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The future of UAE architecture

The Future of UAE Architecture

September 2016

There is no doubt, the regional architecture industry has developed tremendously over the past decade. We wanted to know what the greatest achievements of the industry are to date and how past lessons shape the future development of architecture in the UAE.

There are not many places on earth which have experienced such rapid real estate growth as the UAE.

From sweeping sand surfaces to skyrocketing architecture, in as little as 25 years, the UAE has gone from nothing to all.

But what happens now? The ‘golden years’ of the mid-2000s boom time are over, with the property market currently experiencing a slowdown. But the market has matured, with more regulations in place that ensure more sustainable market growth and make the UAE property market more secure and attractive to investors.

We’re at a turning point not only in terms of market maturity, but also in terms of architectural design. Recently, developers have come to realise that in order to be able to build product for the future, the focus needs to lie on creating sustainable communities rather than erecting iconic towers. This, among other things, means turning ‘spaces’ into ‘places’ that offer people a sense of belonging and identity.

So what will the future hold for architecture in the region and what are the things that are going to influence the industry’s direction?

Cityscape Architecture asked a number of practices in Dubai to find out how the ones at the core of the industry are perceiving the current and future development of the industry.

Looking back, what would you say are the greatest achievements the UAE architecture industry has made over the past 15 years?

Pedram Rad, Managing Director, U+A Architects: “I believe the industry has evolved tremendously in the past 5 years alone! Of course the construction boom of the previous decade has shaped Dubai as we know it today, but in fact it was rather an achievement of quantity than revolutionary. In the past 10 to 5 years however, Dubai has stepped out of its comfort zone and embraced new design tendencies establishing itself within the global arena of architectural design. We note projects such as City Walk, Box Park and The Beach with which Meraas valiantly seized the opportunity to steer attitudes towards a completely new and fresher direction. Now we see most large developers taking similar risks granting most projects individuality within a more controlled and discerning outlook.”

Jamil Jadallah, Managing Director, NEB: “UAE Architecture has evolved and developed tremendously in a short space of time. The buildings from 10-15 years ago are starkly different from those built more recently; today’s buildings consider the end user while the needs and requirements of the tenants are considered to ensure a sustainable and adaptable building. Another aspect is new technology; allowing space for the evolution of technology is a huge achievement that the most recently executed projects have included.”

Ammar Al Assam, CEO, Dewan: “The greatest achievement of the industry is definitely better thought into architecture’s basic form and function equilibrium with developers and architects less focused on the ‘wow iconic dazzle’ and more focused on sustainable, efficient, feasible, buildable, and manageable buildings that serve their end users well.”

Joe Tabet, Managing Director, JT+Partners: “In retrospect there have been a number of noteworthy changes in the UAE’s architectural landscape, evolving from burgeoning emirates to an iconic destination. The beauty of the country is its ability to continually innovate and push boundaries, as we’ve seen some of the most unique and luxurious projects come to fruition. I believe that our greatest accomplishment as an industry to date is the successful interweaving of urban fabric between world-class projects and facilities with state-of-the-art communities and social developments, creating a better quality of life for all visitors and residents.”

Christian Reynolds, Vice President, Design, KEO International Consultants: “The architecture industry worldwide is in an era of constant change and challenge. Technological changes, globalisation, consolidation all create an ever-changing landscape. When things are moving as fast as they are around the world, the greatest achievement is to stay abreast of developments and remain successful. The UAE architecture industry has shown an ability to adapt and improve, which is critical in today’s environment. More so than ever before, it is possible to source international standard design services from right here in the region, without relying on specialists from overseas. That is a major accomplishment of the industry.”

Stephan Frantzen, Group Director, P&T: “The UAE has attracted the best architects from all over the world given challenges and opportunities offered by the visionary UAE leadership and developers. This has spurred many international architects and engineers to establish office in the UAE and this has helped developing the local architectural and engineering capabilities, and – not to forget – the ability of local contractors and manufacturers. The conclusion is that the entire building industry has been pushed forward and developed in record time and today we have shown the world that we are locally able to do anything.”

Ralf Steinhauer, Director, RSP: “The greatest achievement is the international recognition as a place for innovation, sustainability and design. People from all over the world come to the UAE now to see what the latest trends and technologies in the industry are.”

What future trends do you think will influence the architecture industry in the UAE?

Christian Reynolds: “The important trend I see in the UAE is not a new one, but one which will increase in influence in the future. That is the deepening commitment to sustainability, which we see not only from consultants but from clients. Over time, what was considered ‘cutting edge’ has become mainstream, and now we are looking at sustainable technologies that we couldn’t have dreamed of not long ago. The UAE market is sophisticated enough to know that sustainable buildings will have higher selling prices, and higher rents than non-sustainable buildings. This drives an increasing devotion to sustainable strategies, and the value they create, by all parties.”

Jamil Jadallah: “Sustainability seems to be the buzz word of the moment, but I think it will be the main influence on architecture. Considering sustainability in terms of operational costs will be a key factor in ensuring the continued growth of Dubai. If we can design and produce projects that consider sustainability features, we are beginning to construct a city that is more self-reliant and more independent, so that when there is no more oil, we are able to adapt and evolve.”

Ammar Al Assam: “Sustainability is definitely right up there as green materials/equipment become more financially affordable and available. Deeper thought into the operational cost of a building and its negative impact on the environment is rightfully changing from a ‘fad’ to a ‘need/must.’”

Joe Tabet: “Innovation is now at the forefront of architecture, driving anything from design to unique construction methods, material selection and processes. Projects supported by adequate market research, technology and novelty ‘wow’ factors will stand apart from the rest, with sustainability and green building solutions remaining a key theme for the future. The important thing is to separate fads from trends, merging great design with practical application, while maintaining a continual focus on consumer needs at all times. This alone has given rise to a number of concepts including the creation of flexible spaces, smart homes, and health conscious design among others.”

Ralf Steinhauer: “There will be a balance soon whereas refurbishments will equal new built projects. The majority of the buildings has been built in the past 15 years and major re-planning, re-use and refurbishment projects will happen. The industry has to adapt accordingly. Another trend will be super high-performance buildings, which will consume less and less energy/water and even produce surplus energy through smart facades, etc.”

Stephan Frantzen: “The UAE has so far seen a lot of copying from other metropolises and countries, but we have also seen extraordinary and unique buildings being built. With the strengthening of the architectural abilities among local architects in UAE and their self believe there will be less copying and more original and unique designs. I think Dubai is already a source of inspiration to many architects around the world and many come to visit Dubai to see the developments. The speed with which the UAE has developed and matured is absolutely phenomenal, and I dare say not happening anywhere in the world.”

How are new technologies and construction methods going change the profession of architecture?

Pedram Rad: “New technologies are fundamental to the evolution of design and construction methods. Today we see a surge of new applications which enable already powerful technologies, such as Revit and 3D printing to reach more interesting applications, such as virtual reality, providing new experiences for our clients.”

Jamil Jadallah: “3D printing could potentially save immense costs when it comes to construction projects, through shorter project times and fewer wasted resources. The potential benefits of this new technology are huge. With respect to design and architecture, we are seeing more creative minds going beyond what we can imagine with the help of this technology.”

Stephan Frantzen: “3D printing is yet another tool in architects’ arsenal to explore and explain ideas fast, obviously especially when creating free forms where the traditional card board models fall short. I believe that modular structures and pods are going to appear more and more, and with that faster construction methods as seen in China, where there are examples of buildings erected in a few weeks or months.”

Christian Reynolds: “I believe that 3D printing of building components is some way off still. But the technology that is changing the profession the most in the region is the adoption of BIM as a documentation and delivery tool. Firms in the region are behind Europe and the USA in adopting BIM, but momentum has really increased within the last 2 – 3 years. BIM is an amazing tool with so many benefits for consultants, which then translate to benefits for clients and contractors. Design firms are using BIM widely now, and as it is embraced more by contractors and facility managers, it will show benefits throughout the life cycle of a project.”

Ralf Steinhauer: “Before 3D printing will change how we construct buildings, we should take full advantage of BIM in the region. Currently it is an add-on, and even though it has been made mandatory by the authorities, not every client/contractor sees the benefit of the tool.”

Joe Tabet: “BIM systems have been around since the 1970’s, but are only now gaining popularity in our industry, thanks to new releases and versions of software applications, that help streamline and expedite the design process. Separately 3D printing has opened up a whole new world of production possibilities, from complete stand-alone structures such as the first ever temporary office of the Dubai Future Foundation, to unique and intricate decorative panels that can be used to accentuate any home, office or hotel lobby.”

Are we to see more skyscrapers in the UAE skyline in the future or will there be an increasing emphasis on more sophisticated projects (such as sustainable and walkable communities for example)?

Pedram Rad: “The two are not necessarily dissociated. A building can be both a ‘signature’ skyscraper and sophisticated. Vertical communities, for example, have been proposed with utopian convictions for centuries. Le Corbusier had explored new standards of vertical societies in his ‘Esprit Nouveau,’ introducing a variety of means of transportation, community facilities within the multi-leveled skyscrapers, but his vision stayed within text books, viewed by many as cold and stringent unfriendly blocks. More recently we remember Dubai City Tower, a 400 storey, 2.4 km high tower, a dense sky-city all of which failed the needs of the times. Likewise today we must listen to the communities’ desires and provide environments which nurture these for all its inhabitants. Singapore’s Interlace project by OMA puts in practice the utopian principles.”

Jamil Jadallah: “In the future I see a continued growth in both. Look at the most recent Emaar announcement for a new skyscraper in Dubai and the new development of the Dubai Creek area. Skyscrapers and Dubai have become undeniably linked. When people envision Dubai, they picture skyscrapers and iconic buildings and a forward thinking fast pace city. I also see a huge rise in walkable communities in Dubai’s future. As new technologies progress and advancements in cooling systems continue, walkable communities will become a key feature of Dubai. If the highly anticipated and ambitious Mall of the World project comes to fruition, this will be the doorway and movement to many other areas of Dubai offering walkable communities on a smaller and more intimate scale.”

Ammar Al Assam: “I think the future will continue to have high-rise signature towers because there is a need for this in terms of marketing the city and outing it on the global map, but the focus will be on sustainable (both commercial and technical sustainability) projects that ‘listen’ better to what the consumer wants. We now also see a big focus on entertainment projects as the country tries to grab that market share which is indeed lacking and will be a great complement to the UAE’s tourism drive.”

Joe Tabet: “Given the scale of ambition and the drive towards Expo 2020, there are bound to be several new additions of varied nature in due course. However if recent years are any indicator, we will continue to see greater emphasis on holistic masterplans and government led projects, with new launches and initiatives from landlords and private developers sprouting up. Either way, every aspect is just as important as the other, in building and maintaining a robust community framework, which will ultimately be guided by the government, respective authorities, decision-makers and market dynamics. Simply put, the nation’s skyline is proof and reflection of the city’s vibrancy and energy, like a heartbeat in pace with its footsteps.”

Stephan Frantzen: “In general I think UAE cities will continue to be increasingly diversified: skyscrapers, possibly with skygardens and more emphasis on the space at street level, sustainable buildings in developments that are walkable where developers and architects realise that people can actually be outside if given shade and a fan. I also think we will see more good quality affordable buildings where the young professionals and middle income people can afford living.”

Ralf Steinhauer: “There is always room for both. Dubai is known for its signature projects and has come a long was when it comes to walkable communities. The next step forward would be to integrate these communities and create corridors that link the entire city.”

Christian Reynolds: “Great projects can come in all sizes and shapes, with different core goals. While there may be a limited capacity for super-tall buildings in a given market, there is no limit to the number of smart and creative projects that can be developed. As designers, we mainly want to see good design, and projects that improve the built environment in terms of experience, function and aesthetics. From this point of view, the UAE is a great place to work, and will only get better over time.”

Dubai is famous for its theme “bigger & better” – do you think the emirate can sustain itself in this fashion or is there a need for an alternative building model?

Joe Tabet: “Bigger & better only refers to Dubai’s ability to raise the bar and challenge itself to achieve greater heights, sustained by market demand. However this does not imply that the government does not take precautionary measures by diversifying its portfolio and interests, as we have observed in the property market with the introduction of affordable housing projects. Initially the trend leaned towards the rapid development of high-rise towers, residential and commercial clusters, gradually adding villas, townhouses and gated communities to the product mix.”

Ammar Al Assam: “Bigger & better will continue as landmark signature projects are announced to ‘anchor’ new green field developments such as Dubai Creek Harbour and Dubai Design District. My belief is that Dubai needs to focus on ‘right pricing’ the city in terms of housing, tourism, hospitality, and general liveability. No city can only be a city for the rich and I believe Dubai is on the right track to becoming a world-class diversified and inclusive city that everyone can enjoy.”

Stephan Frantzen: “I think a motto like ‘bigger & better’ is great, encapsulating ambition and importantly improvement, so I suggest that Dubai keep living up to that model. In ‘better’ I mean less glorious type projects but establishing shaded walkways between buildings, develop spaces along Sheikh Zayed Road to be more walkable and pleasant for pedestrians. There are huge opportunities everywhere: shaded walkways around the Downtown lake, along the Marina canal, City Walk and most other large developments. These efforts will be welcomed and make Dubai a much more liveable city, and almost necessary before we can start calling Dubai a smart city. In other words: we need to ‘tidy’ up and fill gaps and not just leap forward into new ventures. A balance is needed and to achieve this balance is very challenging, but this is the strength of Dubai – coping with challenges – so I am very hopeful and pushing as much as I can to develop our city.”

Ralf Steinhauer: “As long as there is a financial viability for ‘bigger’ then there will be a case for these projects. The ‘better’ part should be our first responsibility as architects.”

Jamil Jadallah: “The theme of ‘bigger & better’ is not sustainable, but striving to be the best and a world leader in tourism, business and economy is achievable. Dubai is now at a point where it needs to consider its future, which is why real investment in sustainability and advancing technology is essential to Dubai’s future. The leaders of Dubai recognised long ago, that in order to grow and be the best, we must attract the best. We want innovative talent, creative and ambitious individuals in the world of design, architecture, structural engineering, sustainability and technologies to drive home our vision for this city and make it the number one tourist destination in the world.”

Pedram Rad: “Without a doubt, Dubai was able to learn from passed mistakes, which has led to an already more sustainable momentum. Like in all great cities, expansion is needed for the growing population, and Dubai is no exception to this reality. The question is how fast. We will see a more rapid pace running towards Expo 2020, but predictively we should anticipate a slow down soon after. However one reassurance is that Dubai has matured with its population and has become resilient by undressing the urban needs and demands from its inhabitants, which is what makes this city so exciting.”

Looking at how the UAE has overcome hurdles in the past and turned ambitions into reality, it is well positioned to successfully tackle the future challenges its growing urban environments bring and develop into a place that offers people a real sense of community and belonging.

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