Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
 

 Inside the China Broad Group

CTBUH’s Executive Director tours the headquarters of the company behind the 30-story tower erected in 15 days. Now they want to build the world’s tallest tower in nine months.

Antony Wood
Executive Director, CTBUH

August 2012

From the moment two Broad Group representatives handed me a security pass at the Changsha airport and whisked me off to “Broad Town,” I couldn’t help thinking I was in a James Bond movie. Passing through security at the Broad Town campus, the first thing I noticed was a huge golden pyramid facing off against a convincing imitation of a Versailles-type French Chateaux in the heart of the sprawling grounds. As I toured the factories and facilities, surrounded by pre-fabricated building prototypes of varying height, thousands of staff dressed in matching blue and white uniforms zipped around in golf-carts.

The Broad Group Pyramid T-30 Tower, 30-story tower constructed in 15 days
 
To say I was impressed with the China Broad Group is something of an understatement. I knew I was in for something different when the invitation arrived to see the company’s 30-story tower constructed on site in 15 days. Broad is, after all, the company that generated international headlines a few months ago with talk of building an 838-meter tower—the world’s tallest building—in nine months. But I wasn’t at all prepared for the scale of the operation. After making its name in air conditioning systems and absorption chillers in the past 30 years, the company has only recently expanded its efforts in pre-fabricated buildings. The Broad Sustainable Buildings (BSB) subsidiary now has several thousand employees, all under the careful watch of their charismatic Chairman, Mr. Zhang Yue . Chairman Yue  was previously an artist, before turning his hand first to air-conditioning systems and then to pre-fabricated buildings. The legacy of this artistic touch was everywhere on the Broad campus – in the artworks around the campus, in the messages regarding “frugality” and “wisdom” in the worker canteens, and in the buildings themselves.
 
Workers returning from lunch to the factory

Changsha is a two-hour flight south-west of Shanghai (where I had spent several days putting the finishing touches to our Shanghai Congress) and I can tell you that the China Broad Group is a big deal there. I’m not sure how many of these “large Provincial enterprises” are left in China but, coming from the west, it was a reminder of a long -passed age. Every one of the 5,000 workers has a bed in a dormitory on the campus, and each is given three meals a day, served up in huge cafeterias. When I visited the main manufacturing plants they were eerily quiet and empty during the midday lunch “siesta” (12-2pm). As we left the factories, however, I will never forget the image of thousands of blue-overalled workers flooding back down the main street and heading toward us to return to work.
 
The real magic was reserved for the assembly/factory campus, about a 90-minute drive into the countryside outside Changsha, where two huge assembly line buildings churn out the pre-fabricated elements. Broad is now also building eight new manufacturing plants on the site, to cope with the huge increase in demand for their pre-fabricated product just in China. They are planning franchises around the world to meet demand. The T30, 30-story fabricated building stands on this campus but, such is the attention that this building has gathered internationally, not a lot of people know that there is also a B6, a B10, a B15 and a B20 building—six-, 10-, 15- and 20-story versions of the T30--each clearly showing a legacy of developing these systems over several years. The T30 hotel tower was a lot better executed than I was expecting. Although there were a few areas where the workmanship was a little poor - perhaps not-surprisingly, this tended to be in the on-site aspects of the work, rather than the pre-fabricated elements - you wouldn’t necessarily know it was pre-fabricated at all. There was certainly nothing to indicate that it had been erected in 15 days, although I never quite got to the bottom of how much of the fit out was included in that 15 days. But, even if that was 0%, erecting two floors per day, including facades and internal walls, is truly remarkable in anyone’s book.
Looking up the T-30 Tower
 
The factories / assembly line showed the process to be remarkably simple in concept but, of course, highly complicated in delivery, since there can be virtually zero tolerance when bringing together major building elements on site. The basic building block of the system is a steel-framed floor platform, measuring 3.9 meters in width, 15.6 meters in length and 450 millimeters in depth. This module weighs 12 tons, but the true trick in the system is the ability to move modules around at ease in the factory through the various lifting systems enabling each layer of the construction to be applied.
 
The innovative linear column Large scale model for shake tests
 
The first layer is the basic truss-framed structural floor module, complete with all connection plates for neighboring module attachment on site. The frames are all welded in the factory, though all module connections are bolted on site. The next stage sees this huge module flipped on its top to allow a ceiling grid to be applied to the underside, then flipped back to apply trapezoidal floor cladding to take a very thin – approx. 80mm--concrete topping and applied floor tiles. Perhaps the cleverest part of the system is a series of short circular hollow steel sections contained vertically within the steel floor frame. Temporary steel floors props of exactly the same height as the structural columnsare inserted into these sections as each floor is jacked up. These props are used both in the factory, to allow workers to fix the ceiling or the light bulbs to the underside, and are also used on site as temporary supports as each floor module is lowered into place. All electrical and mechanical systems are installed within the floor zone, ready for simple connection at each module interface. Each floor is lifted up with all vertical elements--columns, internal walls, facade modules--laid flat on the finished floor surface, ready for first the vertical structure to be raised and bolted in place, then the partitions and other elements to follow. It is difficult to believe that the bolting together of such frames side by side and on top of each other gives the lateral stability that is needed across the whole structure, but the columns themselves serve as linear vertical trusses and employ a high degree of bracing  (these linear columns are also used in both planes of the building) and they showed me some impressive table-shaking experiments with large scale models after leaving the factory.
 
The company’s foundation in air-conditioning systems still drives an important aspect of the building. The buildings are all 100% sealed and rely on ultra-efficient conditioning systems for ventilation in every room. This might seem to fly in the face of sustainability when energy consumption is considered, but air pollution is severe and external air quality very low in most Chinese cities. China Broad representatives proudly demonstrated a special air-monitor/cell phone Broad has developed that handles calls and e-mails whilst also monitoring the quality of air when stuck in front of the grill of an air inlet. When they showed me the device in action, both inside and outside the building, I could see that the improvement in the quality of air inside was significant.
 
CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood with Broad Group Chairman Zhang Yue The Broad Group's air-monitor/cell phone
 
The last part of the day was reserved for meeting Chairman Yue, who had managed to build up a fair amount of mystique in my eyes during the day, as his workers talked about him in hushed, irreverent tones. Though the meeting was somewhat chaotic, with several translators doing their best to translate what seemed like several meetings going on at the same time, the Chairman managed to give me a good understanding of his next project – the much-discussed 220-story “World’s Next Tallest” building, affectionately known at Broad as the J220, which would be 838 meters tall and contain every urban function “except a crematorium.” The design is intended to be assembled in only nine months on site.
 

To many skeptics, that vision seems impossible, though there are an increasing number of foreign companies knocking on China Broad’s door for their product, I am told. In addition there are China Broad franchises now being established throughout China. There was a large party finalizing a deal while I was there, and a very well-known Middle East developer was in town the week before. Erecting a pre-fabricated 30-story tower in 15 days is, however, one thing, but using the same replaceable module for a building more than seven times that height is something else. However, contrary to what I suspect many people around the world think, this is not yet another “world’s tallest” fantasy proposal with no substance to support it. On the contrary, China Broad has an established legacy of built and planned structures that evidence a substantial lineage of research, experimentation and success in pre-fabricated buildings. Translating that lineage to overcome the huge technological void between a 30-story and 220-story building will be a tremendous challenge. But the plan did not strike me as a cynical marketing ploy based on hot air.

Putting aside the “will it / won’t it” aspect of the 220-story building, the achievements of the China Broad Corporation were poignantly brought home to me as we stood on the helicopter pad roof of the T30 hotel building, looking out over the factories and prototype buildings below and the river beyond (the plant is located specifically on the river so the floor units can be directly shipped out from site). Off to one side was a fairly substantial hole in the ground. “That’s the site for our next T30 project,” explained one of my hosts. “We expect to have the whole building complete by the end of next month.” I was looking at a hole in the ground, which normally signals the start of a project. For the China Broad Group, the hole in the ground comes somewhere towards the end of the process. Perhaps this company really does have the potential to revolutionize the construction industry.

Model of the "World's Next Tallest" Building J220, proposed by Broad Group to be constructed in nine months
 
The factories as viewed from the helipad of T30

Read about Broad Group's new plan for a two-kilometer tower.

See more CTBUH Tours and Visits

Acknowledgements
My great thanks go to the China Broad Group for hosting me in Changsha, and for all hospitalities extended to me during my day and night there. Special thanks go to Mr Peng ‘Roy’ Chuan and Ms Candy Guo for spending the whole day showing me around, and to Ms. Tang Ying, General Manager of BSB Marketing and Sales , and Mr Zhang Yue, Chairman of China Broad Group, for their time, support and open-ness.

Photography © Antony Wood