Standing tall

David Scott, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) and principal of Arup, talks to James Boley about Dubai and its unique relationship with tall buildings.

David Scott
David Scott

David Scott, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) and principal of Arup, talks to James Boley about Dubai and its unique relationship with tall buildings.

The eighth CTBUH World Congress takes place in Dubai from 3­-5 March and is the first one to be held in the Arab world. Why here? Why now?

We've been talking about a conference in Dubai ever since the Burj Dubai was announced and we decided now was a good time to come. The Burj is largely complete. It would be good for our members to see it.

The Burj has certainly changed the whole landscape of very tall buildings.

How has it changed that landscape?

Before, building height crept up incrementally, so you had Petronas Towers, and then Taipei 101. The Burj has gone more than 50% taller, so there is a very large interest in what is happening.

People now realise these towers all had self-imposed limits, and if someone really wants to go taller, there is an opportunity to do so.

In November 2007, a new mandate for 'green' buildings was introduced in Dubai. How does that relate to holding a congress on sustainable urban features?

The Council is a not-for-profit organisation that discusses and conveys to our members best-practice about the issues of the day. In the last 5-10 years, sustainability has become the major issue both for users and developers.

It's probably the most significant issue for all our members.

Some of the things happening in Dubai are very interesting and people will copy them, as people copy all good ideas and build upon them. That's what this conference is about, to spread knowledge and information.

The Burj Dubai uses 10,000 tonnes of cooling energy an hour. How does that fit with tall buildings being sustainable?

There is a large concentration of people in a building like the Burj Dubai. I don't know how sustainable the Burj is, but a residential building will use substantially less energy than an office building and this will be the tallest residential building in the world.

You can either expand cities laterally or vertically. Without a doubt, there is a place for tall buildings. The Burj Dubai is a very important building for the world and for Dubai. To some degree, it changes the status of Dubai.

From a holistic viewpoint, it's a very sustainable building. It's raised the value of land around the area enormously. Technically, it's a great building.

Aesthetically, it's superb. From a sustainable perspective, the principles are very good. More than any other building, it has put Dubai on the map in the world of tall buildings.

Traditionally most buildings in this region were low-rise. Why the paradigm shift from small buildings to the tallest buildings in the world?

There is clearly an ambition in Dubai to create an international city where people want to live and work. Part of the reason that tall buildings are unusual in Dubai is that, here, you want to create a vibrant urban fabric.

London was built over 1000 years from different materials and different architects. Chicago was built over 150 years. [Dubai Municipality is] trying to build a city in 10 years and it's limited to the architects who are alive and active and the materials that are available.

To do something different; to create this interesting skyline and vibrant space, is part of the ambition of the city. If you had a lot of regular square blocks in a place like Dubai, it wouldn't work.

How long can the current pace of construction continue?

As long as the city is expanding and as long as the people see the value in doing it. What's interesting is that it needs to be a mix of regular and irregular because if everything was irregular, then it would all look the same.

I think that most of the buildings here are quite regular, but there many articulated towers being planned for the city, which is interesting.

Do you ever wonder whether architects can deliver on their promises and maintain the standards required for a tall building?

Yes, very much so. I've been involved in several unusual tall buildings and have found that you need to go back to first principles when designing them.

My concern is that people could easily design these outlandish shapes, follow the codes, assume it's like following a cookbook and it'll be fine, but it won't. You need the checks and balances to make sure that what you're trying to implement is sound, safe, and maintainable.

With the speed of development here, sometimes build quality is neglected. How can we ensure safety for users as well as builders?

One of the functions of the Council is to make people aware of the issues that accompany safety in tall buildings. Building codes are not [yet] written for very tall buildings.

They are written for standard buildings, say 20-storeys, and to simply apply them to enormous towers is not appropriate.

For instance, the Council is in the process of issuing a publication on seismic design in tall towers and there are a host of issues that are not covered by [current] codes because they were not designed for tall towers.

What's the best way of making high-rise buildings both attractive and affordable?

I'm an advocate for low cost housing being incorporated into big city developments. It shouldn't be just about having a billionaires' row.

You have to be able to make big buildings cost effective, and have building systems that allow you to create economic buildings.

What do you think about the perception that a sustainable building costs more to construct?

To achieve a high level of sustainability, I don't see that there's a lot of extra cost. To achieve an extreme level of sustainability, like LEED Platinum, for example, will certainly cost more.

However the value of the sustainability will actually pay for itself, since clients want their buildings to be sustainable.

At the moment we're trying to design buildings with surprisingly little data on their real energy use. This will change.

I expect in the future the big financial houses will insist that the data about their building's real energy performance is made public and that they are in the upper 10%.

That change will force operators and developers to build these high-quality buildings and actually make them perform.

We're just at the start of implementing sustainability in design around the world. With buildings using 40% of the world's energy, however, we've got a long way to go.

I hope that this congress offers a platform to push it even further.

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