Growing up

Atkins | 05 Dec 2008 | Comments

The Burj Al Arab, designed and planned by Atkins in the early 1990s, sparked a trend that reshaped skylines across the Middle East. But, today, the trend towards ever-taller towers and overt displays of wealth is slowly being replaced, as the region wakes up to the need for a more sustainable future.

When Atkins first began working in the Middle East 30 years ago, it was a land of pure opportunity, bolstered by growing oil revenues, the creation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and an influx of workers. The combination of wealth, political stability and a growing population created unprecedented demand for development.

It also sparked a desire to stand out from the crowd, allowing for innovative thinking on a remarkable scale, and in a relatively untouched environment. As Tom Wright, Atkins’ chief architect on Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab, points out, “when we first started working on the hotel in 1994, there was almost nothing around it. As far as we knew at the time, there was going to be this one project and that would be it.”

Today, it’s estimated that 15-25 per cent of the world’s active cranes are in Dubai alone. And Atkins has become part of the fabric of the Middle East. It employs thousands in the region and continues to push the architectural envelope, from the linked tower design of Dubai’s Trump International Hotel & Tower to the 600m-tall mixed-use Anara Tower to be built alongside the famous Sheikh Zayed Road.

As the Middle East settles into the 21st century, however, the emphasis is shifting away from headline-making structures. These days, a more subtle approach to architecture and construction is emerging. The obsession with towering heights or being visible from the moon is subsiding. Instead, a new crop of more accessible, sustainable and user-friendly buildings is being born, and they are changing the face of the region.

Dubai: more than just a pretty face

The Dubai of today is exhibiting all the characteristics of a rapidly maturing market. Environmentally sustainable techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated and widespread, starting with the use of more sustainable building materials. The climb to a more carbon sensitive market has seen more design-led solutions, with passive design playing a large part. Architects are looking at long-term solutions that cut energy need, such as solar shading and screening on windows. Leaders in the UAE are also introducing new legislation and tying in growth with environmental responsibility. Atkins is following this same course not only on projects but also in its work with leading academic institutions in the region.

For example, Atkins has partnered with the British University in Dubai (BUiD) to develop a post-graduate diploma in Sustainability in the Built Environment qualification. This is part of its commitment to invest in the next generation of architects and engineers, and to encourage sustainable building practices right across the Middle East.

According to Professor Bassam Abu-Hijleh from the BUiD, “Onsite renewable power generation initiatives are beginning to find their way in current designs and will become more prevalent in the future.” Today, Dubai’s buildings need to do more than just look smart – they need to act smart too.

“In the next decade, energy will be the major factor that determines built form and the form of cities,” points out Robert Powell, former Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at the National University of Singapore. “We should aim for buildings that employ passive means of cooling and are correctly orientated, that seek to use less potable water and employ solar and wind power, that are shaded, conserve resources and seek not to damage the existing ecology of Dubai. Sustainability and sensitivity to the ecology of a place are fundamental to the design of the 21st century city.”

The exterior of the new Atkins-designed 2CDE residential development, for example, will be able to withstand temperatures above 40˚c during the summer months, by incorporating electro-coating into its clear glazing. The coating reflects heat, but also goes one step further by allowing in natural light. This reduces the load on the internal cooling system and diminishes the electricity burden. Shading technology, including a “sun screen” wall will also counter solar gain – vital in dazzlingly sunny Dubai.

Power towers

However, incorporating such designs isn’t always easy. Abu-Hijleh says that while renewable energy techniques are beginning to flourish, including these innovations “depends on many parameters, including energy costs and the speed and scope of new building regulations in the region.”

Nor is Dubai the easiest place to work in, due to dust and humidity, as well as past construction practices. “High-density building coupled with traffic congestion give rise to problems of pollution,” says Abu-Hijleh.

One element that Dubai has to its great advantage is the wind that comes in off the Gulf. It’s a subject that Atkins’ design director in Dubai, Shaun Killa, is keen to exploit.

“Wind is not only cheaper than solar, it is also very powerful,” he says. “Whenever it is appropriate – there has to be the right positioning – I will always use wind, because in the future all buildings will need to be zero carbon.” Killa demonstrated this commitment when he designed the Bahrain World Trade Center, the first skyscraper in the world with wind turbines integrated into its structure.

The Lighthouse Tower is another exemplar project that when completed, will be Dubai’s first low-carbon commercial tower and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rated. Aided by over 4,000 solar panels as part of the fabric wall, overall total energy consumption is expected to be reduced by up to 65 per cent and water consumption by up to 40 per cent, based on a typical building model from the year 2000.

It is a new approach for Dubai, combining the glamour of an aesthetically pleasing high-rise with practical and innovative energy-saving features. This is something Killa believes will characterise future tall structures in the emirate.

“High-rise buildings will take on a much greater sustainable agenda,” he says. “It will not simply be about height. This approach is about reducing energy load.”

It’s a development that is welcomed by Richard Hastilow, chief executive at the Royal Institute of British Architects. “Dubai’s new attitude to construction is very encouraging, particularly its contribution to reducing the Gulf States’ carbon emissions,” he says.


New buildings are also becoming more user-friendly, with the emphasis shifting away from appearance to how they can work more effectively for residents. Mixed-use buildings are becoming particularly popular, combining residential space with shopping outlets, bars and offices. Residents can effectively work, live and play, all within the same area.

These buildings also work well for the developer. Rather than spreading out the amenities, they are concentrated in one area, which makes it easier to pull off logistically.

By combining commercial facilities with offices and accommodation, instant self-contained communities are being created, which also makes mixed-use buildings very socially cohesive. This is particularly important for ex-pat residents who often come to the region for work, but who do not have many local friends.

On the environmental side, residents have less need to use a car because much of what they need is right on their doorstep. And if the commute to work is just a short walk, it’s far less stressful for the residents as well as the environment in which they live.

One excellent example is the Atkins designed Pier 8 building that will stand on Dubai’s marina. With its mix of studio, one and two-bedroom serviced apartments, Pier 8 will be surrounded by a choice of shops, cafes and restaurants.

Whether this approach could spread to the rest of Dubai or remain isolated in a few waterfront developments has yet to be seen. However, Killa believes this could have the same domino effect as the Burj Al Arab did in the 1990s.

“This new approach is opening doors for mixed commercial/residential projects,” he says.

Living space

The aforementioned 2CDE is another mixed-use structure that is setting the tone for tomorrow’s Dubai. It features landscaped gardens, water facilities, a food court and shops joining one, two and three-bedroom serviced apartments. But what makes the development really unusual for Dubai, at first glance, is its size.

Instead of a typically neck-craning skyscraper, it stands a mere 27 storeys tall. It looks almost modest when compared to some of the city’s other megastructures.

Could small really be beautiful in the Dubai of the future? Shaun Killa certainly thinks so. “Buildings don’t need to be tall alone and there’s now a very different approach in Dubai,” he says. “High-rise buildings will continue to be built in the region, but their aesthetic will become more mature.”

Part of this new maturity, he says, is recognising the importance of what goes on between structures, whatever their size.

“After all, these spaces present a great opportunity; people like them,” Killa adds.

Killa reiterates the sentiment voiced by Tom Wright: when Dubai’s construction phase first began, the vast majority of the space being developed was desert.

“Buildings need context and, in the past, that context was sand,” he says. But now, as Dubai is emerging in a contextual sense, developers and architects are beginning to recognise that it needs to work for its 1,204,000 citizens as well as for visiting tourists.

“We need to create a rich urban fabric,” Killa says. “People enjoy walking to a building from the metro station and seeing water; they want a mixture of sunlight and shade.”

It seems an obvious point, but it’s one that is often neglected during an initial building boom. While Dubai is famed for space-age hotels that whet the appetite for eager tourists, architects such as Killa want to find ways to make the city work for the people who live and work in it. Although the headlines may focus on Dubai’s more ambitious or bizarre construction plans, BUiD’s Abu-Hijleh believes it is the more restrained developments, such as 2CDE, that provide a real glimpse into Dubai’s long-term future.

Echoing Killa’s views, he says, “The current focus is now more on a development/block/urban level than just a single building. Working on an integrated development offers designers a wider scope to use their creative thinking and design.”

“There is now a trend in Dubai towards elegant and timeless buildings,” Killa adds. “Dubai is becoming more sophisticated in design – more confident, but more subdued.”

“Things will become much more interesting,” suggests Abu-Hijleh.

Dubai is still in a unique position to set trends across the region, learning from the mistakes of the US and Europe, and influencing neighbours such as Abu Dhabi and Doha. It is already using its knowledge and position wisely, and is looking toward a more sustainable, albeit possibly less statuesque, future.

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