Up to speed

27 August 2020

China’s fast-paced construction industry has been under the spotlight for assembling hospitals and skyscrapers in a matter of weeks. But is building at such scale and speed realistic, or even desirable? Irenie Forshaw asks founding chairman and CEO of Broad Group Zhang Yue; global head of modular construction at Bouygues Bâtiment International Aurélie Cleraux; director and Beijing office leader at Arup Dr Peng Liu; and a director at Wilkinson Eyre, Dominic Bettison, for their thoughts.

In late January 2020, the world watched as cranes lifted thousands of identical white pill boxes into a muddy field alongside Zhiyin Lake in the Caidian District of Wuhan. Just ten days later, the Huoshenshan Hospital opened its doors to the first wave of coronavirus patients. Its construction marked the beginning of a dark journey yet to reach its conclusion.

It’s not the first time China has hit the headlines with astonishingly fast building projects of staggering scale. In 2015, Broad Group released a time-lapse video – which quickly went viral – of its 57-storey skyscraper, Mini Sky City, being assembled in less than three weeks. Later that year, the company’s plans to build the world’s tallest building, Sky City, were put on hold. Since then, local reports have emerged that the water-filled foundations have been turned into a fish farm.

The man behind both of these projects is Zhang Yue, founding chairman and CEO of Broad Group. Described as ‘China’s Steve Jobs’, but modestly aligning himself more with Thomas Edison, he has patented over 400 inventions for everything from non-electrical air conditioning to specialist construction materials. A formidable presence, Zhang arrives for his interview flanked by a retinue of acolytes sporting identical white button-down shirts. When he is ready to begin, he has a captive audience.

High ambitions

Zhang explains that his move into the construction sector was motivated by his desire to create energy-efficient buildings. With a wealth of experience in thermal insulation and ventilation, this seemed easy enough. “In China, we say that we are pioneers in energy-efficient renovations,” he says. “It’s a pity that there are very few people that pay attention. For this reason, we decided to do the buildings ourselves.”

Having witnessed the devastation caused by the collapse of largescale concrete buildings during the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, Broad Group decided to build with steel instead. Before the interview continues, Zhang insists on everyone watching a promotional video for one of his company’s latest projects, F Tower, which is made of 100% stainless steel. In the video, a woman peels back a square of carpet and taps her heel on the metal floor to emphasise the point, before the camera pans out to emphasise that it is “the most dramatic building on earth”. With a cantilever that juts out by 17m, it certainly plays with the theatrical.

Both F Tower and Mini Sky City were built using large-scale prefabrication. These individual elements were then slotted together on-site like a vertical jigsaw. “Except for the building foundation, our buildings share no similarity with traditional buildings,” explains Zhang. “You can treat it as an industrialised product.”

On the point of speed, he is defensive, which is somewhat surprising given the publicity that element of the process has garnered. “It’s an inevitable result of our building style,” he says. “Most people concentrate on our speed but, actually, it isn’t the most important aspect. What we’re concerned with is lowering the cost and ensuring high quality.” Viewing buildings as a manufactured product, like a car, his ethos is “the higher the speed, the greater the accountability” and ultimately, the safer.

Zhang is calmly confident that his company will lead a long overdue construction revolution and “change the world”. Broad Group has been busy building mass production lines and, by the end of 2020, their target is to create a 9,000m2 building every day. By next year, Zhang hopes to use local factories around the world to assemble at least ten of these buildings a day, driving costs down as the scale increases.

Zhang Yue

When asked about Sky City and whether he is still planning to go ahead with it, Zhang seems momentarily frustrated and is keen to stress that his ambitions go far beyond this. “Our production and on-site installation capacity allow us to build one Sky City in one month,” he says. “So, a single Sky City has never been our target.”

New heights

Aurélie Cleraux, global head of modular construction at Bouygues Bâtiment International (BBI) has been impressed with the level of design and planning she has seen in China. Three years ago, BBI realised that the trend towards modular construction was picking up pace and Cleraux carried out a six-month study of the market to figure out how the company could best position itself.

By June 2019, BBI had completed Clement Canopy, the world’s tallest modular tower. In Singapore – where the building is situated – the government has made it mandatory for developers to include at least 65% prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC).

Concrete PPVC modules, fully fitted with bathrooms, kitchens, window frames and timber floors, were installed in a meticulously organised sequence. Cleraux points to the significant benefits that this type of construction brings, including valuable time-savings and minimal noise disturbance to the surrounding neighbourhood. However, she concedes that clients must be willing to submit to design freeze once they have agreed to the initial plans.

Like Zhang, Cleraux is confident that the construction industry will continue to change with a mass increase in modular construction, but she doesn’t think China is leading the way. “It’s a trend that can be found in many different countries because of the lack of labour and high cost of construction,” she insists. “There are many factors that are pushing for industrialisation within the building industry in general.”

According to Cleraux, one of the biggest barriers hindering progress is the lack of investment in the infrastructure to build off-site. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” she explains. “At the moment, the supply chain is not strong enough to achieve a lot of projects. It’s really a question of getting the right signal from the market, with everybody moving in that direction, so that companies are able to produce more off-site.”

A balancing act

For Dr Peng Liu, director and Beijing office leader at Arup, the problem lies with cost. In many countries, he says, prefabrication technology is still more expensive than traditional on-site construction. One way to get around this is to produce prefabricated modules in China, where labour costs are low. The resulting buildings, he continues, would be of the same quality, if not better, due to the controlled environment in which the prefabricated elements are produced.

Liu admits that he doesn’t necessarily see the point in building so quickly. Unlike Zhang, he believes the safety levels between on and offsite construction are similar, because “they are all designed to the same criteria”. Still, he says, one important benefit of building at a fast pace is the opportunity it brings to increase financial stability. The lengthy construction time for tall buildings is often problematic as the market can change significantly in the time it takes to complete. In this respect, he says, speeding up the build time is good for investors.

Dominic Bettison

While Zhang regards his buildings as factory-made products that can be mass produced, Liu argues that all buildings are different. “With all this prefabrication, you need to solve the contradiction between custom-made and standardisation,” he explains. “Especially for high-rise buildings, it’s very difficult to achieve highmodularity as they always want to be a landmark, which means you don’t want to be standard.”

Having worked on the structural design of Beijing’s tallest building, the 528m CITIC Tower in Beijing, Liu is only too aware of the need to maintain variety and uniqueness. “I think the more choice there is, the better it is for designers,” he says. “The trick is working out how to make your building standardised enough so you can reduce time and labour costs, while still enabling the creativity of the architects.”

This is a concern that Dominic Bettison, a director at Wilkinson Eyre, is only too familiar with. “I think, as an architect, if everything is modularised and there’s only a few standards out there, it has the potential to limit outward expression,” he explains. “However, I think it’s something you can play with and control. It’s something to watch, rather than to necessarily see as a threat. We’ve just got to manage it.”

More than a decade ago, Bettison and his colleagues won an international competition to design the Guangzhou Tower, which took six years to construct. The city had been chosen to host the 2010 Asian Games and the new building was to feature in the opening ceremony. Since then, the studio has gone on to work on large-scale buildings across the world, the latest of which is the 33,000m2 mixed-use CIBC square in Toronto, Canada.

Bettison is cautious of endorsing the construction time frames embraced by Broad Group. He believes that, while there will always be a desire to build as fast as possible, this escalated speed brings its own set of challenges. “Most countries don’t have the ability to flood a site and have people do it safely, or even comply to local legislation or working hours,” he says. “Building at speed is a desirable quality, but not at that speed.”

He explains that, even when the Guangzhou tower construction cycle was at its peak, they were completing around one floor per week, which, he says, was “crazily fast”. When compared with Broad Group’s completion of three floors per day when building Mini Sky City, it’s easy to understand his doubts. For Bettison, building should take place at the right pace, rather than just “speed for the sake of it”. He draws on an old proverb to illustrate his point: more haste, less speed.

Contemplating the future, Bettison hopes to lead the way designing a new generation of ultra-low carbon buildings. While he expects to see increasing levels of large-scale prefabrication, he believes that on one level, buildings will always remain bespoke. After all, he says, “if you don’t like the look of a car, you can park it round the corner, but with a building it sits there and stares at the community for years to come”.

Mini Sky City, a 57-storey building constructed by Broad Group in less than three weeks.
CIBC Square, a mixed-use development in Toronto, Canada.
CITIC Tower in Beijing, the city’s tallest building at 528m.
Clement Canopy in Singapore, the world’s tallest modular tower, developed by BBI.

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