ZHANG YUE, FOUNDER and chairman of Broad Sustainable Building, is not a particularly humble man. A humble man would not have erected, on his firm’s corporate campus in the Chinese province of Hunan, a classical palace and a 130-foot replica of an Egyptian pyramid. A humble man, for that matter, would not have redirected Broad from its core business—manufacturing industrial air-conditioning units—to invent a new method of building skyscrapers. And a humble man certainly wouldn’t be putting up those skyscrapers at a pace never achieved in history.
In late 2011, Broad built a 30-story building in 15 days; now it intends to use similar methods to erect the world’s tallest building in just seven months. Perhaps you’re already familiar with Zhang’s handiwork: On New Year’s Day 2012, Broad released a time-lapse video of its 30-story achievement that quickly went viral: construction workers buzzing around like gnats while a clock in the corner of the screen marks the time. In just 360 hours, a 328-foot-tall tower called the T30 rises from an empty site to overlook Hunan’s Xiang River. At the end of the video, the camera spirals around the building overhead as the Broad logo appears on the screen: a lowercase b that wraps around itself in an imitation of the @ symbol.
In person, Zhang himself seems to move at an impossible time-lapse clip. He’s almost always surrounded by Broad employees, all wearing identical white button-front shirts (the uniform for the corporate office) and all offering papers for him to review or sign. When I arrive, he’s issuing a steady barrage of instructions while spinning himself around in his office chair. When he’s finally ready to start the interview, he abruptly stops spinning and, without looking at me, barks out, “Begin!”
The pace of Broad Sustainable Building’s development is driven entirely by this one man. Broad Town, the sprawling headquarters, is completely Zhang’s creation. Employees call him not “the chairman” or “our chairman” but “my chairman.” To become an employee of Broad, you must recite a life manual penned by Zhang, guidelines that include tips on saving energy, brushing your teeth, and having children. All prospective employees must be able, over a two-day period, to run 7.5 miles. You can eat for free at Broad Town cafeterias unless someone catches you wasting food, at which point you’re not merely fined but publicly shamed.
So far, Broad has built 16 structures in China, plus another in Cancun. They are fabricated in sections at two factories in Hunan, roughly an hour’s drive from Broad Town. From there the modules—complete with preinstalled ducts and plumbing for electricity, water, and other infrastructure—are shipped to the site and assembled like Legos. The company is in the process of franchising this technology to partners in India, Brazil, and Russia. What it’s selling is the world’s first standardized skyscraper, and with it, Zhang aims to turn Broad into the McDonald’s of the sustainable building industry.
“Traditional construction is chaotic,” he says. “We took construction and moved it into the factory.” According to Zhang, his buildings will help solve the many problems of the construction industry. They will be safer, quicker, and cheaper to build. And they will have low energy consumption and CO2 emissions. When I ask Zhang why he decided to start a construction company, he corrects me. “It’s not a construction company,” he says. “It’s a structural revolution.”
THE INSTANT SKYSCRAPER
Broad plans every step for construction speed, from how it designs floor modules to how workers load the trucks.
1// Identical modules
The floors and ceilings of the skyscraper are built in sections, each measuring 15.6 by 3.9 meters, with a depth of 45 centimeters. Illustration: Jason Lee
2// Preinstalled fixtures
Pipes and ducts are threaded through each floor module while it’s still in the factory. The client’s choice of flooring is also preinstalled on top. Illustration: Jason Lee
3// Standardized truckloads
Each load carries two modules to the site, with the necessary columns, bolts, tools, and other peripherals to connect them stacked on top of each. Illustration: Jason Lee
4// Instant Assembly
Each section is lifted by crane directly to the top of the building. Workers use the materials on the module to quickly connect the pipes and wires. Illustration: Jason Lee
Photo of Instant Assembly
At the building site, cranes hoist modules up to be installed. Photo: Noah Sheldon
5// Snap-in columns
Broad’s design has aced 9.0-magnitude earthquake tests. The reason: this unique column design, with diagonal bracing at each end and tabs that bolt into the floors above and below. Illustration: Jason Lee
6// A smooth finish
In the final step, heavily insulated exterior walls and windows are slotted in by crane. The result is far from pretty, but the method is surprisingly safe—and phenomenally fast. Illustration: Jason Lee
Asked about his life story, Zhang avers that it’s too boring to discuss. (“This whole article shouldn’t be more than two pages,” he says.) But he goes on to attribute his success to his creativity and to his outsider perspective on technology. He started out as an art student in the 1980s, but in 1988, with the help of two partners, including his brother (an engineer by training), Zhang left the art world to found Broad. The company started out as a maker of nonpressurized boilers. While Zhang again insists that the story isn’t interesting enough to talk about, Broad’s senior vice president, a smiley woman named Juliet Jiang who sports a bowl haircut just too long to stay out of her eyes, is happy to fill in the gaps. “He made his fortune on boilers,” she says. “He could have kept doing this business, but my chairman, he saw the need for nonelectric air-conditioning.” China’s economy was expanding past the capacity of the nation’s electricity grid, she explains. Power shortages were a problem. Industrial air-conditioning units fueled by natural gas could help companies ease their electricity load, reduce costs, and enjoy more reliable climate control in the bargain.
The AC units that Zhang still manufactures are gigantic, barge-sized affairs. The so-called micro chillers weigh 6 tons; the largest is 3,500 tons and can cool 5 million square feet. The technology Broad employs, called absorption cooling, is an old one. Instead of using electricity to compress a refrigerant from a gas to a liquid and back again, nonelectric air conditioners use natural gas or another source of heat to turn a special liquid (typically a solution containing lithium bromide) into vapor; as the vapor condenses, it cools the air around it. Today, Broad has units operating in more than 70 countries, cooling some of the largest buildings and airports on the planet. These systems are all monitored from a central headquarters in Broad Town: When an air conditioner malfunctions in Brazil, an alarm goes off in Hunan.
For two decades, Zhang’s AC business boomed. But a couple of events conspired to change his course. The first was that Zhang became an environmentalist, a gradual awakening that he says began 10 or 12 years ago. The second was the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit China’s Sichuan Province in 2008, causing the collapse of poorly constructed buildings and killing some 87,000 people. In the aftermath, Zhang began to fixate on the problem of building design. At first, he says, he tried to convince developers to retrofit existing buildings to make them both more stable and more sustainable. “People paid no attention at all,” he says. So Zhang drafted his own engineers—300 of them, according to Jiang—and started researching how to build cheap, environmentally friendly structures that could also withstand an earthquake.
Within six months of starting his research, Zhang had given up on traditional methods. He was frustrated by the cost of hiring designers and specialists for each new structure. The best way to cut costs, he decided, was to take building to the factory—and as a manufacturer of massive AC units, he knew how factories worked. But to create a factory-built skyscraper, Broad had to abandon the principles by which skyscrapers are typically designed. The whole load-bearing structure had to be different. To reduce the overall weight of the building, it used less concrete in the floors; that in turn enabled it to cut down on structural steel. The result was the T30, 90 percent of which was built inside the factory. And Zhang says this percentage will only rise with future buildings: The more that happens in the factory, he says, the safer and less wasteful construction becomes.
These theories are increasingly accepted by the sustainable building community in the West, where prefabricated and modular buildings are gaining in popularity. In New York, a 32-story modular building, the world’s tallest of its kind, is slated to go up near the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn (though union disputes might result in a more traditional building instead). Two entirely modular developments have gone up in the suburbs of London. Both modular buildings (which are delivered to a site in prebuilt cubes) and prefabricated towers (closer to what Broad is doing) are safer to construct and easier to regulate than traditional structures, and both cut down on waste.
But modular and prefabricated buildings in the West are, for the most part, low-rise. Broad is alone—perhaps forebodingly alone—in applying these methods to skyscrapers. For Zhang, the environmental savings alone justify the effort. According to Broad’s numbers, a traditional high-rise will produce about 3,000 tons of construction waste, while a Broad building will produce only 25 tons. Traditional buildings also require 5,000 tons of water onsite to build, while Broad buildings use none.
Compared with the West’s elegant modular buildings, Zhang’s skyscrapers are aesthetically underwhelming, to say the least. On a tour of the T30, my guide gestures at a scale model and says, “It’s not very good-looking, is it?” To create a sufficiently spacious lobby for the hotel, an awkward pyramid-shaped structure had to be attached to the base. Inside, the hallways are uncomfortably narrow; climbing the central stairway feels like clanging up the stairs of a stadium bleacher.
It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of apartment buildings going up in China are equally ugly. Broad’s biggest selling point, amazingly enough, is in the quality. In a nation where construction standards vary widely, and where builders often use cheap and unreliable concrete, Broad’s method offers a rare sort of consistency. Its materials are uniform and dependable. There’s little opportunity for the construction workers to cut corners, since doing so would leave stray pieces, like when you bungle your Ikea desk. And with Broad’s approach, consistency can be had on the cheap: The T30 cost just $1,000 per square meter to build, compared with around $1,400 for traditional commercial high-rise construction in China.
The building process is also safer. Jiang tells me that during the construction of the first 20 Broad buildings, “not even one fingernail was hurt.” Elevator systems—the base, rails, and machine room—can be installed at the factory, eliminating the risk of a technician falling down a 30-story elevator shaft. And instead of shipping an elevator car to the site in pieces, Broad orders a finished car and drops it into the shaft by crane. In the future, elevator manufacturers are hoping to preinstall the doors, completely eliminating any chance that a worker might fall.
While Jiang focuses on bringing Broad buildings to the world, her boss is fixated on the company’s most outlandish plan—the J220, a factory-built 220-floor behemoth that would just happen to be the tallest building in the world. It’s hard to say for sure that the 16-million-square-foot plan isn’t entirely a publicity stunt. But Zhang has hired some of the engineers who worked on the current height-record holder, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and Broad has created two large models of “Sky City” (as the J220 has been nicknamed). The foundation is scheduled to be laid in November at a site in Hunan; if everything goes well, the building will be complete in March 2013. All in all, including factory time and onsite time, construction is expected to take just seven months. Again, that’s assuming it really happens: When my guide at the T30 plugs in one of the models and the lights flicker on, he tells me, “My chairman says we have to attract eyes. We have to shock the world.”
But if all Broad ever does is build 30-story skyscrapers—in 15 days, at $1,000 per square meter, with little waste and low worker risk, and where the end result can withstand a 9.0 quake—it will have shocked the world quite enough.1