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Is for window washing
It takes a rare breed to hang out 70 storeys in the sky for a living besides a head for heights, you had better like peregrines
17 May 2009
The Toronto Star

When you step onto the roof of Scotia Plaza, the first thing that hits you are the bugs.

You're 70 storeys up. It's an entirely different ecosystem. For one thing, it's 7C cooler than it is at ground level. And this time of year, the place is swarming with aphids. Stand still for long, and you are gradually mummified in a thin layer of critters.

Still, it could be worse.

"Two weeks from now, it'll be the spiders. Lots of them. Big suckers," says Neal Dance, rounding his forefinger and thumb to indicate something about the size of a toonie.

Dance is talking while two of his employees stand nearby fiddling with their safety harnesses. They are getting ready to step off the edge onto a narrow platform suspended 285 metres above the ground and clean the windows.

The number of tall residential buildings in the GTA has increased almost 70 per cent in the past eight years, with roughly 1,300 apartment buildings four storeys or higher. Add in the office towers and unclassifiable structures like the AGO and that's a lot of windows that need professional cleaning.

The men and women who do the job aren't suicidal. They just look like that, tied to ropes all the way up above.

Dance, 48, a former washer himself, emblemizes this breed apart. He's a wandering soul whose greying dreadlocks hang down well below his waist. After a decade as a British paratrooper, he travelled the world. At 30, he ended up in Toronto. A random billboard ad got him thinking about window washing.

Dance started out on this very building, washing its windows at night. Eighteen years on, he is the president of Solar Group Inc., and Scotia Plaza gets cleaned by day.

Window-cleaning season stretches from May to November. Right now, Solar is ramping up. The company employs 60 washers to do 400 buildings in the city, including First Canadian Place and the CN Tower.

It isn't hard to find people. People generally find them - bike couriers, construction workers, even a group of parachutists at one point.

"There's a certain sort of thrill-seeker this job attracts," says Dance.

It takes two earthbound weeks to learn how to clean windows properly. There are three days of safety training. Then you're out on a platform or dangling from a bosun's chair - highrise cleaners tend to specialize in one or the other.

Some find that once they have to step out over the abyss, they can't do it. That happens to about one time in 10. Those few are reassigned to ground work.

The cleaners on the Scotia Plaza work on a platform 15 metres long that's hinged in the middle at a right angle to fit the crenulated design of the building. The platform is suspended from a large motor that resembles a locomotive. The motor chugs around the roof via a rail system, putting the platform in place to be lowered.

The tower was built with window cleaning in mind, like all the downtown behemoths. There are vertical channels in the walls in which the cleaners can 'plug' the platform, thereby defying the updraft.

Platform cleaners toil in pairs, working until the wind forces them off the building or they feel like quitting. They're paid for piecework - so many dollars for so much of the building cleaned. Generally, they aim to cover about 80 vertical feet of frontage in a day. For that, they'll earn about $200 each, according to Dance.

Cleaning this tower is a year-round operation. It takes six to 10 weeks to do the whole thing. On the first pass, washers clean the windows. On the second, they clean the reddish granite cladding.

Today, the team doing the windows is Phillip Watkinson, 29, and Trevor Pitts, 34. They've been at this job for three years.

Though it may strike you as a risky way to earn your bread, this job is all about eliminating risk.

"If you get caught doing any daredevilry, that's the last daredevilry you'll do," says Pitts.

"Yup, you're fired before you hit the ground," adds Watkinson.

The greatest danger is the wind. There are four distinct layers of wind - "like currents in the ocean" - as you move down the tower. And the winds can shift. Before they lower the platform, cleaners let a few drops of water fall. The turbulence of the water's descent tells them what they're dealing with.

Both Watkinson and Pitts cite tranquillity as their favourite part of the job. The only noise is the wind picking up now and again and the odd siren below.

"Oh, and then there are the peregrines," says Pitts, referring to a group of falcons.

"I came up the other morning, and one was just sitting over there," says Watkinson. "He was eating a duck."

The peregrines look pretty, but they're ornery. And unlike spiders, they're dangerous.

They don't weigh much - about a kilo - but anything that can swoop in at speeds up to 320 km/h is going to do some damage. A few years ago, one took a chunk out of a window washer's scalp as he worked.

"He thought his partner had slapped him in the back of the head," says Solar's operations manager, Don Hillier. "He needed stitches."

So. How do you avoid an irritated peregrine?

"The key is to stay close to the building," says Hillier.

"The key is to dump the water out of your bucket and put it on your head," offers Pitts.

A few minutes later, Watkinson and Pitts are poised on the side of the building, silently going about their business. Each has a foot-long brush with soft bristles lashed to one hand and a squeegee to the other.

From the ground, window cleaning looks like a slow process. Up close, it looks impossibly fast, a swirling attack honed by thousands of repetitions.

While they work, Dance continues to wax about the job up high. Mid-sentence, a breeze kicks up, blowing north into town.

"It's three o'clock, isn't it," Dance asks. It is, almost to the second.

"That's the city breathing. In the morning, it breathes out (toward the lake) and in the afternoon it breathes back in," Dance says.

Just another thing you can't learn at ground level.

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So you think your windows are hard to keep clean?
5 January 2010
The Age

WHAT is the trouble with building the world's tallest skyscraper? Someone's got to clean its 24,000 windows.

An Australian company has been charged with keeping polished the reflective glass of the Burj Dubai tower that rises almost a kilometre from the Arabian desert.

The rulers of Dubai last night attempted to convince the world that their financial troubles have been overstated with a lavish inauguration for the 818-metre "superscraper". It dwarfs both the world's previous tallest buildings, the 508-metre-tall tower 101 in Taipei, and the 629-metre KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota.

Among those celebrating were representatives from Melbourne-based company Cox Gomyl, which designed and built an $8 million window washing system, now fixed to the outside of the Burj Dubai.

The machinery, made in Airport West, will transport a team of cleaners, harnessed to metal cages, to all 160 storeys. Unmanned machines will clean its 27 additional tiers and a glass spire.

General manager Dale Harding said the company had also tendered to provide the 36 cleaners needed to battle against the hot desert sun, high winds and routine sand storms.

"It takes about three months to clean the entire building, so the machines will be operating in cycles the vast majority of the year," he said.

The machines cover about 40 storeys each and travel along tracks fixed to the facade. When not in use, they are hidden at various heights behind glass panels.

While the technology is cutting edge, the window washers — most likely migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent — will use the traditional "squeegee and soapy water".

"It's a challenging environment to work in, you're out on your own, the wind is howling by, the heat is bouncing off the glass and on the lower levels there is sand as well."

The cleaners will carry electrolyte packs and wear specialised clothing resembling moon suits, working only in shade.

Cox Gomyl is one of several Australian connections to the Burj Dubai. Melbourne and Sydney-based experts from Hyder Consulting reviewed and approved the tower's design on behalf of the Government of Dubai. The company also supervised construction.

"We are in fact responsible for the building," property director Jim Forbes said. "To be involved with the tallest building in the world was a real thrill."

Mr Forbes said Dubai's wind and frequent sand blasts presented a design challenge combated by changing the tower's shape as it ascends to "confuse the wind and resist any vibrations".

Setting aside fears that the emirate is on the brink of defaulting on its debt, Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, was last night expected to make a triumphal ascent of the $1 billion tower which has swimming pools on floors 43 and 76 and plans for the world's highest mosque on the 158th floor.

But with many investors in the building's 1044 apartments already facing losses after property prices in Dubai slumped, the Burj's owners are struggling to present their architectural achievement as anything but a pyrrhic victory. The offices and most of the flats are still an estimated two months from completion.

The fountain outside cost a reported $A238.5 million and the 160-room hotel was designed by fashion designer Giorgio Armani and boasts a nightclub, two restaurants and a spa.

Meanwhile labourers on the project, including many immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, earned low wages. Skilled carpenters took home just $A7.80 a day and labourers, $A5.10.

Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, the state-owned developer, said Burj Dubai was "another demonstration of Dubai's ability to achieve what few people thought possible".
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