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A need for speed? Learning from China’s 19-day skyscraper

The world looked on in disbelief as China recently constructed the Mini Sky City building in Changsha: a 57-storey skyscraper erected in an astonishing 19 days.

In London we are growing accustomed to the sight of tall buildings over 50 storeys, but despite our growing economy and growing population, we couldn’t possibly imagine needing to produce a structure on that scale so quickly.

Our comparable sluggishness is partly because of our city’s physical and political constraints and the historic nature of much of our environment: buildings must be designed to fit next to curvy roads or above tube tunnels and they must not restrict important sightlines of landmarks, such as St Paul’s.

We can be forgiven for looking enviously at New York’s pencil towers rising out of symmetrical grids.

However, these constraints do not prevent creative architecture and engineering; we must be brave and challenge ordinary design methodologies while constructing buildings that are safe, sustainable and do not come at an unnecessary cost.

Adult Lego?

The Chinese building has been dismissed by some as Lego for adults, but this misses the point.

“Such a narrow-minded approach will only lead to a lack of efficiencies on time, labour and other costs”

Lean production methods such as prefabrication and modular construction are nothing new to the UK, so the question China’s building presents must be, ‘How can the industry keep innovating to provide clients with quick cost-effective and safe solutions?’

On a much smaller scale, McDonalds restaurants and Tesco stores have been produced in weeks or a few months in this country, and there is nothing from an engineering standpoint to suggest this isn’t also possible for taller buildings.

I have seen first-hand Luddites eschew such construction and design techniques as “not the way to do things”.

Such a narrow-minded approach will only lead to a lack of efficiencies on time, labour and other costs without any improvements on safety.

Shard lessons

The prescribed way is not the only way, nor may it be the best way.

WSP’s own experience on the Shard, where we helped pioneer ‘top-down’ construction that meant building upwards at the same time as the foundations were put in place, reduced the construction time of a very complex project by months.

It is the state of mind that is important: if the project is appropriate, the client is happy with the approach and the right design and construction team are in place, anything is possible.

We may not achieve a 19-day skyscraper in the UK, but that shouldn’t stop us from delivering real value for our clients.

Paul Tremble is executive director of Strategic Growth at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff in the UK

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