The Rise And The Rise Formwork

Destined, for however brief a moment, to be the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai will be a monument to concrete frame construction. B&E explores.

IN A CITY in which construction is moving at such a frenzied pace that it currently uses 30% of all cranes across the world, the 153-storey building is an invaluable addition to the portfolio of any company strong enough to have won work on the project.

Two formwork companies play an integral part in building the Burj tower; Austrian giant Doka, and specialist Meva.

Although it enjoys a prime position as one of the world’s main formwork companies, Doka is a newcomer to the UK market, having arrived on these shores less than a decade ago. However, in that time it has raised its local reputation with its work on the tallest building in Western Europe, Manchester’s Beetham tower. The company is also involved in Europe’s largest retail construction site, the Paradise project in Liverpool.

On what is for the moment the world’s most talked about project, the Burj Dubai, Doka supplied its Windshield formwork for slab forming operations. The company developed Windshield to protect workers and the workface from bad weather conditions, but health and safety reasons played a great part in the decision to use it for the Burj Dubai.

A Doka spokesman explains Windshield protects people from falling from the slab hatch and also protects the workers below from falling objects.

Love thy neighbour

Doka is working alongside formwork competitor Meva on the project. A Meva spokesman is quick to distance the two companies, and emphasises the firm usually develops its formwork with small to medium companies in mind. “We don’t follow the philosophy of aiming ourselves at giant projects,” he says. “We do climbing formwork, but it’s not the mammoth system that Doka is using on Burj Dubai. We’re targeting projects that require a little more attention to detail and require a degree of logistical inventiveness.”

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To see Meva working on the project alongside its much larger rival Doka, you would be excused for thinking this was something of a David and Goliath situation. But Meva claims to punch way beyond its weight on the project, and is working on a large chunk of the tower. “The slabs we are working on represent the largest surface area of the concrete work in the tower,” the spokesman says. “The walls may be more visible, but it’s the slabs that represent the greater area.” Indeed, Meva proves it is no minnow, and will produce a surface area of 242,000m2 of formwork by the time the project is completed.

Indeed, if you consider the building will consist of 153 levels of the building, and each of those levels contains four slabs, then the influence of slab formwork on the speed of the project is immense. The Meva spokesman explains: “If each slab takes one day more to complete, the extra time taken for the project could be measured in years.”

He says the company was able to stand up in the tendering stage of the project and give affirmative answers to the problems thrown out by the magnitude of the project because its polypropylene formwork is adaptable enough onsite to cope with any problems encountered in the 153-storey reach for the skies. “We have developed techniques for maintaining, taking care of and repairing formwork onsite using identical materials to the ones used in the first place,” the spokesman says. “You’re not repairing it with a foreign substance to the one you’re already using like you would when repairing plywood formwork, we use polypropylene to weld together parts of the facing that are damaged, and we do that onsite using hand tools.”

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Meva completes one level of the tower every three days, and claims that other methods of formwork would take four or five days for each floor. The company spokesman puts this down to the system’s quick stripping mechanism. “Normally with single-sided formwork, if you want to adapt the height, you have to disassemble the structure and start reassembling it again from the bottom,” he says. “We just put more formwork on the top.”

The company claims the prestige of working on the Burj Dubai will put it in good stead for working on other Middle Eastern projects. “We’re currently working on another 12 towers in Dubai,” the spokesman says.

“There’s a huge potential there, and it’s an incredible reference for our engineers. We’re competing with world leaders with huge engineering departments behind them. To give an idea of the scale of the work going on there, 30% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai at the moment, and the crane suppliers do not know where they are going to get their next crane from.”

Working without cranes Doka claims to have one answer to the problems of availability and cost of cranes, and will launch a new product to the US at next years’ World of Concrete in Las Vegas and to the rest of the world at Bau.

The company has developed a new table lifting system, which does not require cranes to lift the formwork table from one storey to the next. Instead, it will use an hydraulic lifting system.

The company will add the new product to its existing table system, which uses a scissor-acted lifting mechanism. Doka first supplied the system in the UK to the Orion Tower in Birmingham, which was completed last year. The Doka spokesman said the hydraulic lifting of the new product will allow the table to be lifted an ordinary storey height of 3.5 metres in 20 seconds. “It will be used where you have to lift a lot of tables from one storey to the next,” he said. “It’s economical for large floor plans, especially for big construction sites and if you’re lifting 20 or 30 tables.”

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Concrete reaches for the skies

Formwork companies are certainly gearing up to give concrete a large chunk of the market share when it comes to constructing tall buildings. Whether they are big-thinking heavyweights like Doka, or lighter, more specialist companies like Meva, the construction industry at home and overseas looks promising, and their endeavours in Dubai will stand them in good stead when it comes to winning more work in the Middle East.

And what about the construction boom in China? Meva is cautious about committing just at the moment. “We’re so busy with what we’re doing out there now,” the spokesman says, “so we’re not thinking about Beijing for the moment. Perhaps if we speak in a year it will be different.”

And does he feel a small firm can go out and conquer the market? Small is beautiful, he says: “We chose to be the Mercedes Benz of the formwork companies in terms of size and quality, but we ended up being Porsche instead; they sell fewer cars, but they’re very happy doing what they do.”

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