The man behind the Burj Khalifa's complex facilities management operations reflects on his ambitious career-path that led him to the most challenging role of his life.
Being responsible for the day to day management of the tallest building in the world would usually be enough work for one person to handle. But, for Ali Al Suwaidi this is just one task on his long list of priorities.
Not only is he the senior director for operations at the Burj Khalifa, but he has also helped set up the newly launched Middle East Facilities Management Association (MEFMA), and conducts regular FM related lectures on behalf of the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA) in the UAE.
"As part of the new [jointly owned property] law that is coming in to place, anybody who wants to get a license has to go to three different lectures. One is about the law itself, one about owners associations and one about facilities management," he says.
"This is very time consuming - I have to talk for four hours in front of 40 people. But, the attendees are very happy about what we share with them because we provide practical knowledge and, rather than using theories from Europe, we talk about FM in Dubai. We share secrets with them - this is how the industry will improve. There shouldn't be any secrets."
Multi-tasking is nothing new to Suwaidi. In fact, he was still studying the FM trade whilst maintaining critical power systems for the UAE telecom operator Etisalat in 1997.
"I decided to improve my communication skills so I completed my MBA at the American University of Sharjah," he reflects.
During the first six months of his studies, Suwaidi shifted roles in the company to look after the health and safety department. And, at the same time, he completed his international safety management diploma. It was at this point that he realised that a career in the FM industry was definitely for him.
"I wanted to be one of the pioneers who lead the industry and take it to next level," he says.
In 2006 Suwaidi moved on to set up a fully outsourced FM model for Etisilat's rival company Du. He brought in a consultant from South Africa and put out a tender for facilities services.
"I took all my experience in health and safety and added it together with my background in business admin and engineering to set up FM for Du," he adds.
One year later, Suwaidi joined facilities management company Imdaad. There, it was his responsibility to ensure operational efficiency across all areas of the company, as well as educating existing and potential customers about facilities management and the role of the organisation as a whole.
"Moreover, I believed that transparency and credibility was very important. So I started attending FM events to ensure that we took a practical approach to elevate the sector."
During his early career, Suwaidi overcame a number of difficult obstacles. But, it was when he first started work at the Burj Khalifa that he faced his biggest professional hurdle.
"I was very happy to get the job at the Burj Khalifa. I was delighted," he insists. But, at the same time, I knew it would be a big challenge. There is a lot of science that goes into the project that my team and I need to capture," he explains.
Indeed, the Burj Khalifa is demanding when it comes to facilities management, more so than the usual 40-story buildings or small communities tend to be.
Every day the tower can expect up to 12,000 people to pass through its doors, according to Suwaidi, and managing residents can prove to be the biggest challenge for the director.
"The building is transitioning. People have already started taking over the corporate offices and doing fit-outs. We have to ensure that we give them the right guidelines and implement health and safety procedures because people are living in the building while professionals are fitting-out their offices."
Logistical challenges can also crop up when people and materials are making their way to some of the tallest offices and residential units in the world. Luckily, the Burj's FM team addressed these challenges with solutions.
"We have the tallest elevator in the world and the fastest double-cabin elevator in the world, which moves at 10m per second. We have elevators for different zones - three zones of residents, one zone for the hotel, and two zones for corporate offices," explains Suwaidi.
"Otis maintains the lifts in accordance with best practice and civil defense regulations. Its employees are well trained of course, and it is an international team."
Suwaidi is also in charge of organising preventative maintenance for the mammoth structure's plant and machinery. And, with so much ground to cover, monitoring electrical and cooling equipment can be prove to be a hefty task.
The total connected electrical load the Burj Khalifa can manage at one time is 80MW - enough to power 1.3 million 60W light bulbs. The maximum demand load at any one time is estimated at 40MW to 45MW, and this can vary dependent on the level of occupancy inside the tower.
In terms of air conditioning, a district cooling plant delivers cold water to the building. The tower's chilled water system is a closed loop, with pumps circulating the chilled water at the rate of 1200 litres per second.
And water isn't wasted either. In order to minimise pump pressures there are further heat exchangers situated at plant rooms within the tower.
Fifteen million gallons of that water is then collected from condensation and used for groundskeeping.
"Also, solar panels heat up the hot water used in the building and save us up to 30% of electricity," says Suwaidi.
"We are doing more [to be sustainable] - like publishing our energy report and sharing it with our management."
Around 15 types of services provided at the Burj Khalifa, including cleaning and groundskeeping, are outsourced, but the senior director and his team of 27 have their own building management system and implement key performance indicators and service level agreements, which must be met by subcontractors.
"We have to make sure they match with our processes and we check what their capabilities are and what experience they have - this is very, very important to us. Then of course, we have to ensure that our outsourced service providers are flexible," says Suwaidi.
Façade cleaning of the tower is carried out from cradles suspended from building maintenance units. The podium level is cleaned from a cradle attached to telescopic arm machines and abseiling techniques are needed to clean 50m at the top of the building.
And, each ‘cleaning' of the Burj takes around eight to 12 weeks to complete.
All security process and systems, however, are operated in-house.
"We didn't want to train other companies to learn about the security system because we built it. Also, we try to minimise the amount of guards at the Burj to make the system more automated. It's not all about physical security."
During his time at the Burj Khalifa, Suwaidi has also been involved in external projects including MEFMA, a not-for-profit organisation which is set to change the future of FM in the region.
The group, comprising 13 board members was officially launched at the FM Expo in May this year.
"Myself and seven or eight people worked hard with RERA to establish MEFMA. We went to RERA when the crisis took place and they said that we need a non-profit association that will help us get feedback from the market before FM regulations are launched."
So what will it bring to the market? "A lot of things," he says. "Knowledge, benchmarking, training, awareness, and of course it will assist the government with FM regulations."
But, when asked if MEFMA will become a member of Global FM, which has teamed up with associations from the UK and Australia, Suwaidi responded with an out-right no.
"We want to be independent. We will cooperate with them, but we have our own agenda in the Middle East. We are an independent not-for-profit association, rather than part of another association."
The world of FM is not how it used to be 13 years ago; technologies, systems and solutions have evolved. But, according to Suwaidi, some changes made in the industry, which have happened since the start of his career, have not been for the better.
"When there was a boom in the real estate sector the FM industry was affected because nobody looked at the quality of the buildings," he says, adding that the sector is starting to see some improvement.
"Now, everybody is looking at the efficiency and reliability of services. Nobody wants to pay for breakdowns so people are looking at preventing." Few could argue with that.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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