Giant firms, tall buildings, high hopes

Since humans learned to place one stone upon another and construct buildings, the direction eliciting reverence, ego and awe has been up, not out. The design and construction of tall buildings has taken an upswing, so to speak, with the incomplete Burj Dubai already being the world’s tallest building and projects started or on the boards for the 150-story Chicago Spire, the 1,776-ft.

08/01/2007


Since humans learned to place one stone upon another and construct buildings, the direction eliciting reverence, ego and awe has been up, not out. The design and construction of tall buildings has taken an upswing, so to speak, with the incomplete Burj Dubai already being the world’s tallest building and projects started or on the boards for the 150-story Chicago Spire, the 1,776-ft. Freedom Tower in New York City, and others for Moscow; Seoul, South Korea; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Something about these projects, however, disturbs me. In building stairways to various interpretations of heaven are we overextending ourselves toward various interpretations of hell?

This is a colossal time in the commercial construction industry in the United States and abroad. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce reports that private and public construction of commercial buildings is at record levels. The 2007 CSE Giants 100 report (see page 25 for the article and pull-out poster) of the top engineering firms shows robust revenue figures and optimistic projections for growth. Multi-billion dollar mega projects are underway in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York City, featuring towers, sports complexes and entertainment venues. Hooray, the construction market is strong.

But how do these projects reconcile with the green-buildings movement—the walk toward sustainability that companies, cities and countries are talking about? What mortgages are we taking out for energy materials, water and emissions?

The resurgence of mega projects also may be a symptom of sexy new construction siphoning badly needed tax dollars for maintaining existing buildings, roads, bridges, dams, and waterworks. The integrity of our national infrastructure is being questioned with the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the New York City steam-pipe explosion, the collapse of the levees protecting New Orleans, the fragile national electrical grid, and bursting water mains and overloaded sanitation facilities—and yes, of our existing building stock as well, at least in terms of energy efficiency and deferred maintenance.

Is our infrastructure integrity a reflection of our personal and political integrity? Should we find the resolve to improve our infrastructure, where would we find the cash? Americans collectively have a negative savings rate and are $2.4 trillion in debt, with more than $900 billion of that debt in revolving credit cards. Our federal government “of the people, for the people, by the people” is more than $9 trillion in debt; in 2006, we paid more than $400 billion in interest on that debt, and today I read that China is talking openly about crashing our dollar and using the U.S. debt they hold as trade influence.

So, while I applaud the architectural, engineering and construction acumen—the supreme intellectual, technological and even spiritual gestalt that super-tall buildings represent—I have high hopes that grassroots infrastructure needs will eventually be met.

Send your questions and comments to: Michael.Ivanovich@reedbusiness.com





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