Abu Dhabi's appetite for destruction

Construction is big business in the Middle East, but as EDGAR finds out what goes up, eventually must come down.

April 27, 2014

If there is a metaphor for the impermanence of all things, it is the buildings of Abu Dhabi. Having seen a transformative building boom over the last two decades, just as many buildings across the UAE’s metropolitan centres are being reduced to rubble as are springing up as shiny examples of progress.

Over the last two years alone the Abu Dhabi Municipality, for example, has knocked down 56 buildings, with another 200 set to go over the next three years. Sometimes the demolitions are to meet more stringent building regulations – an inspection of 4,000 houses by the Municipality last year found that 645 of them were in breach of building codes, something the authorities are cracking down on.

Sometimes building work has simply stagnated for too long – after complaints from residents of Al Wathba and Al Nahda, the Municipality last year also knocked down 78 half-built or abandoned buildings across the city. But most often the reason for demolition is ultimately much simpler: to make more room for new buildings.

Indeed, concerns have been raised that, according to Pascal Menoret, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the New York University Abu Dhabi, the region risks being left, as he has put it, “without a memory – we face the risk of forgetting how the great transformation of the city occurred”, with its architectural gems the likes of the Cultural Foundation and the InterContinental Hotel being overlooked for conservation. Such is the pace of change. ADbuildings_ “We were buying scrap from demolition jobs and saw this opportunity to go into the demolition itself – there was just so much work around. That was 15 years ago,” says Mickey Arrora, the director of demolition for the Goldline Group, now one of the biggest demolition (and, having its cake too, construction) companies in the UAE, with a turnover of some AED 1.8 billion.

“The demolition business throughout the region is just booming – although there is still the space to build new buildings, the demand is to replace older ones. And the work is going to be here for the long-term – there’s going to be a lot of building going on, and that means a lot of demolition. We’re already getting through maybe 100 buildings a year. The work just keeps coming.”

And he isn’t kidding: shifting demographics, changing housing needs, road construction, property speculation and cities revamping themselves more as brands than places to live are all combining to make these very busy times. According to D&Ri100, the global demolition industry index, 2012 revenue (the most recent figures) comfortably exceeds that of 2007 – when business was at its peak, before the global banking crisis hit the following year. When figures are in for 2013, revenue is expected to top the AED 18 billion for the first time.

It is money well-earned. Passers-by to the demolition work may see only hard-hatted men covered in dust, broken plasterwork, concrete rubble and the stub ends of steel girders. It looks like an incoherent, back-breaking business – and that assessment is not always wrong. As Arrora notes, “the cities of the UAE tend to be tricky areas to work in – the building density is high, so the dangers are high. And that means often we can’t even use machinery – we have to pull a building down manually.” That’s right – a multi-storey building, torn down, bit by bit, by hand. ADbuildings This is typically part of any demolition job - called ‘soft stripping’, it’s the first part of the process, removing all that can be taken out of a building by hand first, both for potential recycling, but also to minimise later safety hazards. But that is only part of the tale. As the machinery becomes more complex, so does the speed and effectiveness of the demolition. According to Duncan Rudall, president of the Institute of Demolition Engineers, “technology has come on leaps and bounds, and especially over the last decade – the aim has been to reduce the human element in demolition, to do as much remotely as possible. And the more dextrous the machinery, the more efficient the work.”

Certainly the machinery is mightily impressive. There are the workhorses of the business – the excavators, the hydraulic breakers and the compact crushers that are allowing much of the disposal work to now take place on site. Rudall cites the latest remote electronic excavator, a three-tonne machine capable of doing the work of an older ten-tonne version.

But then there are the true monsters. One piece of kit, the Super High Reach, is a AED 12.3 million-a-piece monolithic machine. It is the largest variation in the world weighing in at 140 tonnes and carrying a 67m-long telescopic excavation arm, on which is mounted a muncher that “effectively eats the building,” says Craig Wilson, director of the UK-based Technical Demolition Services, which owns just such a machine.

“In many respects demolition uses tried-and-tested methods and the engineer’s skill in reading a building is still paramount. But real technological advances are gradually changing the industry.” They are, for example, reducing the number of people who need to be on site during a demolition, making the work safer and, sometimes, cheaper; or they can do the work with less noise and vibration, a chief concern with the growing number of inner- city projects to tackle. tokyo Such is the density of buildings in a city like Tokyo, that there are even more radical methods of demolition are under trial. Japan’s Taisei Corporation has developed its Ecological Reproduction System, which amounts to establishing a disassembly factory on top of a building, under cover, and then gradually lowering that on huge jacks as the building is taken apart below it, floor by floor.

The 140m high Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka, on which the system was recently tested, was seen to oh-so-slowly disappear into the ground. Remarkably, the system even generates energy to power much of the machinery it uses. Taisei claims it reduces noise levels and cuts dust by 90 per cent too. A rival company, Kagima Corp, has developed a similar system working from the ground up. With some 100 of Tokyo’s high-rises facing replacement over the next decade, both are certainly timely.

“That’s a telling example too,” says Rudall, “since that new technology is a perfect, if expensive, one for the environment in which it’s being used – literally the ground in Tokyo can take the weight of the jacks. But it wouldn’t work in London, for example, where there is much more clay in the ground. That’s why old techniques are still used there, but they’re modern in the way they’re now done. And I can’t see them being replaced in a hurry.”

Indeed, when demolition most appeals to a boyish delight in destruction is when it involves high explosives. When Technical Demolition Services took down Glencairn Tower in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2011 the process involved 64 charges, 100 kilos of explosives, placed with scientific precision, which turned all 17 storeys into a neat pile of dust in under five seconds. It was a ground-breaking moment, as the first steel structured building in Europe to undergo what the industry calls ‘implosion’, rather than explosion, and ‘blow-down’ rather than blow up. The aim is to make the building collapse in on itself, not shower debris for miles around. And this happens: such has been the visceral draw of seeing a massive object reduced to rubble that, dangerously, demolition using explosives has become something of a spectator sport, often advertised by local authorities in the US, and sometimes drawing crowds of thousands – as when, for example, the Deutschlandhalle stadium in Berlin was brought down a few years ago. Or, less positively, when the Royal Canberra Hospital, in Australia, was imploded in 1997, sending shrapnel and concrete chunks hurtling 2,000ft across the bay, well into the proscribed safety zone, killing one spectator and injuring nine.

Or, more recently, in 2010, when a 275ft tower at an Ohio power plant was brought down but fell the wrong way, crushing a building below but, remarkably, killing nobody. An undetected crack in one side of the tower had pulled it in a different direction to that planned by the positioning of the explosives. Or when, just last year, a building under demolition in Philadelphia collapsed onto a store killing six. Such incidents are all too common. Small wonder then that Mark Loizeaux believes demolition done well is an art form. “And art,” he says, “isn’t easy.”

If that is the case, then Loizeaux is demolition’s Picasso. Head of the Phoenix-based Controlled Demolition Inc. – a family firm widely recognised as a world leader in what is increasingly an international business – Loizeaux was behind some of the most complex demolition jobs of recent years, including the cooling towers at Sellafield in the UK, for example – a still active nuclear power station – and who devised the plan for the demolition of structurally-unsound buildings around the 9/11 site in New York. Today, he continues to perfect the technique of controlled implosion – after all, his father pioneered it. “Demolition is 50 per cent joining the dots and 50 per cent creative because you’re dealing with a structure that’s full of unknowns. If demolition was easy there would be more companies doing it,” he says. Tellingly, after a 52m wrecking ball boom collapsed in 2011, earlier this year the Abu Dhabi Municipality introduced a new register to ensure demolition contractors meet minimum standards. The new laws were implemented to weed out the cowboys.

Just as any artist needs his materials, this is no less the case for implosion. Typical materials used are weapons-grade dynamite and Semtex, the former, known as ‘kicking’ explosives, used to take out supporting columns and dictate the direction of fall, the latter, known as ‘cutting’ explosives, typically much hotter and used to burn through the structure. To get the job done, all of the detonations have to be coordinated in a ballet of explosions precise to the millisecond.

HotShot is one of the latest pieces of technology that allows for an even finer calibration of the sequencing of charges and the delay between them going off. It is, as the sales patter proclaims, ‘the world’s first auto-programmable electronic initiating system’. And, although implosion remains the most spectacular if less used of the demolition methods – which is why one is more likely to see heavy machinery at work across the UAE than hear the boom of buildings doing down – HotShot is seeing more action as speed becomes more of an issue in the un-building trade: in pulling down, and tidying up afterwards, as much as in putting up. “I now find that sometimes I took down the building to provide the footprint for the building we’re about to take down. And that’s when you feel old,” says an incredulous Loizeaux. ADbuildings1 Despite such advances, some in the industry controversially argue that the technological developments in the building industry are leaving those of the demolition business behind. Computer aided design is being widely used to allow buildings to go up as quickly and as cheaply as possible, not to mention with minimum waste and energy use. In 2012 the Chinese Broad Group construction company made news around the world by building a 15-storey building in just one week, and then later assembling pre-fab units to create a 30-storey hotel in a fortnight.

But, Loizeaux for one argues, such processes are set to leave buildings more prone to structural failure if just one element of the initial calculations is off. Such buildings are, he says, easy to put up, but especially difficult to bring down when all goes wrong.

“But our biggest problem right now in the UAE is the competition,” says Goldline Groups’s Mickey Arrora. “There’s so much going on, that we’re seeing more and more competition. You win the tenders on the back of your reputation, on having a track record of doing the job well.” That’s when you have to call the experts – with their boys’ toys and their big bangs, for sure, but also with their special understanding of the fact that, as the old saying has it, what goes up, must come down.