By Orlando Crowcroft

As the Burj Khalifa lit up the Dubai sky with fireworks in the early hours of 2011, the world’s tallest tower was days away from another anniversary – its first birthday.

Burj Khalifa Dubai
Burj Khalifa Dubai

From his office on the 42nd floor of Emirates Towers, Eric Tomich wouldn’t have been able to see the fireworks, because although the southern side of the twin towers commands excellent views of the Burj Khalifa, Tomich’s office faces Sheikh Zayed Road and Dubai Creek.

He loves the Burj, but that doesn’t mean he needs to look at it every day.

“I feel like I hand-built parts of it,” Tomich says, gazing at the tower from the empty Burj-facing office he had requested for the benefit of Middle East Architect’s photographer.

He never doubted it either. Even when the economy faltered and construction sites slammed to a halt all over Dubai. Even when the money looked like it had run out. Even when everyone said Dubai was done.

“It had too much momentum. In a way, Dubai’s reputation was riding on the building. I never ever thought that it would stop, not once,” he said.

It had been a big step for Tomich, a Berkeley-educated architect who has been with SOM for over 25 years and headed up the firm’s technical architecture office in London from 1989 to 2003. He had worked on some big projects in London, including the Broadgate development, but the tallest tower in the world was for him – as it would be for anyone – a huge move.

“When we won this competition I didn’t think about it for very long, I just took the job. I thought it would be a fantastic assignment and it was,” he recalls. “It’s a different environment, a different climate, but I find the Middle East a very exciting place to work.”

Since the completion of the Burj, SOM has scaled down its workforce in the UAE, and currently Tomich is the lone representative of the Chicago-based architectural giant in Dubai. But that was not as much a response to the global recession as a ongoing business philosophy, he says.

“You don’t need an office here to produce the work, but once you have the job, you can’t build it on email.

“On the Burj we had consultants from everywhere, LA, Sydney, Paris, UK, Chicago and at some point we had to come together, and everybody would fly in to have a round-table with the client. Even with video conferencing you still need face to face contact. You can do a lot of things remotely, but you can’t do everything by email.”

Especially with a client like Emaar’s visionary chairman Mohammed Alabbar, who Tomich is still quick to pay tribute to one year after the Burj Khalifa was finished. He describes a man who realised early on that it wasn’t enough for the Burj Khalifa to be the biggest building in the world, it had to be the best. From the design down to the doorknobs, quality was paramount if the building was to be successful in the long term.

“I think he knew that having this icon, creating this shape on the skyline, it was assured that it was going to be famous. But he also realised that the experience that people had would be when they were in the building, approaching it, living and working in it,” Tomich recalls.

“He wanted the best building in the world, and we really drove an agenda of quality in how we approached finishes and how we made that quality happen. We were very careful about who got appointed to do the finish work, we hand-selected all the materials. We even went to Brazil twice to hand select the veneer. We hand-selected all of the stone, the marble, everything.”

Hands-on is an understatement, Tomich explains, when discussing the construction process at the Burj Khalifa. Not simply to ensure quality, but to make sure that the timeframe was adhered to. When building tall, he says, it is imperative for design, construction and fit out to overlap, requiring a good deal of forward thinking.

“The only way you can do a building like this is with a fast track process. So we issued the piling and designed it for a future building. We issued the foundations for what was to come and we issued the superstructure, assuming that we would find ways to fit,” he says.

“But you have to make those decisions in the right way, so that superstructure you issued will take the cladding, support the MEP, take all the dead loads. So we issued progressively, and that allowed the client to give it to the contractor and continue to build while we were still designing. That compresses the time and you get the building sooner and you get the revenue sooner too.”

Both these cases, Tomich says, underline the importance of nipping problems in the bud from the off. It is no good finding errors on-site. Everything has to be perfect even before that, right down to the drawings.

“If you don’t have coordinated drawings then it doesn’t matter how good your craft is on site, things don’t fit. Then you don’t have any way of resolving it because everything is crashed together and you have huge problems that just can’t be fixed,” he says.

“The time to get it sorted out is when you coordinate and draw it ahead of time. With the Burj we insisted that they drew every interface of everything, examined every condition, made sure it’s consistent everywhere it goes, in every room, in every space, and follow that through.”

SOM and Emaar also required every contractor, every craftsmen and every materials supplier to provide advance mock ups of rooms, veneers, any work they would be doing before they even stepped inside the Burj.

“We would go to their factory and they would present a portion of the work. We’d treat these as actual examples of the work that they were actually going to do.

“That way you don’t have hundreds of people on-site doing the wrong thing, which you then have to go back and correct. We really tried to control the work in a way so that when it went in it was right.”

In light of the global recession life beyond the Burj will be more difficult for SOM in the Middle East, but the firm still has some major projects in the region. Work was recently finished on the Arcapita building in Bahrain, and SOM’s parcel at the King Abdullah Financial Centre sees Tomich regularly visiting Riyadh. And he is not discounting Dubai yet either.

“Every market goes through cycles. I’ve probably seen four or five difficult cycles in my career and the market just goes up and down, and I think the success story of Dubai is how much actually got done, not how much didn’t get done,” he says. “There is still a long way to go, and there are still a lot of projects that need to be finished, but a lot of things got done.”

But personally, what next for an architect who has helped build the tallest building in the world?

“We’ll see what comes,” Tomich says with a smile. “I didn’t see this one coming so I may not see the next one coming either.”