measure the Burj Khalifa

When it comes to the tallest buildings, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is the tallest of them all. It is over four-fifths of a kilometre high, topping off at 830 metres. Work started on the building in 2004 and it was officially opened in 2010. As a record holder, its list of achievements is impressive. These include: tallest free-standing structure, highest number of storeys, highest observation deck, highest restaurant and longest lift travel distance. The weight of concrete in the building is equivalent to 100,000 elephants; the metal used would construct five Airbus A380 aircraft and there are over 20,000 glass panels. It’s hard to truly appreciate how colossal this thing is – here’s an activity to help you understand its size. You’re going to walk out the height of the building in a straight line! It’s going to be quite a walk, so you will need to use a large open field without hedges or fences or possibly a long stretch of sand at the seaside when the tide is out. Remember, you will need to walk almost a kilometre from start to finish. Tie those shoelaces up and let’s go!


An adult helper

A trundle wheel or tape measure

A large, empty space

Large balls of string


Marker sticks

Flags or cones


Discuss the best way to measure 830 metres. You could use a tape measure. Some are 50 m long. Maybe you could use your own special 8.30 m tape 100 times. You might prefer to walk the height using a trundle wheel, which will click every time you have covered a metre. If you want, you can mark out the line with string but remember you will need plenty of it. Use beanbags to weigh the string down and keep it from blowing away. If you don’t have enough string, use flags, beanbags or cones to mark the distance at regular intervals, as in STEP 2.

TIP : Can’t find a big enough space for the whole Burj Khalifa? Try measuring half the distance instead, then simply divide the buildings in STEP 4 by two to retain a sense of scale.

Phancy Physicist, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons TRUNDLE WHEEL MEASURE
Trundle Wheel – how a surveyor's wheel works


To make the counting easier, stop at every 100 metres, mark the spot with a pole, flag or cone, and then start counting again. If friends can stand along the route, that’ll help too.


As you walk the entire distance, imagine you are moving up the outside of the building. When you get up to the ‘top’ look back to see where your markers are positioned. Do those at the ‘bottom’ of the building look small in the distance? Can you even see them?


Here’s a list of some other of the tallest buildings, rounded to the nearest ten metres. Mark these on your Burj Khalifa line so that you can make some useful comparisons.

World Giant Buildings:

Warsaw Radio Mast 650 m

CN Tower (Toronto) 550 m

Petronas Tower (Kuala Lumpur) 450 m

Empire State Building (New York) 380 m

Eiffel Tower (Paris) 330 m

Great Pyramid (Giza) 140 m

Britain’s Tall Towers:

The Shard (London) 310 m

Deansgate Square South Tower (Manchester) 201 m

BT Tower (Birmingham) 193 m

Spire of Salisbury Cathedral 120 m

St. Paul’s Cathedral (London) 110 m

Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben, London) 100 m



Graph paper

Pencils and felt-tip pens


Mathematically, an activity of this kind lends itself to scale drawing so comparisons can be made easily diagrammatically. Use a straight-line graph, sometimes known as a stick graph, with lines stretching up on squared paper to illustrate your results. You may have good ideas for what scale to use, but one showing 1 cm to every 50 m (1 cm: 5000 cm) fits comfortably on an A4 piece of centimetre squared paper. 

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Written by John Davis