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Why You Can't Be Blasé About the Next World's Tallest Building

Why You Can't Be Blasé About the Next World's Tallest Building
Broad Group

Architects and record-keepers had been waiting for months to learn the status of Broad Group's "Sky City," a 220-story skyscraper that was supposed to be built in just 90 days this winter in the Chinese city of Changsha. Thirty feet higher than the Burj Khalifa and constructed of pre-fab modules, the prospective tower languished in government-approval limbo.

The wait is over: the title of world's tallest building really will be transferred from oil-rich Dubai to this mid-sized provincial Chinese city. Last week, Broad Group announced it has received approval from the Chinese government and will break ground on the project in August, though according to Quartz's Lily Kuo, Broad Sustainable Building has pushed the building's schedule to a more modest seven months.

That pace will make for less flashy headlines, but with more than a completed floor per day, Sky City will still be a historic construction project. More importantly, this titanic arcology will cost $140 per square foot to build, one-tenth the price of construction on the Burj Khalifa.

These innovations in speed and cost are thanks entirely to Broad Group's pioneering use of modular construction. In 2011, BG's subsidiary Broad Sustainable Building caused an Internet sensation with this timelapse video of a 30-story hotel built in just 15 days, its factory-prepared components slotted together like giant tinker-toys. (It's since been viewed over 5 million times.) BSB's hotel is still the world's tallest modular building, but the technology is spreading. A 32-story competitor is rising in Brooklyn, a 29-story imitator in London.

The implications for the future of construction, architecture and urban planning are huge. Less labor will be required, and many workers will move from the site to the factory. Architects could find their visions curbed by factory specifications. Developers and governments may also find that housing is cheaper, easier and faster to build.

With Sky City, BSB has the opportunity to prove modular construction's potential. The building's 30,000 residents will be carried in 92 elevators to 4 helipads and amenities like schools and stores.* Segments of the building were being manufactured even before the Chinese government had issued its approval.

The sticking points were concerns over traffic congestion, environmental impact, and safety. After all, Broad Group is best known as a company that makes air conditioning units, not skyscrapers. Its entry into the building industry is quite recent, with the 2009 creation of BSB. And you don't need to be a structural engineer to contemplate the technical jumps from building air conditioners to building 20-story towers to building a 200-story megalopolis. At that height, for example, buildings must be designed to withstand more horizontal pressure than vertical pressure. And since China's construction industry has been plagued by deadly scandals of cheap and faulty work, from the rail boom to the Sichuan schools to the recent possibility that poor-quality concrete would lead to collapsing skyscrapers, it's easy to see why the Chinese government might have been hesitant about a structurally ambitious building dozens of times the size of anything that has been tried elsewhere. 

Beijing seems to have come around, though it's difficult to know if some concessions have been made. For a project evidently intended as a beacon, until last week there had been no news of Sky City since December. All of what we know about the project, more or less, is contained in a new BSB video that is excerpted below.

In the world of marketing, and even in architecture, the word "city" is overused and diluted. But this building is intended not only as a self-contained metropolis but as a solution to the problems facing our existing cities:

This isn't entirely novel -- J.G. Ballard had fun imagining the possibilities of the concept in the '70s, and other projects have tried to reach for self-sufficiency. And yet there's something different about this building. As a flagship project, its location -- in the distant city of Changsha, rather than Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen -- is unusual. It will sit in the middle of a field, not in a crowded urban environment. The structure defies our expectations of new Chinese construction as garish, derivative, and above all, environmentally ambivalent. But the mastermind behind the project, Broad Group founder Zhang Yue, is equally idiosyncratic. If you're trying to figure out if Sky City is a vanity project or an attempt to change the world, James Fallows' 2007 profile in The Atlantic of Zhang is a good place to start.

Zhang's environmental record is particularly striking. Broad Group's success at selling air conditioners to the world was not based on low prices, like those of many Chinese companies, but on an innovative, eco-friendly model. Zhang has championed the fight against climate change, and Broad Town, the company's headquarters, is stocked with solar panels and has floors of recycled packing materials.

Indeed, little foreign media coverage of the Sky City project has noted Zhang's role as a crusader against climate change, an obsession in a corporate executive which seems unusual not just for smog-soaked China, but for the U.S. as well.

Here's Fallows, writing two years before the formation of Broad Sustainable Buildings:

When the company sells a cooling unit, it also offers guidance on reducing demand for air-conditioning. “For years the Chinese government focused only on economic development, but now they say that the environment and the economy should both be stressed,” Zhang told me. “But really the environment needs to be in first place, and economic growth in fourth.” Not seeing the trap, I asked what should come second and third. “The environment, and the environment!” he said.

For another international conference on the environment, Zhang prepared a captivating and unintentionally revealing document called “The World in 2015.” Part of it is quiet Chinese triumphalism: the world’s largest trading zone will be in Asia; the international currency will be not the U.S. dollar but the Asian dollar; the world’s most popular movie will be a drama set in ancient China. The world’s most profitable and admired company will not be one that sells computers or airplanes or oil but one that quietly economizes on energy use around the world, starting with new air-conditioning systems...

The conclusion of the imagined history involves a historic UN speech by another of Zhang’s idols: “Albert Gore, sixty-seven years old, walked slowly to the platform. This old man, who became Secretary-General of the UN one year ago, has a dull look in his eyes.” Why had no one heeded his warnings when there was time? Why did the world keep building more coal and nuclear plants, instead of noticing what was happening to its climate and learning to conserve? “Choked with sobs, Secretary [Gore] cannot speak.” At last he finds his voice and challenges mankind, in the final words of Zhang’s essay, “to choose the establishment of the new moral ideal with higher standards.”

Last year, speaking with Reuters, Zhang cited the Sky City plan as an environmental panacea, whose modular construction is merely a means to facilitate the inevitable densification of city life.  The future of human existence, he seems convinced, lies in higher density. Sky City could reduce the transportation needs of 30,000 people to a hundred elevators. And what if it were not alone in a field, but surrounded by other arcologies, housing friends, neighbors, other businesses?

Zhang doesn't plan on stopping at 202 stories, either. He has a vision of a structure three times that size. What are the odds this 636-story building ever breaks ground? Terril Yue Jones asked him. His response:

"One hundred percent! Some say that it’s sensationalism to construct such a tall building. That’s not so. Land shortages are already a grave problem. There’s also the very serious transportation issue. We must bring cities together and stretch for the sky in order to save cities and save the Earth. We must eliminate most traffic, traffic that has no value! And we must reduce our dependency on roads and transportation."

So, is Zhang about to be the 21st-century reincarnation of Le Corbusier, advocating revolutionary densities and self-contained super-blocks but with a transit-oriented perspective colored by climate change?

Perhaps. But he is also a corporate bigwig, with the expected dressings: the man has constructed a faux-Versailles palace (like many countrymen) and a Giza-style pyramid at Broad Town, the corporate campus where he lives, and has a fondness for private planes. No doubt Sky City could have demonstrated the virtues of density and the convenience of modular construction without reaching 30 feet higher than the Burj Khalifa.

Then again, if Zhang Yue's effort to cure the world's ills weren't also going to be the tallest building in the world, we might never have heard about it.

*Update: The specifications of the design have been updated to conform to the latest information from Broad Sustainable Building, via Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger. Full specs are above.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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