Engineering the World’s Tallest Building

The Burj Khalifa

William F. Baker
Partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP

2289th Meeting Abstract
Friday, October 14, 2011 at 8:15 PM

William F. Baker


The goal of the Burj Khalifa was not simply to be the world’s tallest building; it was to embody the world’s highest aspirations. By necessity, such a lofty project goal required pushing current analyses, materials, and construction technologies – literally - to new heights. Standing at 828 meters, the tower is the tallest building in the world, topping all three categories as defined by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. The project represents the collaboration of literally thousands of people from across the globe, all striving to build a structure which pushes the limits of our current technology in order to create something never before seen.

The Burj Khalifa’s design required intense collaboration between architect and engineer. In order to enable the tower’s extreme height and promote the most efficient use of space, the team created a new structural system. Named the “buttressed core”, each of the three wings buttresses the others via a six-sided central core, forming a tri-axial, “Y” shaped plan. The building’s shape and structural systems are the result of a deliberate effort to manage wind and gravity—the two dominant considerations in the design of tall buildings. An extensive series of wind tunnel tests, combined with “tuning” the structure, enable the achievement of a building of unprecedented height. These efforts were united with the latest construction technology, culminating in the grand opening of the tower in 2010.

By combining cutting-edge technologies with efficient design principles, SOM has created a vertical city that has become a model for the development of future urban centers and speaks to an ever-growing global movement towards compact, livable urban areas. This lecture will provide an overview of the engineering features of the world’s tallest building, as well as discuss the challenges faced in designing this unique and unprecedented structure.

About the Author:

William F. Baker is the Structural Engineering Partner for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP (SOM). Throughout his distinguished career, Bill has dedicated himself to structural innovation—most notably in the design of tall buildings. His development of the Burj Khalifa’s “buttressed core” structural system has ushered in the new era of the supertall building. At 828 meters, the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest manmade structure, eclipsing its immediate predecessors by over 300m. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), three of the world’s ten tallest buildings are credited to Baker and his team: Burj Khalifa, Zifeng Tower, and Trump International Hotel & Tower.

While widely regarded for his work on supertall buildings, Mr. Baker’s expertise also extends to a wide variety of specialized structures, including the GM Entry Pavilion and Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Pedestrian Bridge. He is also known for his work on long-span roof structures, such as the Korean Airlines Operations Center, as well as for his collaboration with artists, including Jamie Carpenter, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and James Turrell.

In addition to working at SOM, Bill is actively involved with numerous institutions of higher learning, as well as various professional organizations. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) OPAL Award, recognizing lifetime achievement in design. Mr. Baker has also received the Gold Medal from the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE), and was the first American to receive the Fritz Leonhardt Preis (Germany). In 2008, the CTBUH awarded him the Fazlur Rahman Khan medal. Mr. Baker is a Fellow of both the ASCE and the IStructE, and frequently lectures on a variety of structural engineering topics within the U.S. and abroad.

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