The role a Czech company played in the building of the Burj Dubai

Burj Khalifa

Last month spelt the end of a major six-year-project for Czech businessman Pavel Policar, the head of a company that helped build what is now the world’s tallest building, the Arab Emirates’ Burj Khalifa (until recently the Burj Dubai). At an incredible 828 metres, it is the world’s tallest free-standing manmade structure. And it was the family-owned company, Pega, based in Pardubice - founded by Pavel Policar’s father-in-law - that designed and built the world record-breaking construction elevators that helped make the tower a reality.

Before then, the firm had designed and produced hoists for buildings 200 or 300 metres tall; but even such skyscrapers are in a different league from what are Policar calls the “supertalls”. In Arabic, Burj means tower and this was one tower that was unique from the very start. Businessman Pavel Policar:

Burj Khalifa
“When we first saw pictures of the Burj Dubai it was just the foundation contract, far and away from the civil engineering contract for the upper part of the building. And even then we said ‘Oh, what a challenge! That would be a contract - that would be a reference!’ We had the technology, well we weren’t sure we had it for this specific building, but we had it for the local conditions. And we spent three-quarters of a year analyzing, making technical calculations, just to make sure we were up to the contract. We held up a serious mirror to ourselves, an X-ray. It was a big challenge and a huge financial responsibility. We fine-tuned our competitive edge and the concept of hoisting. Before we began bidding on the contract we had to be sure we could handle it.”

Pega had already been present in Dubai on a number of other projects and also involved in major projects in Australia and the USA. But to clinch something like the Burj, meant many hours of careful negotiation, research and assessment. Eventually, Pega Hoist bid successfully for the deal. Pavel Policar again:

Pavel Policar
“There are around 50 rack-and pinion manufacturers around the world, out of which there is a Top 10, the top two of which are our Swedish competitor and us. And here we were competing for this ‘supertall’. Until now, all the ‘supertalls’ had been built by the Swedes, together with Samsung. The Petronius Towers, the Toronto tower and so on. This time it was us. That was why we put so much into measuring that we were up to the task.”

After winning the contract, what followed was the hardest job of all: the grind of putting up and managing a dozen or so hoists at the site, which operated practically 24/7 over four years’ time, lifting equipment and personnel, of whom there were as many as 12 thousand on the site. Day-to-day operations meant being on call at all times, whether at home in the Czech Republic or in Dubai:

“It was four years of responsibility, every minute: I’d get a call on Sunday night at 3 am, saying ‘Hey Pav, we’ve got a problem here’. So I’d get back to them within half an hour, having contacted our technicians and engineers, and if we could sort it out over the phone that was fine, and if we couldn’t, it meant getting on a plane to Dubai and heading over there. One of the parts of the contract was a 150 thousand dollar fine per day for non-operation, which obviously is a considerable amount of money!”

All the same, Pavel Policar says, operations went smoothly. That doesn’t mean they weren’t stressful. And I asked him how, when he had the time, he managed to relax:

“It’s got to be something with adrenaline. I used to compete on skis and in volleyball, but I don’t do that anymore. But I started motocross riding when I was 39-years-old. And I play ice hockey. Within two hours you are bruised and beaten up and it’s the same in motocross. But it helps me relax. They are super-intensive sports. They help me eat, which I usually can’t, sleep, which I usually don’t, and to be a relatively bearable husband, which I’m usually not! The answer is motocross and ice hockey!”

Pavel Policar
When he wasn’t giving his all on the track or on the ice, it was back to work. But there is plenty that Pavel Policar could be proud about: at the Burj Dubai the hoists which Pega had designed and built broke world records, among them the feather in Pega’s cap: a high-speed lift climbing from 0 to an incredible 425 metres.

“We called it the ‘Inter-City’! That was the one that had few stops and was travelling very long distances. That was the fastest machine: 425 metres, one hundred metres per minute, with 3.2 tonnes of material. That was the world record. Then, there was one that was dedicated just to material. And other machines with odd or even floors, just to make travelling as efficient as possible. We fine-tuned this with Samsung and they were really good at that and it worked perfectly. Everything about the hoists was designed and manufactured by us, with the exception of some parts such as motors and gearboxes, which we traditionally buy from a large German manufacturer.”

According to the businessman, working above the clouds was an incredible experience:

“It’s like taking airborne pictures. The VIP zone for helicopters was around 400 metres and imagine that we worked for two months at 700 metres above the ground. So they were below us, the VIPS. Our workplace was almost double that height.”

And, says Pavel Policar, he went close to the very top, where his firm built a permanent hoist, to be used by maintenance, which rests at more than 600 metres above the ground.

“We would be bad managers, there would have to be something wrong if we had exclusivity for the rack-and-pinion technology but if we hadn’t won the contract for the permanent lift at the top. It’s there, the highest-placed elevator anywhere in the world, it’s approved and it’s running. For us this was the cherry on top.”

Pavel Policar
The Burj Dubai – or Khalifa as it has been renamed since opening – probably has to be seen to be believed. Working on such a project for Pavel Policar and his team was no doubt a dream come true – one aiming for the very top. Where does Pega go from here? Right now, given the impact of the financial crisis, it’s difficult to assess when the new supertall will go up. But there’s no question Pega will be back; after all, the company has an amazing reference: having helped the tallest structure in the world rise above the clouds.

Photo: archive of Pavel Policar