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Obel Tower Raises Belfast’s Waterfront to Great Heights

Wed August 05, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Northern Ireland’s capitol city of Belfast will soon be home to the country’s tallest residential building. Designed to reach 265 ft. (80.7 m), the Obel Tower (a condensed blend of “old Belfast” and “obelisk”) will surpass the city’s current tallest skyscraper, Windsor House. Belfast’s soaring new tower will transform the face of the city’s waterfront and dominate its skyline.

Historical Belfast

Having occupied the same site on Ireland’s east coast since the Bronze Age, Belfast (meaning Mouth of the River Farset) was established as a town in the 17th century and quickly became the country’s preeminent commercial and industrial center. Belfast’s principal industries consisted of linen, tobacco, rope making and ship building. One prominent local ship builder, Harland and Wolff, constructed the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

Granted city status in 1888 and established as the capitol of Northern Ireland in 1921, Belfast is the largest urban area in the Province of Ulster and Ireland’s second largest city. Once torn apart by violence resulting from the sectarian conflict between its Roman Catholic and Protestant populations, Belfast benefited from an IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which returned peace to the formerly divided city.

The cessation of the disruptive and destructive “Troubles” brought more than just peace to the area. Regained stability spawned economic and commercial growth, which in turn led to unprecedented investment and large-scale redevelopment of the city center. Future developments in the works include the regeneration of two of the city’s seven quarters: the Titanic Quarter and the Cathedral Quarter – the historic heart of the city – as well as Queen’s Quay, Victoria Square and the Odyssey complex with its landmark Waterfront Hall.

Belfast remains the country’s industrial center as well as the economic engine of Ulster. With the fastest-growing economy among the 30 largest British cities, Belfast enjoyed the lowest unemployment figures and soaring property prices … until last year, when a recession impacted the housing market. According to the New York Times, “the Irish economy, pummeled by the most severe housing bust in Europe, has collapsed.” Now, unemployment is on the rise, bank shares have dropped as much as 90 percent and housing prices have fallen by 50 percent.

Building on the Future

Despite the economic gloom, with the most expensive per-square-foot average price in the city, all 182 apartments – ranging in price from approximately $147,600 (£90,000) for a one-bedroom unit to approximately $779,000 (£475,000) for a penthouse – were reserved within 48 hours. “The interest in Donegall Quay has been colossal,” Simon Brien, of real estate agent Eric Cairns Partnership, told the Times Online. “A decade ago nobody would have contemplated living near the river, but now they feel safer and there are more social amenities. Seventy percent of the flats went under offer on the first day.”

In fact, planning permission was granted in January 2008 for an additional two floors to be added in order to respond to demand for apartment space. The scheme originally included an eight-story, 144 bedroom hotel; however, due to the success of apartment sales, the developer cancelled plans for a hotel and added more apartments. The height of the tower was changed from 262 ft. (80 m) to 278 ft. (85 m) in order to create the additional floors.

The redesigned Obel Tower will rise 28 stories and feature 182 apartments and 41,000 sq. ft. (3,809 sq m) of commercial office suites, with retail and leisure on the ground floor and private underground parking, allowing people to live, work and play in the rejuvenated seaport city on Ireland’s east coast.

Work began in 2006 on the approximately $73.8 million (£45 million) tower, located on Donegall Quay beside the Lagan Weir. Donegall Quay occupies less than an acre, but exemplifies the accomplishments of the riverside development. In a bold move when other contractors chose the city center for low-rise buildings without glass, the Laganside Corporation, developers of the unique glass high-rise, opted for the waterfront location to symbolize the area’s regeneration.

Set up by the government in 1989, the Laganside Corporation’s purpose is to manage the regeneration of 346 acres (140 ha) of inner city space on both banks of the River Lagan through the center of Belfast. More than $1.3 billion (£800 million) has been invested in housing, jobs, business and cleaning up the river.

Symbolizing the new beginning for the once-bustling but recently ignored quay, the Obel Tower stands as a statement of confidence in the future, believes Doug Garrett, deputy chief executive of the Laganside Corp. “The first flats in Laganside were built in 1994. We struggled to sell a two-bed penthouse for £30,000. Today the same flat is £200,000.”

Like other European cities, Belfast wants to make a strong statement with an iconic building. According to Professor Alastair Adair, head of the University of Ulster’s School of the Built Environment, the Obel Tower would be a “very distinctive statement,” noting that it’s the first time a major high-rise had been built for residential use.

Time will tell whether the Obel Tower makes an appropriate statement. Adair considers it a risk that could be out of fashion in 10 years, despite varied architectural styles found throughout the city, such as the Edwardian City Hall and the modern Waterfront Hall.

Despite what some consider a gamble, whether due to its height, its design or its location away from the city center, Gayle Boyce, a director of Karl Properties, one of the consortium of developers forming Donegall Quay, told the Times Online that, “it had to be different” and that “we wanted a tower. It stands for the future.”

Upward Bound

Along with Karl Properties, MAR Properties and Greenfarm Developments formed the development company Donegall Quay Ltd. that won the job in 2002. Later, Karl Properties bought out its partners.

Lagan Group served as the main contractor, with O’Hare & McGovern acting as the general contractor. Eamon O’Hare, managing director, explained that his company was invited to negotiate for the contract by the design team, who was familiar with their work on other projects.

O’Hare & McGovern Ltd., the construction division of Newry-based Carnbane House Group, was founded in 1972 as a small contracting firm. Now one of Ireland’s leading construction companies with more than 30 years experience in landmark infrastructure projects, it is part of a multi-faceted organization with an extensive portfolio covering a wide range of engineering and construction projects.

The first phase involved an approximately $12.3 million (£7.5 million) contract for a piled foundation and two-story basement. Work on the basement level and associated infrastructure began in January 2006 and was completed by Charles Brand, a division of the Lagan Group, the following spring.

Basement construction included a steel sheet piled retaining wall and CFA concrete piled foundations, installed by FK Lowry Piling in preparation for the concrete pour – Lagan Construction’s largest ever. Concrete for the continuous pour of 1,897 cu. yd. (1,450 cu m) was supplied by three Roadmix batching plants using 16 concrete trucks on turn around, providing a continuous supply of 182 loads between 4:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. A total of 1,763 tons (1,600 t) of aggregate, 1,212 tons (1,100 t) of sand, 641 tons (582 t) of cement and 65,387 gal. (247,520 L) of water were used during the 14-hour pour. Once cast, the concrete slab covered an area of 1,246 cu. yd. (953 cu m).

By the end of the 14-month basement construction, the site saw 39,239 cu. yd. (30,000 cu m) of material excavated to allow 1,083 linear ft. (330 linear m) of sheet piles, with each pile driven approximately 59 ft. (18 m) into the ground.

After that phase was completed, the site sat vacant for most of the year while waiting for approval of the amended plan.

Towering Site

Although construction was halted in 2007, work recommenced in 2008. Once final plans were approved, the smaller of two cranes was moved into place. According to O’Hare, the original contract included the use of three tower cranes, but, “unfortunately, due to site restrictions, i.e., ground conditions, neighboring buildings, over-sailing railway lines, etc., we had to settle on just two,” in addition to some mobile cranes to fill additional lifting requirements.

As Boyce commented, “This is a technically challenging project when you consider the confined city center site, only meters from the River Lagan and near the River Farset, which runs under High Street.” However, O’Hare blamed the basement contractor, who “did not give consideration to how the superstructure was to be constructed and therefore had not prepared the base to take such a large freestanding crane.” The crane is freestanding, he explains, because “any tiebacks to the building would seriously affect progress on the installation of the curtain walling [performed by McMullen Architectural Systems, Moira, Ireland]. We therefore had to prefabricate a metal structure, six meters high, which is actually concreted into the basement structure. This was undertaken in conjunction with the structural engineer [Ove Arup & Partners]. This metal structure will be burnt out and removed once the crane has been dismantled.”

The 157 ft. (48-m) Raimondi M123 crane was in place by June. A month later, a specially designed tower crane was erected. It will remain in place until April 2010. After a little research, O’Hare’s “usual crane supplier,” Falcon Cranes in England, supplied a 347 ft. (106-m) Jaso J125N crane manufactured in Spain. The crane was transported to the site via regular ferry and 16 flat back trucks. The main road adjacent to the site had to be reduced in width during transportation. It was erected by a 350-ton (318 t) mobile crane over four days.

It’s the tallest crane ever to be erected in Belfast. “It’s the tallest building in Belfast, so it’s going to have to be the tallest crane,” Aran Blackbourne, director of Karl Properties Ltd., told the Belfast Telegraph. “You can see it from everywhere.” It’s as tall as Samson, the taller of two Harland & Wolff shipyard cranes, a familiar part of the city’s skyline.

Because they are “one crane down, so to speak,” the main tall crane is in constant demand, O’Hare explained. “Hook time programming is essential. The demand on the crane is more than expected and we have to work extra hours to enable the crane to service all parties.”

In addition to a specifically trained crane coordinator for programming of crane operations and banksmen/slingers, three crane drivers operate the two tower cranes. No special crane driving training was required, O’Hare added, “just good eye sight.” Although there are times the operators have to climb to their lofty perch, the crane is equipped with remote control and can be operated from ground level.

During the project, the crane will be lifting shutters, steel reinforcing, concrete block, plant, glass panels, plasterboard, studding, etc. Many of these products are loaded onto extendable loading platforms at high level, which protrude beyond the building line.


Despite a slight delay due to bad weather, work on the 24-month contract remains largely on schedule, with work expected to be finished by summer 2010. O’Hare indicates that they use an anonometer to record wind speeds to alert them to conditions that prohibit use of the crane. “We record this daily to analyze the effects of weather on production. To date, this has been minimal.”

Crediting enough lead time to allow for adequate planning, O’Hare said that after an initial learning curve, “things are progressing well and we are in a continuous cycle which is solely dependent on the crane. The crane has preformed reasonably well.”

Initially, O’Hare said, the project attracted a lot of media and public attention, but now, it just seems “to be part of the skyline and people react as if it has been in position forever.” He believes that the record-breaking high-rise will always be one of the iconic buildings of Belfast, changing its skyline forever. “O’Hare & McGovern are proud to be associated with this project. It’s great, as a company, to be associated with the start of such a step forward.” He hopes it encourages other cities to follow Belfast’s upward direction. CQ

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