Building the Burj Khalifa

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Standing a staggering 828 metres tall, comprised of almost 40,000 tonnes of steel, and setting nearly a dozen world records with its construction, the Burj Khalifa is immense. Not only is it a leviathan amid Dubai’s cityscape, but it currently dwarfs every other building on the planet as well. Even during the design process, the building grew from the initial proposal by almost the height of the Eiffel Tower.

Just over a decade since it opened, the Burj Khalifa is today iconic. It has been photographed by millions of people travelling from around the world, and it also played a key role in one of the most gripping stunt acts in recent years alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

In this episode of Create the Future, we speak with the structural engineer behind the world’s tallest building: William F. Baker. We speak with Bill about his extensive career working on large scale structures and the technical challenges he’s found that come with them. We explore the relationship between architecture and engineering and the role of design in the construction process, unpack Baker’s “top five” projects to date, and hear his advice for students looking to study structural engineering in an increasingly digital age.

About the Guest

William (Bill) Baker is an American structural engineer well known for engineering supertall structures such as the Burj Khalifa.

Baker obtained a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Missouri in 1975 and, after a brief time in industry, completed his master's in 1980 at the University of Illinois. One year later Baker joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), a global architectural, urban planning, and engineering firm. He became a partner in 1996 and currently works as a structural engineering partner in their Chicago office.

Aside from the Burj Khalifa, Baker's many skyscraper projects include the AT&T Corporate Center in Chicago, Cayan Tower in Dubai, and Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou.

Episode quotes

  • "Structural engineers are often very, very visual people. And the more you look at things – the more you study them – the deeper and richer your intuition becomes."
  • "My grandfathers had been structural engineers so I guess it's in my genes. But not knowing that at that time, I looked around at what engineers did and I was really impressed with the physical representation, like a bridge or a building ... just how tangible it is and how monumental and seemingly permanent are the things that structural engineers built."
  • "Having a tight budget doesn't necessarily limit the design, but it does force more creativity to do something that's interesting."
  • "When an architect gives you a sketch, do not take it as something that you can go out and just immediately engineer. Take it as a problem statement."

* Photo by Abbas Mohammed from Pexels

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