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Island life

Atkins | 10 Jul 2009 | Comments

It’s one thing to create extraordinary structures in the heart of the Middle East, but what about the underlying infrastructure? From water to waste management, it demands a combination of experience, local knowledge and very careful planning.

The man-made island developments that sit off the Dubai and Bahrain coasts may grab the headlines for their apparent extravagance, but they still have to fulfil some very basic needs for their residents. Atkins has worked on a number of these projects in the region, from The World in Dubai to the Durrat Al Bahrain resort. They represent extraordinary achievement, but behind the spectacle, there are some rather less glamorous fundamentals at work, from freshwater supply to power and waste management.

How do these eye-catching projects satisfy these everyday human needs? And how can this be achieved without ruining the carefully crafted landscape?

According to Kevin Williamson, infrastructure projects director for Atkins in Dubai, it’s all in the planning and understanding of the client’s requirements for the development. Over the years, Atkins has built up a range of infrastructure solutions for the unique challenges facing this part of the world.

For example, Atkins was commissioned by Mirage Mille, a Dubai-based development company, to produce the comprehensive masterplanning, design and delivery of a resort on one of the 300 islands that make up The World – the man-made archipelago in Dubai constructed in the shape of a world map. This includes a central utility compound consisting of wastewater treatment plant, desalination plant, district cooling, power generation, waste management and a port, among other things.

Atkins was also commissioned to deliver the design for the sewage treatment plant, the potable and irrigation water supply, wastewater collection and water treatment infrastructure for the development, as well as the design for a reverse osmosis drinking water plant. Freshwater sources are still a relatively scarce commodity in the Middle East. The main solution is to process seawater for human usage by filtering out the salt content – known as desalination. The water is subjected to reverse osmosis, remineralisation and disinfection, to keep the water potable throughout distribution. All of this requires industrial plants, which risks spoiling an otherwise perfectly crafted landscape.

“Clients require plant buildings to be unobtrusive or designed to blend in with the development architecture especially on high-end development resort islands such as The World,” says Williamson. Plant buildings can even be hidden within the undulations of a sloping site, such as is the case of the golf courses that are often incorporated into high-end developments. They can be shaded by trees or enclosed behind residential areas away from the public.

Jason Barrack, development manager for Mirage Mille, which provides turnkey solutions for the hospitality industry, agrees that these facilities are a necessary evil, but takes the point a step further: “Even ambient noise arising from a plant must reflect the resort nature of a development.” As such, any noise generating plants are often treated with plant-specific soundproofing techniques.

Stay cool

Freshwater may need to be sourced or filtered, but there is one element that a man-made island in the Middle East doesn’t need to look for: heat. And while air conditioning is considered a necessity, traditional systems are often obstructive and noisy. For residents paying substantial amounts to live in such an idyllic environment, quiet climate control is not a luxury. District cooling, which is a form of air conditioning that pumps chilled water around a development via a centralised network, is often the preferred system. It is also largely unnoticeable, something that is both expected and appreciated by residents. It is currently being used by the $2.5bn Bahrain Bay Development, located off the coast of Manama. Atkins is providing additional support for the execution phase of the development.

The exclusivity of an offshore development of this kind demands discreet infrastructure throughout, from water delivery to climate control and even reducing the impact of the sewage process. As ever, it is a question of generating maximum efficiency with minimal disruption. For example, discreet methods for dealing with human waste include placing pumping stations underground in order to keep unpleasant smells to a minimum. Air extractors offer another level of management.

These efforts can be supported through a combination of biological, chemical, catalytic and thermal processes. Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) can also have their unpleasant side-effects reduced by being placed within buildings, leaving residents oblivious of the treatment works next door.

Dealing with any damage done

Although high-end developments on resort islands are maintained regularly for safety, contingency plans have to be put in place. The trick is to develop these during the course of the infrastructure design. As an island, these developments are designed to be as self-supporting as possible. The experts involved need to make sure that the remoteness of an offshore development does not infringe on safety concerns.

“Flooding, for example, is dealt with using storm water drainage appropriate to the climate,” says Martin Currie, consultant for water utilities development with Atkins in the Middle East. “A further island-specific issue is the risk of nutrient runoff (from both irrigation and storm runoff). This could adversely affect the environment and must be tightly controlled.”

When considering these high-end developments and the sophisticated systems that surround them, it’s easy to forget that there are still areas within the Middle East without infrastructure. The region has witnessed huge growth over the last few years, stretching existing infrastructure to the limit. Specialists are required not just for their engineering experience, but for their knowledge of the region and its specific demands.

It’s not just the facilities that complicate the process. Another layer of complexity is added by the logistics involved in building on an artificial construction.

“The high heat and humidity create hostile conditions for those working on the islands and the airborne salt can be highly corrosive to materials,” says Williamson.“The people working on these projects require transportation to the islands and in some cases accommodation during the construction period. Safety and site management needs to address the specific risks of working on an island environment.”

The size of many contemporary Middle Eastern projects is another issue: “Infrastructure projects developed on some man-made islands need to be sufficient to cope with several thousand residents – about the size of a small town, in other words,” says Mirage Mille’s Barrack. However, this demand doesn’t mean acres of land can be earmarked for these necessary systems.

“The cost of creating land in the middle of the ocean is so high that the infrastructure must be as space efficient as possible,” adds Barrack, who notes that the engineers face competition regarding storage facilities from some unlikely corners. “At the peak of summer, the softscape (shrubs and other forms of horticulture) can be killed off in a few days due to the heat. Robust debate can emerge over the appropriate level of sizing of storage facilities for water, irrigation water, sewage and fuel.”

Managing the softscape seems a million miles away from managing water and sewage, but it’s all part of the essential infrastructure for these non-land based projects. Atkins is familiar with this challenge, based on its work on the Durrat Al Bahrain resort, one the first large-scale land reclamation projects to be introduced along the Bahrain coast. Atkins was commissioned to produce the masterplan, design supervision and project management of the project, including marine, infrastructure and villa design, and road infrastructure.

“This all forms part of the overall aesthetic appeal. For example, marine bridges have the potential to become beautiful structures in the location where they are created. Take the Durrat Al Bahrain Bridges: they form gateways that connect communities and carry passenger traffic as well as essential utilities, but they are also aesthetically designed with artistic sensibility,” says Dr Ghassan Ziadat, director of infrastructure and regional head of bridges for Atkins in the Middle East. But how can these structures combine form and function while also pleasing the client?

Dr Ziadat maintains that it’s all dependent on collaboration: “Our engineers and architects work together to make the right choices in terms of structural form and materials to provide adequate space for utilities, the correct number of traffic lanes and the required navigational clearances.”

These are just some of the difficult decisions involved when designing infrastructure for high-end resort developments. How much of the operation is better left unseen or unheard? And what is the best way to cope with the Middle East’s demanding climate and lack of water resources? Combine these with the limited space and other pressures of working on man-made islands, and the work soon begins to sound almost heroic.

“Our aim is to deliver reliable, efficient and sustainable infrastructure systems integrated discreetly into the development,” Williamson says. “This requires a combination of local experience and international expertise, and the ability to develop flexible and innovative engineering solutions.”

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