What's It Like To Build A Skyscraper?

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 18 months ago
What's It Like To Build A Skyscraper?
© Hubert Libiszewski (2017)

What's the best way to halt work on a hulking concrete high-rise? Just call in an endangered species. Even better if it's broody.

Rising out of a Vauxhall basement (what's left of the British Telecoms building) are 260 private apartments and penthouse suites, but work stalled last year when a falcon was spotted on the original BT Tower. Nyron Higgins, the site's project manager, says they had to leave it in place during its nesting period from November until March.

During that period we weren't allowed past the ninth floor of the tower. At that time we wanted to strip the building and put the scaffolding up.

Falcons aren't the only challenge a skyscraper faces in its infancy. Buildings have to be designed with other factors in mind, such as "average daylight factor", how light is distributed throughout a room, and NSL which stands for "no sky line", the proportion of a room that cannot see the sky. When planning application (PDF) was granted for Keybridge, it was on condition that there was "internal reorganisation of the blocks to reduce the number of north facing single aspect units by half" as 35% of the rooms didn't meet the NSL guidelines. Well, nobody wants to pay upwards of £525,000 for a room in the dark, without those promised city skyline views. And of course, no developer wants to talk about their planning application hiccups so instead, we donned a hard hat, some steel cap boots and joined the high-vis brigade to chat about Fitbits and Meccano.

London brick was chosen to blend in with the mansion block brick across the road. Photo: © Hubert Libiszewski (2017)

The site was a concrete dustball, a crisscross of scaffolding and billowing plastic. Everywhere things were stacked and tied down – wood, wires, ladders, poles and in the middle, a gaping hole: the basement, which Leigh Fitzgerald, the site manager is in charge of. "It's quite a large job to walk around, I think last week there was one day where I did ten miles of walking," she says. Who needs the gym when you've got an assault course of caged platforms and machinery to navigate? Both Fitzgerald and Higgins, are wearing Fitbits, just one of the perks provided by Mount Anvil, a housing developer.

"In London, people are always looking at the skyline and this building will affect the skyline so it's nice to be a part of that"

Originally from Manchester, Leigh moved to London two years ago. "It was quite scary because everyone is so ambitious. But once you're here you just kinda get dragged along until you're at the same pace as everyone else." After doing some work experience, she decided to switch from architecture to construction management. Across the business, the gender split is 32% female. "I can be sat in a room full of men and I never think oh I'm the only woman," she says. "But maybe that's because I grew up with brothers," she adds.

What does she find appealing about working on a skyscraper? "In London, people are always looking at the skyline and this building will affect the skyline so it's nice to be a part of that". At 37 storeys, 'Tower Block A' won't just affect the skyline it will dominate it. Once all 844,456 bricks have been laid it will be the "the UK's tallest brick residential tower".

The scheme is unusual because the brickwork facade was chosen to blend in with the surrounding buildings. Which made us wonder — what is behind the City's current obsession with glass and steel? Not everyone enjoys catching sight of their windswept reflection every time they leave the office. Higgins says it comes down to ease, speed and, of course, cash. "Often the glass panels will be manufactured off-site and slotted together, which is quicker and cheaper, whereas brickwork is a lot more labour intensive."

Cranes in the sky. Photo: Hubert Libiszewski (2017)

Ordinarily, these buildings only highjack our thoughts when they're blocking the sun or blocking a view, or we can't afford them. Having worked on London's high-rise builds for most of his career (with a stint in Dubai) does Higgins think he has a better appreciation of them? "Yes, definitely so." As a boy playing with Meccano, and a teen growing up south London and exploring the city, he'd always been intrigued by the way things are dismantled and put together. So when Higgins looks at a high-rise he's not thinking about his next Vit D hit, he's thinking about the planning, the manpower, the materials and the logistics required to ensure a smooth build. Having received a Seal of Excellence award for site managing, he knows what he's doing. Is this his ideal job? "I'd say so yes...after 20 years I'd hope so!" But even he was surprised by the sheer volume of resources needed to get these things off the ground.

Around 257 people currently work on-site each week at Keybridge — that's around 2,056 cups of builders' tea brewed per month. At its peak, the development will employ around 500 people. Then there's the 1.97m bricks, 36,000m3 of concrete and 6000 tonnes of steel reinforcement to coordinate. Higgins says all that steel and concrete acts as "a stiff skeleton" to stop the dreaded tower-sway.

Residents at Keybridge will have access to a 24-hour concierge, luxury spa with a gym, a 15-metre swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms. Photo: Mount Anvil

For those interested in the nitty-gritty: "Each section of the build is subcontracted out. Everything from the demolition to the concrete frame, to the brickwork, the windows, the carpentry and plumbing is broken down into separate packages, so at the start of tender we'll interview up to six different contractors." Says Higgins. And that old BT building? Brutalism lovers will be glad to hear all that mid-70s dense concrete has been a pain to work with.

Aside from unlimited views of London's ever-shifting skyline, what gets Higgins to work at 7.15am every morning? "For me, we're doing something tangible, where we actually deliver a project. I drive past sites that I've worked on over the years and it makes me smile to see people are still living and working in those buildings."

Tip: if you want to get into construction, look for the shiny banner of awards on the front page of a developer's website. Mount Anvil consistently exceeds health and safety audits, won small developer of the year in 2015 and won Gold in the Considerate Constructors Awards. It sounds like Higgins and his flourescent-jacketed team have lucked in big time. But with post-Brexit uncertainty throwing shade on the rights of foreign workers (80% of its construction workers have a foreign passport) and the price of imported materials, the development is keen to attract young Londoners.

You'll need to fork out £575,000 for a studio apartment here. Photo: Hubert Libiszewski (2017)

"We work with the council and the national skills academy to employ local people on the site. And we do a lot of work with school leavers, the unemployed and people who have left the industry but want to get back into it." Says Higgins. One such young Londoner who secured a logistics apprenticeship is 26-year-old Daniel Kalarus.

He spends four days a week on site organising deliveries, waste disposal, walkways and labour management and one day at college studying General Building Operations. Having grown up in Vauxhall we were keen to find out how he felt about the changes new developments are bringing to the area. "I've found it's for the better, you know. Before the place was a bit downbeat, horrible looking, but now it's brightened up the area, bringing new people in and more businesses."

Instead of lamenting the old tower, Kalarus can walk around his neighbourhood knowing he's contributed something better. "I'd love more people to get into construction, you're building other people's houses, I feel proud to be like, yeah, I was there, I helped build that". He says.

Does he ever feel conflicted then, that he's helping to build homes his neighbours won't be able to afford? "Not really," he says. "Because when it comes down to it that's up to Lambeth itself, they should be pushing for more affordable housing". Like most luxury developments, this one has had its fair share of criticism. The Vauxhall Civic Society raised concerns about nearby Vauxhall Park being in the shadow of the high-rise, the quality of a communal children's play area and the lack of affordable provision, (out of 470 residential units, 38 will be affordable under shared ownership*).

Higgins acknowledges buildings of this magnitude aren’t fit for every location. "At Queen’s Wharf in Hammersmith, we’ve purposely created lower rise buildings in keeping with its surroundings. Where they are a good fit, like Vauxhall it enables people to live a certain lifestyle on a smaller footprint – many people want amenities on their doorstep, not having to travel to go to the gym in the morning etc."

The peregrine falcon at Keybridge House. Photo © Owen Llewellyn (2013)

This then is the eternal issue of building the skyscraper. From the start, a development is isolated by flashy hoardings, by the end residents are isolated from the surrounding community by way of private amenities.

Having finished our site visit, we stopped off at Cafe Madiera for a pastéis de nata. Not many people know about the large Portuguese community living in Vauxhall, our PR contact included. But just a ten-minute walk outside of the development would be enough to question how this "new neighbourhood" will integrate with the existing one. Then again, to only tell that story would be to exclude the thousands of rough hands and hardened knees at work behind the hoardings. Higgins says it's important to him "we're not just seen as developers who come in, build some flats and leave, it's about leaving a legacy." He sounds genuine and we are inclined to believe him. After all, it's his legacy, and Leigh and Daniels just as much as it is the architects. Is it the kind of legacy London needs? That's a whole other article.

As for the falcon? On Natural England's watch, the expectant mother gave birth to three healthy chicks, which the local school did a project on. Once the nesting period was over, the pressure was on to get everything done before she returned for the next season. Nesting boxes were put up on Battersea Power Station, along with Nine Elms Lane and the Houses of Parliament. Higgins says when the next season rolled around the feathered anti-capitalist took to the nest box at the Houses of Parliament and stopped the refurb works there.

*This was edited to reflect the most recent affordable housing provision. The previous version said out of 441 residential units, 26 (6%) will be affordable, 13 available for rent and 13 for shared ownership.

Last Updated 06 July 2017