Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Engineer's career reaches dizzy heights

You could say Greg Sang has reached the peak of his profession. The Kiwi is in charge of building Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, in the frantic heart of the United Arab Emirates.

This Middle Eastern monster has already reached a breathtaking 160 levels or 650m. But still it grows terrifyingly, already twice the height of Auckland's SkyTower and four times as tall as the Vero office block in downtown Auckland. No one knows where the Burj will finish.

"The height is confidential," Sang said on the phone from Dubai this week. "At the top, you look down on everything. It's quite neat and it does feel really tall.

"It's like being in an aeroplane. Some people get scared but for the people who work there, it's run-of-the-mill."

Thousands of people are working on the US$1.1 billion ($1.4 billion) building which will be finished next year and home to one of the first hotel and spas by Giorgio Armani. The multi-use tower will be part-hotel, part-apartment block and part-offices.

"The lower zone will be a hotel designed by Mr Armani. We'll also have about 140 apartments by Mr Armani, another 900 luxury apartments and the top zone will be offices," Sang said.

Level 124 will be a public observatory, chosen because Sang said that with existing technology, this was the highest reached by an elevator in one continuous run. Viewers will be able to get to that floor in a non-stop 90-second adrenalin rush.

The Burj will have 56 lifts travelling at 40km/h and its penthouses are expected to fetch tens of millions of dollars each.

Sang is a former Aucklander who looks Asian, speaks with a Kiwi accent and has a New Zealand passport.

The great-grandfather of his mother, Joana Sang, emigrated from Canton to Auckland. Len Sang, Greg's father, had a more circuitous route here. Len's father emigrated from China for Fiji but come 1942, the family's concern about World War II and lack of schooling choice in the islands saw Len shipping to Auckland to stay with family and get a New Zealand education.

Greg's brother, Ant Sang, is a graphic artist who works on the television series bro'Town. The other brother, Richard, works in the technology sector in London. Award-winning Auckland architect Ron Sang is Len Sang's cousin. Ron is creating a dragon sculpture for the New Zealand Olympic team to sit within our village athletes' compound in Beijing.

In 1977, the Orient called the Sang family back. Len, an architect who spent many years at the Education Department, took them to Hong Kong after he got a public works job there. Greg has strong memories of the shift.

"I was 11 and it was a bit of a family adventure. I remember the heat of Hong Kong because it was summer when we arrived. I remember the excitement of staying in a hotel for the first six months while we were looking for accommodation."

Greg returned in 1984 and spent a few months at Auckland Grammar before enrolling in civil engineering at Auckland University.

But he finished in 1989, grim times for property professionals.

"I tried to work in New Zealand but the crash of '87 was still being felt."

So he worked for a short time as a building labourer and later at the then-Takapuna City Council on drains and water mains.

Len remembers worrying about Greg's career direction and encouraging him to shift to Hong Kong where he had connections and thought there were better opportunities.

So Greg moved to Hong Kong and worked for giant Japanese contractor Kumagai Gumi, for Britain's Maunsell Group and Ove Arup & Partners, eventually specialising in high-rise development. His masterpiece is Hong Kong Central's giant International Finance Centre, a HK$40 billion ($6.8 billion) 500,000sq m four-tower project which dominates the area's skyline.

The project, completed in the late 1990s, is Hong Kong's tallest office development and has a luxury shopping mall, cinemas and hotel.

"I was wrapping up the Hong Kong project when I got a call from Emaar Properties in Dubai about building the tallest building in the world. They asked if I could help because I had experience in tall buildings. So I came to have a look and after two or three months, I moved here," Sang said.

That was October 2004 and he has been working on the Burj ever since. He does not plan to return here but says life in Dubai is excruciatingly busy. Weekends are Fridays and Saturdays but international time differences mean Sang often finds himself working seven days a week, his BlackBerry phone constantly beeping.

"I find it difficult to imagine what I would do workwise if I returned to New Zealand, which is a great place to live but I like working, and I like working on big projects. I would not be able to work on projects of the same scale in New Zealand."

What he misses most is the pace of life here. Dubai is an intense and somewhat frantic city, its famously daredevil motorists forcing Sang to become a fanatically defensive driver.

One of his most loved places in the world is the wide expanse of Auckland's west coast beaches, one in particular.

"My favourite place is Piha, to be body-boarding there and eating some great hamburgers!"

In the meantime, it's Dubai for Sang and building the globe's biggest castle in the sand.

Age: 42
Position: Director, projects, Emaar Properties PJSC
Lives: Emirates Hills, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Schools: Meadowbank Primary, Remuera Intermediate, Auckland Grammar
Tertiary: University of Auckland
Qualification: Civil engineer
Family: Married to Julia
Children from first marriage: Zachary, 11, Erin and Jessica, both 9
By Anne Gibson
5:00 AM Saturday May 17, 2008

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