Quick quiz. What’s a half-mile tall and what guy from Pratt High School helped build it?
Answer. It’s the Burj Khalifa, also known as The Dubai Tower, and Ed Thompson, Pratt High School class of 1961 was project manager on the tallest building ever built on the planet.
Located in the United Arab Emirates, the building has 163 floors, is 2,722 feet tall and cost a whopping $1.5 billion. It was completed in 2010.
Thompson, a retired architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago, knew he wanted to be an architect before he even went to high school but getting to work on the tallest building in the world, well, that was something special.
Thompson’s dad worked in the oil fields so he moved around starting in Pratt then Wilson then Ellis and back to Pratt his sophomore year then graduating from PHS in ’61.
His family owned a restaurant in Wilson and became friends with an editor of a Boston newspaper and his wife. Thompson and his sister got to go visit them on the east coast and he couldn’t take his eyes off the tall buildings. So by the seventh grade he knew he wanted to be an architect and he never took his eyes off that goal, Thompson said.
He married Susan Green from Pratt while he was in school at Kansas State University learning architecture. They have retired in Manhattan to be close to their daughter and five grandchildren.
A couple of years before he graduated, he went with some students to tour firms around the country and fell in love with what SOM was doing. When he graduated, he sent them a presentation of his work and they hired him.
Getting to work on the Burj Khalifa was not planned.
“My involvement with the project was pure luck. I was in the right place at the right time,” Thompson said. “It was a lot of fun. It was a special once in a lifetime experience.”
When SOM was awarded the contract for the project, Thompson was selected as project manager because they wanted a pair of safe hands for the project.
The project manager is like an orchestra conductor, coordinating a lot of people from different firms.
“This was not one or two people on a design team but a huge collaboration of people,” Thompson said. “This is something that hasn’t been done before and there was an excitement of cohesiveness among the people working together.”
Planning was a lengthy process with meetings starting in 2003. The client came to Chicago to work out the methodology of working together on the project.
The biggest challenge was communicating with 40 consultants from 11 countries.
The building presented some unique problems that had never happened.
Wind was a key issue for a building a half-mile tall. Wind could blow the building over or could suck out the façade.
By turning the building 120 degrees in a spiral, it confused the wind and decreased the air pressure. Numerous wind tests were completed to solve issues before they became problems, Thompson said.
Supporting the building is a 140 feet deep foundation with 194 piles that are 5 feet in diameter and a 12 feet deep concrete mat at the base.
Surprisingly, the structure is primarily concrete without a steel skeleton. Concrete was readily available and so was the labor force necessary for a project that tall.
Concrete had never been pumped that high before so the firm had to demonstrate that it could be done.
Tests proved it could be done thanks to a German pump manufacturer
An aviation consultant was brought in to determine the impact on flight paths coming in and out of the country and get clearance to build from local authorities.
In most cases, the height would have presented big problems but having a country that wanted the project and a sheik to back it helped clear the way to proceed.
Terrorism was top concern. The 9-11 attacks had a huge impact on tall structure designers around the world.
The progressive collapse of the World Trade Centers was analyzed to help give time to evacuate people, Thompson said.
Elevators were designed as lifeboats and designed to keep operating to get people down. This greatly enhanced the exiting time.
Safe areas were built every 25 floors in reinforced areas in the stairwells so people could rest and continue or remain and wait for help.
A lot of redundancy was built into the mechanical system to keep the building functioning.
The top 200 meters of the building is a steel spire attached to the concrete and used for mechanical and telecommunications equipment.
Thompson has other tall building experience. He was project manager for the 90-story Trump tower in Chicago but doesn’t like the “noise” of Trump’s name on the building.
“We recommended the building was significant unto itself and didn’t need signage, Thompson said. “It’s brutal. It’s inappropriate and out of place.”
He has also worked on several tall buildings in the Dallas area, helped with the revitalization of Canary Wharf in London, worked on covering the 12 rails lines at Liverpool Station, worked on the Samsung Tower in South Korea and the Bank of America Financial Center Building in Wichita.