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Dubai's Engineering Miracles

The rush of groundbreaking developments in Dubai makes it easy to forget it started less than 15 years ago. Dubai began its first foray into engineering history when Sheikh Mohammed announced plans for the Burj Al-Arab hotel in the late 1990s, and today this dramatic hotel takes its place alongside structures such as the Hoover Dam as icons of the modern age.

The sheikh wanted the design of the Burj to symbolize the traditions of his lands, and architect Tom Wright was inspired by the shape of a dhow sail when it catches the wind. For the concept to work Wright had to make the hotel look as if it was floating on water, so it was decided the structure would sit on a little artificial island built about 900 feet off the Jumeirah shore. This island posed interesting problems for Atkins Architects, the firm contracted to build the hotel. To secure the offshore location, Atkins had to construct a firm foundation for the hotel by driving 230 concrete piles 40 meters into the substrate. Atop these piles, a surface layer of concrete blocks was added and held in place by a collar of concrete. This breakthrough feat took three years to complete.

The hotel itself is a masterpiece of modern architecture, with two long steel columns visually anchoring the building and acting as the "mast" to its "sail." Steel struts that measure 278-feet long form the structure's skeleton, some of which were lifted 656 feet into the air to be correctly positioned. Over 160,000 square feet of Teflon-coated Dyneon flouropolymer material—a revolutionary membrane that offers high UV resistance and allows 90% of light to pass through—is the sail. It softens the lighting streaming into the hotel's monumental 590-foot interior atrium. Because the floating restaurant sits off from the building's center, it posed a design and construction challenge. But the tiny circular helipad at the summit of the hotel, 725 feet above water, is a simple structure supported by a metal cantilever. While this landmark construction was underway, Sheikh Mohammed also launched the Palm Jumeirah project, an artificial island concept so massive in scale that it can be seen from space. It was soon nicknamed the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

True to its name, the Palm Jumeirah was designed in the shape of a palm tree. A 2-mi-long core development of hotels, apartments, and shopping and entertainment complexes in the shape of a trunk will link the palm to the Dubai mainland. At the end of this trunk, a 6.8-mi, 656-foot-wide protective breakwater will surround the palm canopy, which will be made of 17 1.2-mi-long, 820-foot wide "fronds" where exclusive private villas will be built. This project—the most audacious land reclamation project in history—was slated to be built offshore from Jumeirah Beach.

More than 50 engineering and environmental studies were conducted before work commenced to assess everything from traffic flow to water quality. The main challenge was creating a landmass stable enough to support high-rise development. The basic technique involved dredging sand to form the basic shape, driving deep foundations into the sandbanks, covering that core with monumental rocks to anchor the base, and then spraying sand on top of the rocks—a technique called rainbowing—to the final level on which developers could build.

The height of the breakwater canopy was critical as it needed to sit 14.7 feet above normal sea level to account for rising water levels during regular shamal, or storm systems, and a once-in-100-year mega-storm scenario. Therefore, the seabed had to be raised nearly 50 feet in some areas. To complete the work, almost 175 million cubic feet of rock had to be strategically placed in the sea to create the curved shapes. This rock was then rainbowed with a staggering amount of sand to soften the landmass.

Despite the vast size of the project and the revolutionary techniques employed, the basic ground works were complete and Palm Jumeirah was ready for development in only two years. There were 20,000 workers on the project at the peak of the infrastructure development.

In the last few years, Nakheel broke ground on two far larger palm projects. Palm Jumeirah's interior diameter is just over 3 mi, while Palm Jebel Ali's interior diameter is 4.6 mi and Palm Deira is a pear-shaped 7.5 mi by 5 mi. However, each project will be built using the same principles as Palm Jumeirah—now an industry standard for all such development.

But even then, Nakheel didn't rest on its laurels; the company's next megaproject, The World, posed different problems again for the structural engineers. An archipelago of 300 man-made islands (the smallest around 150,000 square feet) in the shape of the continents, with a 16.7-mile breakwater forming the outline of the planet, The World was the first development to have no land link to the Dubai mainland. Everything from fuel to food and water for the construction workers had to be transported on giant barges from the mainland 2.5 mi to the east. Rock and rainbowing were again used to create the 10-foot base island height. Around 3,884,650,000 cubic feet of sand were needed. Logistical problems included freshwater supply and sewage removal, but these have been solved by allocating an island within each cluster of islands as a distribution and service point for utilities.

The World concept was unveiled in 2003 by Sheikh Mohammed, and the substrate was ready by early 2008. This is the ultimate in real estate. Every tropical island is equipped with state-of-the-art utilities and communication systems, and can be "terraformed," or shaped and landscaped, to fit each client's needs. Nakheel won't tell who has purchased the islands, but those who have can get to work building their private villas, pools, and gardens. Several exclusive resort developments have been approved and these will surely become must-see hotels in the next five years. There's a vast amount of work yet to be done on The World, and even more work to be done before Dubai breaks from its construction frenzy.

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