Burj Khalifa (Dubai) – The Truth Behind the Bling

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock – which is most un-ninja-like – then you’ve certainly heard about the Burj Khalifa (formally known as the Burj Dubai) tower designed by Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The Burj Khalifa is a building that breaks many records; not only has it claimed the title of tallest skyscraper in the world, but it is also the tallest structure ever built by man, soaring 828 meters or 2,717 ft to the top of its spire. It also boasts the world’s fastest elevators—they can travel up to 64 km/h or 40 mph—to service the Burj’s 160 floors, which include the first Armani hotel and residences, office space, the world’s highest a swimming pool on the 76th floor, the world’s highest outdoor observation deck on the 124th floor and the world’s highest mosque on the 154th floor.

Behind the Burj’s glimmering aluminum and glass facade and the fireworks and fanfare of the opening ceremony lies the untold story and the statistics you don’t read:

Low Working Conditions:

It probably comes as no surprise that workers received extremely low pay in return for risking their lives to build the $1.5 billion USD tower. Around 10,000-12,000 workers, mostly poor migrants from South Asia, built the Burj. With no laws governing minimum wages in the United Arab Emirates, some workers reported making less than $10 USD a day, according to a Human Rights Watch Study. It is also common practice for employers in Dubai to confiscate workers’ passports so they won’t leave the country before they’ve completed their duties.

Number of On-site Deaths:

Although many safety precautions were taken in the construction of the Burj Khalifa, it seems almost impossible that there was only one reported construction fatality. According to a spokesman for the developer, Emaar, a man fell to his death in 2007. However, the Human Rights Watch Study speculated that this was a cover-up, omitting deaths related to “heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide.”

Real Estate Values:

Emaar Properties recently claimed that 90 percent of the building had been sold, however it is not clear how much of it will be occupied. A spokeswoman refused to comment on whether buyers have walked away from deals at Burj due to the economic slump. On average, rents in Dubai have fallen between 30 and 60 percent in the last two years, which is consistent with rates for the Burj Khalifa apartments. According to Bloomberg News, “apartment prices in the tower have fallen to less than half of the 10,000 dirhams ($2,700) a square foot that they reached at the 2008 peak.”

The Storm Machine:

German newspaper Der Spiegel speculated that “the tower is so enormous that the air temperature at the top is up to eight degrees celsius lower than at the base. If anyone ever hit upon the idea of opening a door at the top and a door at the bottom, as well as the airlocks in between, a storm would rush through the air-conditioned building that would destroy most everything in its wake, except perhaps the heavy marble tiles in the luxury apartments.” Hyder Consulting, part of the Burj Khalifa project team, denies this claim. While the theory holds some merit and the technical term is called the “stack effect,” air locks have been incorporated and secure so that this condition would never occur.


No one would presume such a massive building would be “good,” for the environment, but SOM incorporated several sustainable strategies into the design. For example, a condensate recovery system will reduce the need for municipal water for tenant use and landscaping. They estimate that it will recover a volume of water equivalent to that of 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools per year.

Still, Arabian Business reports that the tower will require a total of 960,000 liters or 250,000 gallons of water per day and during peak demand, the electricity needed is “equal to burning 500,000 100-watt light bulbs concurrently.” But how long can the Burj Khalifa last before it burns out? According to Project Manager Greg Sang, the tower was designed to last about 100 years. While that is a decent lifespan for such a tall building, it pails in comparison to the other wonders of our world.

Fascinating Facts:

• During the peak in the design of the tower, SOM’s Chicago office had a team of 100 employees working on the project, as well as others in Dubai.

• According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the tower is comprised of 330,000 cubic meters or 11.6 million cubic feet of concrete, which weighs as much as 100,000 elephants, to put it in perspective, as well as 39,000 tonnes or 86,000 pounds of steel rebar.

• It takes three months to clean the windows from top to bottom. While the cleaning carousels may be technologically advanced, the window washers still use a traditional squeegee with soapy water.

• The external surface of the tower is equivalent to the area of 17 football fields or 25 American football fields.

• The top of the tower sways an estimated 1.5 meters, or the height of the average person, and is visible from 95 km or 60 miles away.

If anyone has some more facts to share about the Burj Khalifa please add them into the comments. I hope you learn’t something new about the tower which is without a doubt the largest Architectural feat to occur within my lifetime.


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