Amazing Story of How A Man Builds a 30 Story Building

04/03/2013   by Hammers Construction

“Humble” is not a word one would commonly use when describing Zhang Yue. After all, the founder and chairman of Broad Sustainable Building gives off an air of confidence and assurance that some might mistake for borderline arrogance.

It is probably just as well, for a lesser and meeker man probably wouldn’t have been able to rack up half of Zhang’s considerable accomplishments. When you consider that he constructed a classical palace and a 130-foot high pyramid on his company’s premises in Hunan, China, or that he turned a successful air-conditioning manufacturing business into a skyscraper construction company, his demeanor begins to make sense. Clearly no ordinary man, Zhang Yue penchant for putting up skyscrapers at an unprecedented rate has earned him a renown that few humble men would ever experience.

In the second half of 2011, Zhang’s company constructed a 30-story building in record time, with the entire project taking only fifteen days. While other men would have been satisfied with such an accomplishment, Zhang soon set his sights on the even bigger goal of constructing the world’s tallest building. The timeframe? An astounding seven months.

You may have already seen the video of the aforementioned 30-story building construction project. Released on the Internet on January 1, 2012, the striking time-lapse video soon went viral, cementing Zhang’s reputation as a construction force to be reckoned with.

Zhang himself often seems to move in his own time-lapse video. He is most often seen in the middle of a buzzing crowd of Broad employees, each distinguishable by the company’s white uniform shirts. This virtually impenetrable army of employees is constantly passing on papers to the company chairman, who himself is always at the center giving out orders. On the day of the interview, I arrived to see him amidst the same familiar flurry of activity, spinning in his chair. He only stops spinning around when he is ready to be interviewed, which he conveyed via a single command: “Begin!”

With such a formidable founder and chairman, it isn’t all that surprising that Broad Sustainable Building inspires an almost religious fervor and devotion among its employees. Only new employees refer to Zhang as “the chairman” or “our chairman”, but they quickly learn to adopt the more customary “my chairman.” Zhang is one of those rare employers that just seem to inspire loyalty and dedication, and the corporate culture within Broad Sustainable Building reflects that.

Zhang’s almost larger-than-life persona is tempered by curiously quaint and human aspects that for outsiders may verge on the outrageous. For example, part of the admission process for employees involves the recitation of a “life manual” that was written by Zhang himself. Employees are also given a crash course on energy reduction, oral hygiene, and even giving birth!

And then there are the physical requirements. Part of the admission process also includes a 7.5 mile run, which all prospective employees should accomplish over two days in order to be considered into the company. Once accepted into the ranks, employees will be provided free meals at the company cafeteria. However, wasting food will result in a fine, and worse, public humiliation. Broad Sustainable Building is clearly no ordinary company, but then, Zhang is clearly no ordinary man.

To date, Broad Sustainable Building has racked up a record of sixteen structures in China, with another building in Cancun. These buildings are constructed in sections, with most of the work done in two plants in located an hour away from Broad Town headquarters. After being fitted with electrical, plumbing, communications and security fixtures, these sections are then transported to the building site for assembly.

Broad Sustainable Building currently leases the technology to partner firms in India, Brazil, and Russia. In a move remarkably similar to the development of McDonald’s, Zhang is clearly set on making his company the sole provider of mass-produced skyscrapers.

This approach can be explained by Zhang’s own assessment of traditional construction as “chaotic”. With the goal of addressing many of the problems that riddle the industry, Zhang has taken the construction process off the building site and “moved it into the factory.”

Just like the company chairman, these aren’t any ordinary buildings either. In line with the company’s numerous innovations, these buildings stand apart in the industry due to their safety, low cost, and quick construction process. When asked why he decided to turn the previous air-conditioning business into a construction company, Zhang was quick to distance the company from the term’s standard definition. Instead, he proclaims his accomplishments part of a “structural revolution.”

While most men of his stature and accomplishments would be eager to talk about themselves, Zhang is surprisingly taciturn when it comes to sharing details of his life. Dismissing his personal history as “boring”, Zhang instead shifts the discussion into how his creativity and previous “outsider” perspective of the industry contributed to his success.

Nevertheless, some details of Zhang’s can be gleaned from the interview. After studying art throughout the early part of the 1980s, Zhang forged a partnership with his engineer brother and one other person. This partnership resulted in the founding of a company that manufactured non-pressurized boilers.

At this point in the interview, Zhang once again becomes bored with the details of his life. Thankfully, Broad’s senior vice president Juliet Jiang is more than willing to provide additional bits of information. Jiang points out that Zhang would have continued to be successful even if he had decided to stick to manufacturing boilers. However, filling the need for nonelectric air-conditioning had taken Zhang’s fancy, and there was no turning back.

The chairman’s decision was actually quite timely, coinciding as it did with China’s looming energy crisis. The country’s economic boom also resulted in a significant spike in the demand for electricity, and China’s electrical grid was unable to cope. In answer to the problem, Zhang set about developing industrial air-conditioning units that ran on natural gas. Offering the benefits of lower power consumption, reduced costs, and more reliable performance, these air-conditioning units paved the way for the company’s direction for the next several years.

To this day, Zhang is actually still involved in the air-conditioner business. Again, these are no ordinary air-conditioning units, with the typical models being immense, barge-sized pieces of machinery. Even the company’s “micro chillers” weigh in at 6 tons, with the largest units registering a whopping 3,500 tons. This behemoth of a device can provide enough cooling power for an area measuring 5 million square feet.

The cooling technology employed by these units is nothing short of revolutionary. As impressive as it is however, the “absorption cooling” process used isn’t exactly new. These units rely on natural gas instead of electricity, and they basically convert gas to cooling liquid via a refrigerant compression process.

At present, Broad’s air-conditioning units can be found in more than 70 countries around the world, with many of them installed in large building complexes and airports. All these air-conditioning systems are constantly monitored from the company’s headquarters, allowing company technicians to detect problems almost immediately. When a Broad air-conditioning unit anywhere in any one of these countries goes haywire, Broad’s team of specialists will soon be on the case.

Zhang’s air-conditioning business enjoyed remarkable success for almost twenty years. However, two events caused him to reassess his priorities, and along with them, his company’s next move. The first event involved Zhang’s newfound course as an environmentalist, a realization that came gradually over a period of several years.

The second event was more significant: the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in 2008. The earthquake caused several substandard buildings to collapse, and this significantly contributed to the tragically high 87,000 death toll.

In the wake of this disaster, Zhang set his sights on improving building design and addressing the problems that contributed to the earthquake’s high death toll. He started out offering a variety of retrofitting services to owners of existing buildings, but his efforts to improve things were largely ignored.

Most people would take this rejection as a sign that they should quit, but not Zhang. Instead of packing it in, Zhang assembled a team of engineers and set about learning how to create affordable structures that could stand up to an earthquake. Among his other goals were to manufacture buildings that were cheap and environmentally friendly.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Zhang quickly ran into roadblocks during the first six months of research. Although he had already decided to eschew traditional construction methods, he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the need to hire a new team of designers and construction specialists for every new structure that he wanted to develop.

In a bid to reduce costs, Zhang then took the bold step of moving the construction process into the factory. This was an environment in which he was familiar, given his many years of involvement in the air-conditioning manufacturing industry.

However, making the shift from constructing air-conditioners to skyscrapers presented a whole list of problems and challenges. Zhang realized that creating these new skyscrapers required a different approach to construction and design, and most traditional building principles were rendered irrelevant to the process.

One of the key challenges that Zhang faced was the need to reduce the weight of the building. This necessitated a revision of the entire load-bearing structure. The solution he eventually decided on was to reduce the amount of concrete used in the flooring. This in turn resulted in a corresponding reduction in the amount of steel used in structural reinforcement.

As much as 90% of the 30-story building that Zhang first built was constructed in the factory. This percentage will be increased even more in the future, with the company moving toward constructing almost the entire building in a factory. Zhang says that this will not only ensure less waste, but also a safer and more structurally sound building.

Zhang’s bold new approach to building construction is fast being adopted in other countries. There is a perceptible shift toward sustainable buildings all over the world, and prefabricated and/or modular buildings are quickly becoming commonplace. Although wracked with union disputes that may cause a reversion to traditional construction, the 32-story building planned for construction in Brooklyn, New York started out as a modular project. In London, two modular structures have already been constructed, attesting to the hold that Zhang’s innovations have taken on the construction industry.

That being said, most modular and prefabricated structures planned for construction in the West are essentially low-rise buildings. At present, Broad is still one of the few–if not the only–company employing these building techniques in the construction of skyscrapers. Zhang remains firm in his resolve however, and the reduced impact on the environment is one of his more compelling reasons to stick to the path he established. Given that a typical Broad building will produce only 25 tons of waste compared to the 3,000 tons produced in the construction of a typical high-rise, it is easy to see from where Zhang draws his inspiration.

While Zhang’s buildings offer a number of advantages over traditional designs, they aren’t likely to win any beauty contests. Compared to the almost elegant modular structures common in the West, Broad buildings look almost drab and utilitarian. The unique design has also given rise to a few aesthetic issues, with a seemingly out-of-place pyramid base creating a less than flattering impression inside. Many of the hallways are also uncommonly narrow, and even the central stairway doesn’t quite feel right.

To be sure, Broad’s buildings don’t really look all that bad when compared with many other structures in China. What they lack in looks, they more than make up for in quality however, and this is in fact Broad’s primary selling point. In a country wherein most buildings are riddled with structural and construction issues, Broad may just have the edge by offering buildings that are guaranteed to be structurally reliable and consistent. In addition, Broad’s buildings are also priced significantly lower than buildings made via traditional construction, with $1,000 per square meter–versus the $1,400 for traditional commercial buildings–being the typical price.

Safety is another key selling point of Broad buildings, and the company is eager to push this advantage. According to Jiang, the construction of the first 20 buildings was accomplished without a single mishap. The construction of the elevator systems in the company factory also greatly reduces the risk of accidents. Elevator cars are also constructed in the factory, instead of being assembled on-site. With plans underway to preinstall elevator doors, construction-related risks are expected to be reduced even further.

So what else does Zhang have in mind for the company? As you might have expected from such a bold and forward-thinking personality, the Broad Sustainable Building chairman is now knee-deep in the planning of a towering 220-story structure that when completed, will be the tallest building on the planet.

Just like most high-profile construction projects, the upcoming building is subject to its share of conjecture and controversy. Some of the more skeptical industry players have suspected the building of being little more than a publicity stunt, for example. Whether or not Zhang is affected by these criticisms is uncertain, but one thing that is certain is that he has hired some of the best engineers in the business. Highly-skilled and well-regarded professionals in their own right, some of these engineers were actually part of the construction and design team responsible for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

In any case, plans for the building–currently referred to as “Sky City”–are definitely in full swing, and two large models have already been unveiled. With the groundbreaking having been scheduled for November 2012, completion of the building is expected in March of 2013. This will represent a construction period of seven months.

Despite these developments, doubts about the future of this mega-structure still linger. Nevertheless, Zhang himself seems pretty set on the project, emphasizing the need to “shock the world” with this latest construction feat. It has to be said however, that even if this particular project never sees the light of day, Zhang will have already done his part in shocking the world.

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Hammers Construction is a commercial construction company in Colorado Springs with 25 years experience in commercial design-build construction.
Steve Hammers
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