Reaching new heights

building China's tallest skyscraper pushed project managers to upper limits




Shanghai, China's skyline with Shanghai Tower under construction


spheres and glossy skyscrapers punctuate the skyline in Shanghai, China's Pudong district. Its futuristic landscape has provided the backdrop for death-defying leaps and cataclysmic destruction in blockbuster action films. But the city's latest architectural star aimed to test local limits and reach new heights.

Designing and building the Shanghai Tower, the world's second-tallest building, came with its own real-life drama. Given the building's dizzying height, project managers had to make life-or-death safety decisions and navigate unique short-and long-term construction challenges—all at a high-speed project pace.

The 632-meter (2,073-foot), US$3 billion tower was designed by Gensler, an architecture firm based in San Francisco, California, USA.

Delivering on an ambitious design, which included a virtual curtain wrapping the tower in glass, required the careful management of an 80-person team and an extended group of worldwide design sub-consultants. Success was due in part to the co-location of the entire team in Shanghai during the design phase, which accounted for two of the seven years of the project, says senior project manager Grant Uhlir.

“Having the core design team in residence in Shanghai afforded timely reviews, consensus building and efficient and effective decision making,” Mr. Uhlir says. “Keeping our global team on the same page with constant communications, project task tracking, scheduling and monitoring required a savvy and experienced management group.”


Shanghai Tower's ambitious design includes a virtual curtain that wraps the tower in glass and a podium-like base, right.



“Having the core design team in residence in Shanghai afforded timely reviews, consensus building and efficient and effective decision making.”

—Grant Uhlir, Gensler, Chicago, Illinois, USA


The most serious project challenge revolved around developing an effective protocol that would allow everyone to evacuate the building in less than two hours in the case of a fire or other emergency. When the project started in 2008, no fire safety codes existed in China for structures over 200 meters (656 feet), so the project team developed their own solution.

To protect individuals on the uppermost floors of China's largest building, the team studied the safety plans of other super-tall buildings around the world such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and One World Trade Center in New York, New York, USA. From there, Gensler used extensive simulation to monitor different evacuation scenarios, says Xiaomei Lee, PMP, co-managing director and principal at Gensler. Project leaders also consulted with both Chinese fire marshals and the New York City Fire Department in New York, USA to develop the most effective approach. Based on the results of this research, the team decided to make 13 of the tower's 108 passenger elevators pressurized, fireproof and smoke-proof to support emergency efforts in case of a fire.

And the planning didn't stop there. To come up with a safe and efficient elevator design, the project team also held several meetings with the elevator company and vertical-transportation experts, as well as the leasing company, a program management group, the design department within the client group, the construction team and the facility-operation group.

“We had to build consensus [with this entire client group],” Mr. Uhlir says. “My project manager role was to consolidate all the comments and concerns.”


The view from the 110th floor during construction in July 2014

Talent Spotlight


Grant C. Uhlir,

principal/senior project director, Gensler

Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA

Experience: 28 years

Other notable projects:

1. Block 37, an urban retail center in Chicago, Illinois, USA, which opened in July 2008

2. One Indiana Square, a 36-story office building in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, which opened in 1970 and was renovated in 2008

Career lessons learned:

“The opportunity to live and work in Shanghai was amazing. The rigor of the design process, construction site collaborations and management were in balance. Experiencing both the beauty of the Chinese culture, and energy and spirit of Shanghai is both humbling and inspirational.”


Construction started in November 2008 and is scheduled to be completed late this year.


Tall Orders

  • April 2008: U.S. architecture firm Gensler chosen to design Shanghai Tower.
  • June 2008: Schematic design of tower begins.
  • November 2008: Project breaks ground for construction.
  • April 2009: Gensler completes final design.
  • March 2010: Construction formally begins and foundation is poured.
  • June 2011: First 100 meters (328 feet) of construction completed.
  • May 2012: Construction reaches 300 meters (984 feet).
  • January 2014: Construction reaches 600 meters (1,969 feet).
  • August 2014: Building crown completed to reach maximum height of 632 meters (2,073 feet).
  • Late 2015: Full tower scheduled to open.

The tower's signature feature is a twisting top designed to reduce wind impact.


Glare from the building's 20,589 customized glass panels was a concern for owners of adjacent buildings.

“We had to build consensus [with this entire client group]. My project manager role was to consolidate all the comments and concerns.”

—Grant Uhlir

One option was to follow the lead of other supertall buildings such as the Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois, USA and use double-decker elevators that allow two cabs to run vertically in the same shaft—a design that takes up less floor space than other options. However, some of the project consultants were concerned about the cost implications of this approach. To stay on budget, the team chose three single-elevator cabs to serve the observation deck—but this solution created a problem of its own.

“It took up additional floor space,” Mr. Uhlir says. As a result, the tower's twisting tapered top—designed to reduce wind impact—suddenly became a huge liability. To avoid having to resort to removing an entire floor, the design team made an atrium taller, which reduced the floor-area square footage and kept both the tapered top and the additional elevator shafts intact. The solution was the result of a combination of creative thinking, good communication and understanding individual skill sets among team members, Ms. Lee says.


Two other signature design features—the tower's glimmering glass skin and the building's sheer size—required additional coordination with local stakeholders, Mr. Uhlir says.

For instance, owners of adjacent buildings worried that the reflection from the building's 20,589 customized glass panels—which serve as a see-through curtain—would create a disruptive glare. So Mr. Uhlir's team produced a report detailing how the shape and placement of each panel would address this issue. Laser technology also was used to detect spots that created the greatest risk of glare. But that solution required the team to place lasers on neighboring buildings, which required working with the owners to get approval.

In public meetings, pedestrians who frequent the area expressed concerns that, in proximity to so many other tall buildings, the tower would create a wind-tunnel effect. So the project team studied ground-level wind condition simulations to peg which areas were most likely to encounter increased wind speeds. To add another twist, these conditions vary seasonally, in direction, speed and peak gusts, Mr. Uhlir says.

The team mitigated this risk by installing tall plants and canopies that redirect wind and reduce the impact on people who walk past the tower on blustery days, Mr. Uhlir says.

“It took a lot of community building, meetings with the public and their neighbors,” he says. “It was about being a good listener.”

Race to the Top

Three skyscrapers under construction or in planning stages are scheduled to eclipse the Shanghai Tower's height.



Constant and deliberate communication throughout the project helped Gensler mitigate a primary risk—falling behind schedule. The team was required to translate Mandarin to English and metric units of measurement to imperial (and vice versa), as well as build a consensus for each decision before taking action, Mr. Uhlir says.

“Rarely would we go in, present an idea, and the client would say ‘Yes, we agree. Move forward,’” he says. Instead, his team would often present multiple ideas for the Chinese stakeholders to pore over, allowing them to discuss the merits and drawbacks of each and building consensus to define a common design direction. During the design phase in particular, he led daily meetings with the Chinese government's program management team that included daily action lists. He also offered a big picture perspective by using a large display wall in the Gensler studio to list all new project work, design tasks, schedule and project progress.

Mr. Uhlir says he kept the project on track by keeping a close eye on the client's expectations—and gauging how well the team was meeting them. Although Mr. Uhlir isn't fluent in Mandarin, he watched body language, gestures and facial expressions during meetings. Afterward, the project managers were able to measure the cadence of the meeting, identify key issues requiring follow-up and use those skills to move the client toward a final decision. With these processes in place, the team is on target to close the project by the end of this year.

“I always told my team, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime project,’” he says. “It taught us the importance of timely and constant communication—keeping everybody on the same page.” PM

“I always told my team, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime project.’ It taught us the importance of timely and constant communication—keeping everybody on the same page.”

—Grant Uhlir




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