William Baker, P.E., the structural engineering partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, worked on three of the five tallest buildings that topped out in 2009.

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Bill Baker, P.E.

But his (to-date) career-defining accomplishment is his contribution of the “buttressed core” structural system used at what is now—and for the foreseeable future will remain—the tallest structure ever built by man, the 828-meter Burj Khalifa.

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The Burj Khalifa, photo by Iwan Baan

As if his engineering achievements weren’t impressive enough, Baker also proved to be a funny, eloquent raconteur in his presentation on Oct. 6 at Architectural Record’s Innovation Conference, a talk that focused on the “New Paradigm” in tall-building design represented by the Burj.

Here are some bullet-pointed highlights:

* Baker doesn’t want to hold the world’s-tallest record for long: “It would be a shame if we stopped here.”

* He revealed that a 950-meter-tall model was tested—and actually performed even better in wind tests than the finished building.

* What made the Burj Dubai possible? A “magical, new” material: concrete (OK, very, very high-performance concrete, with almost no water).

* The “Steel Age” of skyscrapers—the World Trade Center, the Sears (Willis) Tower, John Hancock center—is probably over. Much-cheaper (1/5 to 1/8 as much) concrete is the future.

* Former shared characteristics of skyscrapers: North America, steel, office buildings. Future shared characteristics: Asia/Middle East, concrete, residential (developers can get their money out faster).

* Baker walked down the entire height of the building looking for cracked link beams. The trip took about 45 minutes. No, he has never walked up.

* Surface roughness was intentionally engineered into the façade to “lubricate” the wind/reduce drag. This reduction in drag is the same reason why sharks have rough skin.

* Which is a greater engineering challenge wind or gravity? It’s no contest. Wind, and all its instability and variables, is the real problem. “It’s much easier to manage gravity—it’s amazing reliable,” Baker said to laughs. (Super-tall building engineers probably need to spend as much time in wind tunnels as their aerospace colleagues, he pointed out.) 

* He views the Burj as one giant beam coming out of the ground, which was trimmed back to get its final shape.

* The original cladding contractor going out of business had an upside to it, Baker joked: You got to see a lot of great structure as the building continued to rise without a skin blocking the view.

* To illustrate his “buttressed core” concept, Baker uses an image of a man holding an umbrella and leaning into the wind: the front leg is the core; the back leg, the buttress.

* In an image he showed of the building’s foundation, it was clear that the supporting columns were clustered/concentrated at the periphery, with relatively few in the middle. Baker said he wanted even less columns in the center, but placed the ones he did to satisfy colleagues.

* Among its many benefits, including resisting twists, the Y-shape of the building was crucial for a successful residential building, where views are so important. Residents are never far from a window—as opposed to Sears (Willis) Tower, where an office worker could be as far as 75-feet away. (The form also helps make sure those views are not into other apartments.)

* In a 50-year storm, the building will have 1 meter of sway. “It’s a very still building."

* The Burj is essentially “the lightning rod” for Dubai—and as the building rose into the clouds, his email box would fill up with dramatic storm shots from colleagues.

* The luxury residential units sold out in two nights at an invite-only auction—now, there’s even a brisk black market for the invitations to the auction.

* At the opening ceremony for the building, Baker said he felt a little smug that he knew one of the big secrets--the building's exact height. But what even he didn't know was that the building was being renamed from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa.

* Inside Humor: Apparently at the firm itself, SOM stands for "Stay on Module".

(For more on the Burj, read the excellent coverage of its construction from ENR's Nadine Post and the rest of the magazine's staff.)