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Modernity scales the heights Two of the world's top 20 tallest buildings are under construction in Dubai. What is the connection with a company that sells water to the Welsh? ; letter from dubai

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It is as hot and humid as everyone said it would be. Arriving in Dubai City in the early hours of the morning, you get the momentary false impression on leaving the plane that the heat is coming from the aircraft engines. At least the time difference pretty much eliminates jet lag. The usual bliss to arrive at an air-conditioned hotel, however much one is supposed to argue for stack-effect ventilation. Everything here seems to be a/c with a vengeance: cars, restaurants, offices, hotels. Local building regulations do not include U-values. Why should they, when energy is so cheap?

I am here as a guest of Hyder, formerly known as Welsh Water until its privatisation, and now a major player in the civil engineering scene in the Middle East through Hyder Consulting. How did this happen? Essentially, the company wanted to do more than supply water to its Welsh customers, and one obvious line of expansion was to do the same thing elsewhere. In 1993, Hyder bought the international consultancy Acer, which was created in 1987 by the merger of two of the giants of uk overseas engineering: Freeman Fox (founded 1857) and John Taylor & Sons (founded 1862). This gave Hyder instant access to expertise not only in the pipeline and water engineering sectors, but in roads, bridges and buildings. Hyder is Welsh for ‘confidence’, and in Arabic means ‘lion’ or ‘strong’; certainly the company has a significant presence in the Middle East, where 430 of its total 3500 staff now operate.

Hyder Consulting’s biggest job in Dubai is the Emirates Project, an extraordinary twin-tower complex which, when completed in 2000, will comprise a 53-storey office tower 350m above ground level (the ninth tallest building in the world), and a 52-storey hotel tower at 305m (17th). Both towers are triangular in plan, and each has a drum forming part of the core - shades of No 1 Poultry on a very big scale. A hive of activity, there are some 3000 mostly immigrant building workers on site, working two shifts making a 22-hour day. Harvey Binnie, Hyder’s Middle East regional managing director, says: ‘The sun never sets on the Emirates Project.’ This is literally the case.

Why are the buildings triangular? Because in Muslim cosmology, the importance of the trio of earth, sun and moon can scarcely be overstated. This was the design inspiration for Hazel Wong, of Norr Consulting, design architect for the project; the drum represents a timeless hole in the centre of a cosmic unit. Yhe arrangement of the podium and towers allows a framing of the 1970s World Trade Centre, by legendary Middle East architect John R Harris. The building still looks good, but as Wong points out, it would fit into the upper atrium of her hotel building. She describes the composition of the towers as a ‘pas de deux of equilateral triangles’, which becomes a complicated geometry at roof level (the tops of the buildings are in effect separate structures in themselves), where the automated building maintenance units will negotiate the various angles to carry out everything from cleaning to light replacement.

This is a fascinating construction job, not least because of the different uses of steel and concrete on each tower (6000 tonnes of steel used in the office tower, 5000 in the hotel). Although triangular, each tower in fact rests on four legs, one at each corner and one provided by the central core. Each tower has cores to level 9. At this point the hotel has an installation of prefabricated steel trusses to create an elevated working platform. Hotel floors begin from this level, using a conventional rc frame and flat slabs. A steel ‘hat’ roof houses plant rooms at the top. The office tower, from level 9, has an rc core with perimeter steel- tube columns and steel floor beams. This allows for rapid construction, with structural stability added by pumping concrete into the steel tubes. Total concrete used in the project will be about 70,000m3. Massive transfer trusses at different levels connect the tower legs; they are made down the road by Kvaerner Cleveland Bridge. The towers also have to cope with strong north-east winds, big temperature changes, and a (salt) water table only 1m below ground. Cladding, comprising silvered glass and metal panels, allows for 25mm of movement per floor.

One of the key roles for Hyder in the design process has been co-ordination of project information, which takes place in a building on site. ‘At the intense design stage all the team were in one place,’ says Hyder’s project director Richard Middleton. It required flexible working and a big onus on cad-accurate drawings; documentation was rarely posted. Compared with Britain, this project seems so different. The constraints have to do with health and safety, fire regulations and so on. There is nothing about context and absolutely nothing about aesthetic control, a concept which scarcely exists in Dubai. The wave of office buildings down the Sheikh Zayed Road come in every shape, size and colour. This makes the task of achieving a project of design distinction significantly more difficult: how do you represent a regional culture in a building form that is quintessentially American? The Hyder-led team seems to have managed it with significant style.

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