go. It is no good
finding errors on-site. Everything has to be perfect even before that, right
down to the drawings. “If you do not have coordinated drawings, then it does
not matter how good your craft is on-site, if things do not fit. Then you do
not have any way of resolving it because everything is crashed together, and
you have huge problems that just cannot be fixed,” he says.

“The time to sort it out is when you coordinate and draw it
ahead of time. With the Burj, we insisted that they draw every interface,
examined every condition, made sure it was consistent everywhere, in every
room, in every space, and to follow that through.”

SOM and Emaar also required every contractor, every
craftsmen and every materials supplier to provide advance mock-ups of rooms,
veneers, any work they would be doing before they even stepped inside the Burj.
“We would go to their factory and they would present a portion of the work. We
would treat these as actual examples of the work that they were actually going
to do.

“That way you do not have hundreds of people on-site doing
the wrong thing, which you then have to go back and correct. We really tried to
control the work in a way so that when it went in, it was right.”

In light of the global recession, life beyond the Burj will
be more difficult for SOM in the Middle East,
but the firm still has some major projects in the region. Work was recently
finished on the Arcapita building in Bahrain,
and SOM’s parcel at the King Abdullah Financial Centre sees Tomich regularly
visiting Riyadh.
And he is not discounting Dubai
yet either.

“Every market goes through cycles. I have probably seen four
or five difficult cycles in my career, and the market just goes up and down. I
think the success story of Dubai
is how much actually got done, not how much did not get done,” he maintains.

“There is still a long way to go, and there are still a lot
of projects that need to be finished, but a lot of things got done.”

Personally, what next for an architect who has helped build
the tallest building in the world? “We will see what comes,” Tomich says with a
smile. “I did not see this one coming, so I may not see the next one coming
either.”

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