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Inside a Skyscraper Test Lab

Video narrated by Fred Mills. This video and article contain paid promotion for Brilliant.

Think of an advanced wind tunnel testing facility and you’ll probably imagine things that move very fast, like aeroplanes or Formula One cars. But they’re also critical to the design of some of the world's biggest and most impressive buildings — skyscrapers.

Yes, all of the world’s tallest buildings were conceived using wind tunnels. They’re essential to predicting the effect of wind loads, proving complex architectural ideas are actually doable and ensuring people aren’t swept off their feet.

RWDI, a global leader in this particular field, invited The B1M to their world-leading test site and model workshop for an exclusive visit.

Their wind engineering teams helped build the Burj Khalifa, the Petronas Towers, Shanghai Tower and many more. How does it all work, though? Time for a tour of this state-of-the-art building, which promises to be a blast.

Above: The B1M's Fred Mills in front of a wind tunnel for testing skyscrapers.

If you were planning a new supertall skyscraper, where would you start? Obviously, there’s a great deal to think about. You’ll need a lot of material, a huge pile of money and plenty of talented people to design and build it. There’s also the location — a bustling city like Dubai, Kuala Lumpur or Shanghai would be a wise choice.

Then you’ve got another critical factor that has to be considered, which becomes more important the higher you go — how the building behaves in high winds.

It can be a difficult thing to calculate, requiring state-of-the-art technology, like the kind at RWDI’s advanced wind tunnel test facility in Milton Keynes.

Teams here create models of buildings and put them on a turntable at the end of a wind tunnel. Wind is then blasted onto them at varying degrees of speed and pressure onto the model.

Sensors inside the model pick up and collect data on how the shape of the building, and the form of the building, is responding to the wind. They then feed it back into the design team so they can shape and make decisions about what a building should look like.

Almost every tall building you look at — almost every skyscraper in the world — would have been through a process like this to make sure it works before it gets constructed for real.

Safety first

Why is this process so essential when designing a modern skyscraper? Because if you don’t put much thought into wind loading and aerodynamics, it could cause major issues during construction, and you’ll miss out on some big benefits.

“Safety is definitely a crucial aspect, the second main aspect is carbon footprint and cost,” Fabio Faseli, associate wind consultant at RWDI, said.

“So potentially, using wind tunnel tests, you can optimise the design and potentially save around 25 to 30% of the embodied carbon when looking at the facade and the structures.”

Above: A graphical overview of RWDI's wind tunnel, for illustrative purposes only.

How powerful is this wind tunnel, though? 

“Obviously, in a wind tunnel we cannot get the same speed as you have in the real world. So it's about scaling,” Faseli said. “This one can reach 16m/s. In reality you are going to have a higher wind speed, so we need to scale up everything.”

Now, before we go any further, we should point out that using wind tunnels on buildings is not a new phenomenon. Researchers have been doing wind experiments on replicas of skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, since the 1930s.

And wind tunnels have been contributing to the actual design of tall buildings since the original World Trade Center was conceived in the ‘60s.

As skyscrapers have gotten not just taller but more architecturally ambitious, ensuring they can withstand high winds before they break ground has become serious business.

Using these tunnels and models, architects, developers and other companies can really understand — and even visualise — how the wind will affect their building.

Creating a microclimate

But it’s not just about what wind does to a single building; you’ve got to look at the bigger picture as well. Because planners also have to examine what would happen to the surrounding environment when a structure is built.

To give one example, the wind effects caused by London’s new skyscrapers have become a big talking point in recent years. And it’s also generated a lot of work for RWDI.

“We're wanting to consider not only if the wind environment is going to be safe for a person walking around the building, or indeed users of the building on higher levels, but also if it's going to be comfortable and just a nice place to be around,” Jeniffer Lowther, RWDI’s technical development lead, explained.

“When we're testing a building, we obviously test it without anything just to see what already exists, but then we also test it with the proposed development, with all of these buildings in situ. And then we'll also test it with future buildings — so, future buildings that are consented just so that we can see what those future scenarios are going to look like as well.”

Above: RWDI's Jeniffer Lowther explains the importance of wind engineering to a wider city environment.

So, now we know what those wind machines are capable of, and what they’re used for, but what about the actual models? Where do they come from?

That would be another part of this same building – the model shop. Here, experts can spend months making detailed replicas of all kinds of structures — and not just skyscrapers. They’re made from a combination of timber, plastics, resin and other materials, and some are 3D printed.

“We work on projects all over the world. We've worked on projects in Dubai, in China, in New York and the City of London. So there is everything from the small to the large and everything in between,” Harry Dooley, UK modelshop leader at RWDI, revealed.

“At the moment we’re probably working on ten-ish live projects. We’re working on things all the time. Everyone’s always busy, and as things are going out we’ve got projects coming in, right? So as the world develops so does our work, so to speak.”

Unsung heroes

When you think about skyscrapers you think about the architecture, the construction process, the cranes, the steel, the core traditional engineering.

But these unsung heroes are making sure that so many different types of building around the world are actually viable — they can actually stand up — they're making our skyscrapers possible.

It goes to show, once again, the power of this industry, the incredible array of jobs there are in this industry and the amazing people that put so much into making our built environment happen.

This video and article contains paid promotion for Brilliant. To try everything Brilliant has to offer for free for a full 30 days, visit or click on the link in the description. You’ll also get 20% off an annual premium subscription.

Additional footage and images courtesy of Orbital Stack/RWDI, FIA, Mongrel Media, Mylo Kaye and QinetiQ.

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