Zhang Yue, founder and chairman of Broad Sustainable Building, is not a particularly humble man. A humble man would not have erected, on his firm’s corporate campus in the Chinese province of Hunan, a classical palace and a 130-foot replica of an Egyptian pyramid. A humble man, for that matter, would not have redirected Broad from its core business—manufacturing industrial air-conditioning units—to invent a new method of building skyscrapers. And a humble man certainly wouldn’t be putting up those skyscrapers at a pace never achieved in history.
In late 2011, Broad built a 30-story building in 15 days; now it intends to use similar methods to erect the world’s tallest building in just seven months. Perhaps you’re already familiar with Zhang’s handiwork: On New Year’s Day 2012, Broad released a time-lapse video of its 30-story achievement that quickly went viral: construction workers buzzing around like gnats while a clock in the corner of the screen marks the time. In just 360 hours, a 328-foot-tall tower called the T30 rises from an empty site to overlook Hunan’s Xiang River. At the end of the video, the camera spirals around the building overhead as the Broad logo appears on the screen: a lowercase b that wraps around itself in an imitation of the @ symbol.
In person, Zhang himself seems to move at an impossible time-lapse clip. He’s almost always surrounded by Broad employees, all wearing identical white button-front shirts (the uniform for the corporate office) and all offering papers for him to review or sign. When I arrive, he’s issuing a steady barrage of instructions while spinning himself around in his office chair. When he’s finally ready to start the interview, he abruptly stops spinning and, without looking at me, barks out, “Begin!”
The pace of Broad Sustainable Building’s development is driven entirely by this one man. Broad Town, the sprawling headquarters, is completely Zhang’s creation. Employees call him not “the chairman” or “our chairman” but “my chairman.” To become an employee of Broad, you must recite a life manual penned by Zhang, guidelines that include tips on saving energy, brushing your teeth, and having children. All prospective employees must be able, over a two-day period, to run 7.5 miles. You can eat for free at Broad Town cafeterias unless someone catches you wasting food, at which point you’re not merely fined but publicly shamed.
So far, Broad has built 16 structures in China, plus another in Cancun. They are fabricated in sections at two factories in Hunan, roughly an hour’s drive from Broad Town. From there the modules—complete with preinstalled ducts and plumbing for electricity, water, and other infrastructure—are shipped to the site and assembled like Legos. The company is in the process of franchising this technology to partners in India, Brazil, and Russia. What it’s selling is the world’s first standardized skyscraper, and with it, Zhang aims to turn Broad into the McDonald’s of the sustainable building industry.
“Traditional construction is chaotic,” he says. “We took construction and moved it into the factory.” According to Zhang, his buildings will help solve the many problems of the construction industry. They will be safer, quicker, and cheaper to build. And they will have low energy consumption and CO2emissions. When I ask Zhang why he decided to start a construction company, he corrects me. “It’s not a construction company,” he says. “It’s a structural revolution.”
Compared with the West’s elegant modular buildings, Zhang’s skyscrapers are aesthetically underwhelming, to say the least. On a tour of the T30, my guide gestures at a scale model and says, “It’s not very good-looking, is it?” To create a sufficiently spacious lobby for the hotel, an awkward pyramid-shaped structure had to be attached to the base. Inside, the hallways are uncomfortably narrow; climbing the central stairway feels like clanging up the stairs of a stadium bleacher.
It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of apartment buildings going up in China are equally ugly. Broad’s biggest selling point, amazingly enough, is in the quality. In a nation where construction standards vary widely, and where builders often use cheap and unreliable concrete, Broad’s method offers a rare sort of consistency. Its materials are uniform and dependable. There’s little opportunity for the construction workers to cut corners, since doing so would leave stray pieces, like when you bungle your Ikea desk. And with Broad’s approach, consistency can be had on the cheap: The T30 cost just $1,000 per square meter to build, compared with around $1,400 for traditional commercial high-rise construction in China.
The building process is also safer. Jiang tells me that during the construction of the first 20 Broad buildings, “not even one fingernail was hurt.” Elevator systems—the base, rails, and machine room—can be installed at the factory, eliminating the risk of a technician falling down a 30-story elevator shaft. And instead of shipping an elevator car to the site in pieces, Broad orders a finished car and drops it into the shaft by crane. In the future, elevator manufacturers are hoping to preinstall the doors, completely eliminating any chance that a worker might fall.
While Jiang focuses on bringing Broad buildings to the world, her boss is fixated on the company’s most outlandish plan—the J220, a factory-built 220-floor behemoth that would just happen to be the tallest building in the world. It’s hard to say for sure that the 16-million-square-foot plan isn’t entirely a publicity stunt. But Zhang has hired some of the engineers who worked on the current height-record holder, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and Broad has created two large models of “Sky City” (as the J220 has been nicknamed). The foundation is scheduled to be laid in November at a site in Hunan; if everything goes well, the building will be complete in March 2013. All in all, including factory time and onsite time, construction is expected to take just seven months. Again, that’s assuming it really happens: When my guide at the T30 plugs in one of the models and the lights flicker on, he tells me, “My chairman says we have to attract eyes. We have to shock the world.”
But if all Broad ever does is build 30-story skyscrapers—in 15 days, at $1,000 per square foot, with little waste and low worker risk, and where the end result can withstand a 9.0 quake—it will have shocked the world quite enough.