How high can buildings get? IL engineer who helped build the world’s tallest has an answer



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Bill Baker, who led the Chicago-based structural engineering team for the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, has been amazed at the popularity of mega-tower observation decks, including the glass balcony that the public can visit on the 103rd floor of the building. Chicago’s Willis Tower.

It is billed as ‘The Ledge’.

“You don’t just want to go high, you want to hang above the abyss,” Baker said of the Willis Tower balcony.

“Explain that to me,” he said, laughing.

“I don’t understand it other than experiencing it myself.”

Baker said the Burj Khalifa has added observation space since it opened in 2010.

Humanity’s fascination with building ever-higher structures may not be the easiest to explain, but Baker has made his mark in the skyscraper industry.

Bill Baker of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago was the structural engineer for the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

The Illinois Connection

Baker is part of Illinois’ connection to the construction of the Burj Khalifa, which is located in the United Arab Emirates and is 828 meters high.

While Baker led the structural engineers for the world’s tallest construction project, Adrian Smith was the lead architect. At the time, they both worked for Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

“Chicago is one of the world’s capitals for high-rise architecture and engineering,” said Baker, who grew up in Fulton, Missouri, attended the University of Missouri and would visit St. Louis with his family.

Chicago is not only home to the Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, but is also the headquarters of the non-profit Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which has a wealth of information on the world’s tallest buildings at its website at www. .ctbuh.org.

The Willis Tower was the tallest building in the world from 1973 to 1998. It is 1,451 feet high. More than 20 skyscrapers have been built since 1998, mainly in Asia and the Middle East, to make Willis Tower the 23rd tallest building in the world.

Baker also said the University of Illinois, where he received his master’s degree in engineering and where he taught last fall, has one of the top-rated structural engineering programs in the country.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world.  It stands at 2,717 feet or 828 meters high.  Skidmore, Owings & Merrill provided the architect and structural engineer for the tower.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world. It stands at 2,717 feet or 828 meters high. Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill provided the architect and structural engineer for the tower.

Reaching new heights

Baker is quick to note that it takes more than a few people to design a building over 800 meters high, such as the Burj Khalifa.

“We had 90 people working on this thing,” he said of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

“Adrian led the architectural team, I led the structural team,” he said.

Smith has since started his own firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture LLP in Chicago, and is the architect of a building that would exceed the height of the Burj Khalifa, but the construction of that project known as the Jeddah Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has stopped Arabia.

The exact height of this skyscraper has not been disclosed. Developers have said it would be at least 3,280 feet or 1 kilometer high.

So that brings us to the question, how tall can a building get?

Baker gives his answer matter-of-factly: “I think, within a fairly reasonable price and time frame, you could do a mile or even two kilometers.”

A two-mile high building would be 1.24 miles or 6,561 feet high.

Baker said the super-tall builds are “like Swiss watches” and not a speck of space can be wasted on design and then operation.

“It has to work for architecture, it has to work for structure, it has to work for construction, it has to work for interiors, it has to work for mechanical, electrical, sanitation, it has to work for durability and so it’s something very, very complicated.”

And if a building is to be almost one and a half kilometers high, a design is needed that has not yet been developed.

Baker describes the design of a building as a ‘kind’. A new one has been developed for the Burj Khalifa, which is called the ‘supported core’ because it has a narrow hexagonal core center and three wings that extend from the center to provide support. When the wind blows against two of the three walls, the third works to resist the force of the wind.

“The great thing about design is that you don’t have to evolve, you can create new ones, you know, by working with your team,” he said.

But these new design and construction costs for a building more than a mile high would, of course, come with a high price.

“Would it be cheap? No,’ said Baker. “But I think it could be affordable in the sense that the value would significantly exceed the cost of construction.”

From left to right Adrian Smith, the architect of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building;  Bill Baker, the structural engineer for the tower;  and George Efstathiou, the project managing partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, show a model of the Burj Khalifa on March 30, 2004 in the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Chicago office.

From left to right Adrian Smith, the architect of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; Bill Baker, the structural engineer for the tower; and George Efstathiou, the project managing partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, show a model of the Burj Khalifa in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office on March 30, 2004.

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