Amazing Story of How а Man Builds a 30 StoryBuilding"Humble" is not a word one would commonly use when describing ZhangYue. After all, the founder and chairman of Broad Sustainable Building givesoff an air of confidence and assurance that some might mistake for borderlinearrogance.It is probably just as well, for a lesser and meeker man probably wouldnt havebeen able to rack up half of Zhangs considerable accomplishments. Whenyou consider that he constructed a classical palace and a 130-foot highpyramid on his companys premises in Hunan, China, or that he turned asuccessful air-conditioning manufacturing business into a skyscraperconstruction company, his demeanor begins to make sense. Clearly noordinary man, Zhang Yue penchant for putting up skyscrapers at anunprecedented rate has earned him a renown that few humble men wouldever experience.
In the second half of 2011, Zhangs company constructed a 30-story buildingin record time, with the entire project taking only fifteen days. While other menwould have been satisfied with such an accomplishment, Zhang soon set hissights on the even bigger goal of constructing the worlds tallest building. Thetimeframe? An astounding seven months.You may have already seen the video of the aforementioned 30-story buildingconstruction project. Released on the Internet on January 1, 2012, the strikingtime-lapse video soon went viral, cementing Zhangs reputation as aconstruction force to be reckoned with.
Zhang himself often seems to move in his own time-lapse video. He is mostoften seen in the middle of a buzzing crowd of Broad employees, eachdistinguishable by the companys white uniform shirts. This virtuallyimpenetrable army of employees is constantly passing on papers to thecompany chairman, who himself is always at the center giving out orders. Onthe day of the interview, I arrived to see him amidst the same familiar flurry ofactivity, spinning in his chair. He only stops spinning around when he is readyto be interviewed, which he conveyed via a single command: "Begin!"With such a formidable founder and chairman, it isnt all that surprising thatBroad Sustainable Building inspires an almost religious fervor and devotionamong its employees. Only new employees refer to Zhang as "the chairman"or "our chairman", but they quickly learn to adopt the more customary "mychairman." Zhang is one of those rare employers that just seem to inspireloyalty and dedication, and the corporate culture within Broad SustainableBuilding reflects that.Zhangs almost larger-than-life persona is tempered by curiously quaint andhuman aspects that for outsiders may verge on the outrageous. For example,part of the admission process for employees involves the recitation of a "lifemanual" that was written by Zhang himself. Employees are also given a crashcourse on energy reduction, oral hygiene, and even giving birth!
And then there are the physical requirements. Part of the admission processalso includes a 7.5 mile run, which all prospective employees shouldaccomplish over two days in order to be considered into the company. Onceaccepted into the ranks, employees will be provided free meals at thecompany 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 sixteenstructures in China, with another building in Cancun. These buildings areconstructed in sections, with most of the work done in two plants in located anhour away from Broad Town headquarters. After being fitted with electrical,plumbing, communications and security fixtures, these sections are thentransported to the building site for assembly.
Broad Sustainable Building currently leases the technology to partner firms inIndia, Brazil, and Russia. In a move remarkably similar to the development ofMcDonalds, Zhang is clearly set on making his company the sole provider ofmass-produced skyscrapers.This approach can be explained by Zhangs own assessment of traditionalconstruction as "chaotic". With the goal of addressing many of the problemsthat riddle the industry, Zhang has taken the construction process off thebuilding site and "moved it into the factory."Just like the company chairman, these arent any ordinary buildings either. Inline with the companys numerous innovations, these buildings stand apart inthe industry due to their safety, low cost, and quick construction process.When asked why he decided to turn the previous air-conditioning businessinto a construction company, Zhang was quick to distance the company fromthe terms standard definition. Instead, he proclaims his accomplishments partof a "structural revolution."
While most men of his stature and accomplishments would be eager to talkabout themselves, Zhang is surprisingly taciturn when it comes to sharingdetails of his life. Dismissing his personal history as "boring", Zhang insteadshifts the discussion into how his creativity and previous "outsider"perspective of the industry contributed to his success.Nevertheless, some details of Zhangs can be gleaned from the interview.After studying art throughout the early part of the 1980s, Zhang forged apartnership with his engineer brother and one other person. This partnershipresulted in the founding of a company that manufactured non-pressurizedboilers.At this point in the interview, Zhang once again becomes bored with thedetails of his life. Thankfully, Broads senior vice president Juliet Jiang is morethan willing to provide additional bits of information. Jiang points out thatZhang would have continued to be successful even if he had decided to stickto manufacturing boilers. However, filling the need for nonelectric air-conditioning had taken Zhangs fancy, and there was no turning back.
The chairmans decision was actually quite timely, coinciding as it did withChinas looming energy crisis. The countrys economic boom also resulted ina significant spike in the demand for electricity, and Chinas electrical grid wasunable to cope. In answer to the problem, Zhang set about developingindustrial air-conditioning units that ran on natural gas. Offering the benefits oflower power consumption, reduced costs, and more reliable performance,these air-conditioning units paved the way for the companys direction for thenext 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 modelsbeing immense, barge-sized pieces of machinery. Even the companys "microchillers" weigh in at 6 tons, with the largest units registering a whopping 3,500tons. This behemoth of a device can provide enough cooling power for anarea measuring 5 million square feet.
The cooling technology employed by these units is nothing short ofrevolutionary. As impressive as it is however, the "absorption cooling" processused isnt exactly new. These units rely on natural gas instead of electricity,and they basically convert gas to cooling liquid via a refrigerant compressionprocess.At present, Broads air-conditioning units can be found in more than 70countries around the world, with many of them installed in large buildingcomplexes and airports. All these air-conditioning systems are constantlymonitored from the companys headquarters, allowing company technicians todetect problems almost immediately. When a Broad air-conditioning unitanywhere in any one of these countries goes haywire, Broads team ofspecialists will soon be on the case.Zhangs air-conditioning business enjoyed remarkable success for almosttwenty years. However, two events caused him to reassess his priorities, andalong with them, his companys next move. The first event involved Zhangs
newfound course as an environmentalist, a realization that came graduallyover a period of several years.The second event was more significant: the 7.9-magnitude earthquake thatstruck Sichuan Province in 2008. The earthquake caused severalsubstandard buildings to collapse, and this significantly contributed to thetragically high 87,000 death toll.In the wake of this disaster, Zhang set his sights on improving building designand addressing the problems that contributed to the earthquakes high deathtoll. He started out offering a variety of retrofitting services to owners ofexisting buildings, but his efforts to improve things were largely ignored.
Most people would take this rejection as a sign that they should quit, but notZhang. Instead of packing it in, Zhang assembled a team of engineers and setabout learning how to create affordable structures that could stand up to anearthquake. Among his other goals were to manufacture buildings that werecheap and environmentally friendly.It wasnt all smooth sailing. Zhang quickly ran into roadblocks during the firstsix months of research. Although he had already decided to eschewtraditional construction methods, he was becoming increasingly frustrated withthe need to hire a new team of designers and construction specialists forevery new structure that he wanted to develop.In a bid to reduce costs, Zhang then took the bold step of moving theconstruction process into the factory. This was an environment in which hewas familiar, given his many years of involvement in the air-conditioningmanufacturing industry.However, making the shift from constructing air-conditioners to skyscraperspresented a whole list of problems and challenges. Zhang realized thatcreating these new skyscrapers required a different approach to constructionand design, and most traditional building principles were rendered irrelevantto the process.
One of the key challenges that Zhang faced was the need to reduce theweight of the building. This necessitated a revision of the entire load-bearingstructure. The solution he eventually decided on was to reduce the amount ofconcrete used in the flooring. This in turn resulted in a correspondingreduction in the amount of steel used in structural reinforcement.As much as 90% of the 30-story building that Zhang first built was constructedin the factory. This percentage will be increased even more in the future, withthe company moving toward constructing almost the entire building in afactory. Zhang says that this will not only ensure less waste, but also a saferand more structurally sound building.
Zhangs bold new approach to building construction is fast being adopted inother countries. There is a perceptible shift toward sustainable buildings allover the world, and prefabricated and/or modular buildings are quicklybecoming commonplace. Although wracked with union disputes that maycause a reversion to traditional construction, the 32-story building planned forconstruction in Brooklyn, New York started out as a modular project. InLondon, two modular structures have already been constructed, attesting tothe hold that Zhangs innovations have taken on the construction industry.That being said, most modular and prefabricated structures planned forconstruction in the West are essentially low-rise buildings. At present, Broadis still one of the few-if not the only-company employing these buildingtechniques in the construction of skyscrapers. Zhang remains firm in his
resolve however, and the reduced impact on the environment is one of hismore compelling reasons to stick to the path he established. Given that atypical Broad building will produce only 25 tons of waste compared to the3,000 tons produced in the construction of a typical high-rise, it is easy to seefrom where Zhang draws his inspiration.While Zhangs buildings offer a number of advantages over traditionaldesigns, they arent likely to win any beauty contests. Compared to the almostelegant modular structures common in the West, Broad buildings look almostdrab and utilitarian. The unique design has also given rise to a few aestheticissues, with a seemingly out-of-place pyramid base creating a less thanflattering impression inside. Many of the hallways are also uncommonlynarrow, and even the central stairway doesnt quite feel right.To be sure, Broads buildings dont really look all that bad when comparedwith many other structures in China. What they lack in looks, they more thanmake up for in quality however, and this is in fact Broads primary sellingpoint. In a country wherein most buildings are riddled with structural andconstruction issues, Broad may just have the edge by offering buildings thatare guaranteed to be structurally reliable and consistent. In addition, Broadsbuildings are also priced significantly lower than buildings made via traditionalconstruction, with $1,000 per square meter-versus the $1,400 for traditionalcommercial buildings-being the typical price.Safety is another key selling point of Broad buildings, and the company iseager to push this advantage. According to Jiang, the construction of the first20 buildings was accomplished without a single mishap. The construction ofthe elevator systems in the company factory also greatly reduces the risk ofaccidents. Elevator cars are also constructed in the factory, instead of beingassembled 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 haveexpected from such a bold and forward-thinking personality, the BroadSustainable Building chairman is now knee-deep in the planning of a towering220-story structure that when completed, will be the tallest building on theplanet.
Just like most high-profile construction projects, the upcoming building issubject to its share of conjecture and controversy. Some of the more skepticalindustry players have suspected the building of being little more than apublicity stunt, for example. Whether or not Zhang is affected by thesecriticisms is uncertain, but one thing that is certain is that he has hired someof the best engineers in the business. Highly-skilled and well-regardedprofessionals in their own right, some of these engineers were actually part ofthe construction and design team responsible for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
In any case, plans for the building-currently referred to as "Sky City"-aredefinitely in full swing, and two large models have already been unveiled. Withthe groundbreaking having been scheduled for November 2012, completion ofthe building is expected in March of 2013. This will represent a constructionperiod of seven months.Despite these developments, doubts about the future of this mega-structurestill linger. Nevertheless, Zhang himself seems pretty set on the project,emphasizing the need to "shock the world" with this latest construction feat. Ithas to be said however, that even if this particular project never sees the lightof day, Zhang will have already done his part in shocking the world.