The lack of skilled labour makes internally landscaping a development a considerable challenge. Christopher Sell gets to the root of the issue.
There has been a lot of talk of Dubai becoming a greener city, both in terms of construction efficiency and energy use in buildings. But, at the same time, there are other aspects of construction within the city that are seeing a greater element of greenery in a more literal sense.
Whilst understated, landscaping is becoming an integral part of construction in Dubai. From golf courses to parks, a cultured outdoor environment is proving to be more popular and increasingly visible within the city. And it is not just exterior landscaping that is demanding greater attention. With indoor space a pre-requisite for living in a region of climatic extremes, the internal landscape is getting greater attention from developers.
"The requirement for planting inside buildings has increased. With the influx of designers, architects and contractors from around the world, we have seen a growth in demand for interior planting," says Jonathan Pardoe, director, Planters Horticulture. This could be considered unsurprising, as specialist interior planting is seen in most prestigious buildings in capital cities around the globe.
"The interior landscape sector has matured in recent years, with the style of planting and choice of containers moving into a very contemporary area, with a preference for single architectural shapes being the standard," continues Pardoe, who says that such change has been brought about by incorporating the best practices seen in Europe and the US. Furthermore, modern buildings require the latest styles and colours in planting to complement expensive finishes.
It is also important, he adds, to remember this niche industry differs in that its materials are not inanimate; they are living, perishable goods that require intelligent and sensitive handling, especially once they are planted. "The highest standards of maintenance service is essential to ensure that the planting looks good and continues to do so. As we are dealing with a living product, poor service would very quickly result in unsightly displays which, in turn, would distract the visiting eye from the high-quality finishes," says Pardoe.
Dubai's construction boom has directly impacted on such companies as Pardoe's, forcing the generation of a larger work force, which has necessitated a restructuring and growth of his management team. At the same time, it has seen the company expand its numbers from the bottom up. "Our work force is continuing to expand with the increase in business in the region," Pardoe explains. "At the grassroots level, we employ raw recruits from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal. Our company policy has always been to take on relatives of our existing staff wherever possible, which has proved very successful as some of our staff have been with us for over 20 years."
But, at the same time, this area is still being affected by the lack of skilled labourers - which has been the major change over the last 12 months, according to Ralf Stahl, managing partner, Zeoplant: "More and more there is a lack of skilled staff. People recruited by consultants and clients have mostly no experience in this region. Projects are getting underway slowly because most are affected by delays from the main contractors." Especially, he adds, as landscaping comes last.
At the same time, despite apparent interest in water saving, the reality, says Stahl, is that there is still a gulf in understanding the practicalities inherent in supplying water to the various developments, as well as the ecological impact of such work.
"The trend is that more clients talk about irrigation water savings now," he says. "But they still know very little about how they can benefit from such products. Surprisingly - or shockingly - some government-owned developers still think they live next to the River Nile, where they can just open the pipelines and irrigation water flows... and treated sewage effluent water costs nothing, when it actually does; it adds to global warming. The ecological effects are still neglected because of a short-term, profit-thinking mentality."
And with work still ongoing on some of the region's largest projects, including Palm Jumeirah - where Zeoplant was awarded the contract by Nakheel to supply all landscaping applications for 1,400 front villas and shoreline apartments - the Durrat Al Bahrain and various projects in Abu Dhabi, Stahl foresees a continuation of these problems. "For the whole sector, I foresee an increasing lack of skilled people. Too many projects will have to be executed at the same time, and the supply of landscape contractors has already reached its limits."
Offsetting the workforce-related problems, though, the appliance of science has made the practicalities of landscaping easier. Products such as Zeoplant, for instance, offer an effective water retaining soil additive, consisting of fully natural material, which has been treated with a special natural organic component. Its unique features are a very big active surface, high porosity, extremely good water retention, high cationic exchange capacity (CEC), and salt binding effect. According to Stahl, this significantly reduces the necessary quantity of irrigation water by 50% because it ties up a high amount of irrigation water, reduces the percolation rate of the irrigation water in the soil and reduces the use of NPK fertilisers by prevention of any leaching out.
"It is starting to mature," agrees Paul Seils, Green Vision Landscape Architects. "Clients are realising the best price is not best value. In most cases, the lowest prices are the biggest headaches. Rework, disputes and delays due to price sensitive decisions just cost everyone time and money in the long run."
But with the exchange rate so weak, it has impacted on his day-to-day operations, with the rate going from two dirhams to one Australian dollar in 2004, to three and a half dirhams to one. This is making it harder to attract and keep staff, Seils adds.
At the same time, the heightened demand experienced across all construction sectors is forcing companies to focus on organising themselves well in advance. "There is a vacuum of all resources to meet supply and demand of the market. If developers do not organise procurement of plant material at the planning stage, quality and competitively priced specified plant stock will simply not be available.
"The size and scale of upcoming projects will challenge the resources of even the existing contractors, even with two to three of them in a joint venture," he adds.
Other companies however, display greater optimism for the future of the industry. Paul Cracknell, managing director, Cracknell believes that client requirements have also evolved and they have a greater understanding of what they are seeking from their projects. He also believes that the use of experienced third party project managers has become the norm for the larger projects, which tends to add a layer of discipline, but also adds a layer of bureaucracy. Furthermore, the issues of environmental sustainability, which in the past have been paid little more than lip service by most clients, are gaining in importance.
Cracknell is now the largest Middle East-based landscaping practice, managing projects from initial site masterplanning and concept design through to construction, documentation and contract administration. Having worked on some high-profile projects in the emirates, such as the Jumeirah Beach Resort Development, which includes Wild Wadi waterpark and the Burj Al Arab Hotel, it is also currently involved with the larger landscape masterplans for the extensive developments and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“cities' currently being planned.
Cracknell explains how an intelligent, passive approach to design can offset the harshest weather. "Summer temperatures in this region can be continuously over 45 degrees, with little, if any, rainfall. To be able to use plants other than the most hardy, it is essential to create a microclimate that is suited to a wider range of species. This can be done within the design process by the careful use of level changes, orientation of the design in relation to adjacent structures and the use of hard and soft shade elements. Recently, atomiser irrigation has also been used to reduce the summer temperatures in planted areas, either at ground level or within the crowns of trees."