China starts to rethink prefab race to build world’s tallest towers
Plans for the 202-story modular “Sky City” in Changsha have set off a burst of national introspection about whether Chinese municipal leaders and developers have gone too far in their increasingly manic reach for the skies.
The New York Times
CHANGSHA, China — China is slowing down, but the buildings keep going up — until now.
China is home to 60 of the world’s 100 tallest buildings under construction. But the skyward aspirations of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, have inspired incredulity tinged with hostility.
Broad Group, a manufacturer based there, plans to erect the world’s tallest building in Changsha this winter, and in record time. The 202-story “Sky City” is supposed to be assembled in only four months from factory-built modules of steel and concrete early next year on the city’s outskirts. The digging of foundations began July 20.
But the project’s scale and speed have set off a burst of national introspection in recent days about whether Chinese municipal leaders and developers have gone too far in their increasingly manic reach for the skies.
“The vanity of some local government officials has determined the skylines of cities,” an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, said on Aug. 12.
On Tuesday, the tycoon behind the project said in a telephone interview that he had ordered a pause in work while waiting for further approvals from regulators in Beijing.
“It’s because of all the concern in the media and on the Internet, the government is a little wary and has slowed down the process,” said Zhang Yue, the chairman of the Broad Group.
But he vowed to finish the building, saying he expected a delay of no more than two to three months, with completion in June or July instead of the original plan of finishing it in April.
Workers have already dug a large hole for the foundations and have laid a four-lane road to the site to bring in large earth-moving equipment.
“No matter how high the obstacles, I will for certain overcome them to make sure this project is completed,” Zhang said.
He declined to identify who in Beijing had delayed his project, but said he had not been asked to make any tweaks to the design.
David Scott, a prominent structural engineer in London who has worked on many extremely tall buildings, said regulatory delays were a periodic problem for such projects all over the world, but could usually be overcome.
Local officials say that while they have transferred the land for Sky City to Broad Group and have been installing electricity and water lines for the project, final approval is still “in progress” from building-safety experts in Beijing.
The blueprints for Sky City call for a stack of long, skinny rectangles that taper to a narrow top, like a very tall and angular wedding cake.
It bears a blocky resemblance to the 110-story Willis Tower in Chicago, formerly the Sears Tower, which was the world’s tallest building until 1998 but is now being left in the shade by numerous rivals.
Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Chongqing, each similar in population to metropolitan New York, are now finishing one building apiece that will top the Willis Tower.
Wuhan, the size of metro Houston, is erecting two buildings taller than the Willis Tower. Tianjin, the size of metropolitan Chicago, is building three, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the Chicago nonprofit that tracks skyscraper bragging rights.
Ambitious local officials, together with state-owned companies and state-owned banks, stand behind most of these projects, raising fears that taxpayers may eventually pick up the bill if projects prove uneconomical.
“If you let the market decide, I don’t think a lot of these tall buildings would proceed,” said Chau Kwong Wing, a professor of real estate and construction at Hong Kong University.
Despite public concerns, there is no sign so far that any of the many very tall buildings under construction in China has been blocked by regulators in Beijing, he and Zhang both noted.
Sky City is the most ambitious project of all, and so it has become the lightning rod for criticism of the trend. Chinese media have been openly skeptical about the project, questioning its safety, construction speed and the wisdom of relying on prefabricated modules.
But work nonetheless continued earlier this month at the site.
Bulldozers sliced slabs of earth, and six drilling rigs bored holes for a drainage system.
Zhang said in an interview at his headquarters that he had all the approvals needed to start work, and he and other executives said it was common in China to keep working pending further approvals.
If built as planned, the building would be only 33 feet taller than the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building since 2010.
Sky City would cram 39 more floors into its height than the Burj Khalifa, partly because Sky City would be mostly apartments, which do not need the same hollow spaces under the floors as offices require for wiring and cooling; and partly because the ventilation shafts, electrical wiring and even indoor floor tiles will be packed into the modules while they are still at the factory.
The bottom 15 floors would include offices, a school for kindergarten through eighth grade and clinics. A schematic from Broad Group shows a hotel near the top and a restaurant and coffee shop at the apex.
The emphasis on apartments reflects the reviving real-estate boom in China — some call it a bubble — as the government has told state-owned banks to lend more in recent months, in response to signs of weaker economic growth.