Full speed ahead

Sara Moore, principal and board of directors, tells COD about Burt, Hill's rapid growth in the Middle East, and the firm's plans to bring a little piece of New York to Jebel Ali Village.


Design consultancy group Burt, Hill set up operations in the Middle East in 2004, and has been on an expansion drive ever since, growing from four people at start to over 400 at present, and recruiting 187 people since March this year alone.

The US firm, which offers a range of services including landscape architecture and masterplanning, recently consolidated its position in the region with the opening of a second Middle East office, located in Abu Dhabi.


The challenge ahead of landscape designers and outdoor designers in Dubai is getting the folks that are going to the mall outside in great places and there are few of them today.

The company puts its success in the region down to a range of factors including repeat business, being a career-based, family-based organisation, and its emphasis on sustainable design.

Why the comma? According to the firm's website, the comma has a multitude of different meanings. It refers literally to Ralph Burt and Alva Hill, two of the firm's visionaries; it stands for 1936, 1938 and other milestones in its history; it represents site design, sustainable design and its other services; and it emphasises the firm's mantra to take a pause before realising a client's wishes. Stand for something. That's the reason for the comma,' the company states.

Can you tell me a little about Burt, Hill's background in this region?

Burt, Hill started in the Middle East in 2004 with four people. By the end of 2005, we had 204 people and today we've got 404. The Dubai office was our first office overseas.

We established our organisation as a mirror image of what we have in the United States. Landscape architecture is one piece of the overall 'who we are'. We pride ourselves on the fact that we do creative services, branding and visioning. It is basically setting up a story for a client. We're part of the development team in setting the vision and the financial goals and then we do the actual planning, landscape architecture, engineering, MEP, structural and then interior design so we're full service.

What makes Burt, Hill different from its competitors?

We are not an 'I' organisation, we are a 'we' organisation. We do everything we; sometimes I play architect and Haydar [Hassan, principal/board of directors of the firm in Dubai] plays landscape architect. We're also an employee-owned organisation, we've got 160-170 people that are owners in our company and that is something I'm not sure that many people offer here in the UAE as an incentive. Burt, Hill is a career-based, family-based organisation.

How does being a US firm differentiate you?

Landscape architecture was basically born in the US. In university, we have a curriculum of landscape architecture so I think the US was one of the first countries to actually recognise landscape architecture as a profession. The Middle East is one of the few places it is hard to find landscape architecture in the college curriculum.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

We are doing a masterplan, for example, of MotorCity with Union Properties, one of our existing clients. It's based on Bath, England. That is going to be a unique project. We have roof gardens and all kinds of different things.

For Nakheel, we are doing Jebel Ali Village. We're going to have a central park in Jebel Ali Village that is very much like New York City Central Park. It's a neat environment for pedestrians, for people, for the community. Getting back to the roots of helping people want to stay in Dubai and make it their home for a long period of time is part of our mission at Burt, Hill.

It's about that owning of the outdoor space and the outdoor design space that makes great communities.

Do you think that is something that is lacking in this region at the moment?

Big time, yes. A lot of people say do I have to put community facilities in my overall design? Well, yeah you do. You want your neighbourhood school. You want the fact that you can go get bread and butter just next door. Those kinds of things are so critical.

So much of Dubai is a little bit forced on people, and you live iny of me ever meeting you, that chance meeting on the street? It's kind of rare right now.
your car. Instead of walking to get your convenience [goods], you have to jump in your car and go to the grocery store. So what is the opportunit
Sustainable design is a big focus for Burt, Hill. What is the firm's agenda on this?

Our chairman is one of the founding fathers of the Green Council in the US and so the idea of LEED certification is innate to how we work.

We're in the desert so water conservation should be our number one priority. In doing that, there are some methods that we can apply from varying kinds of hardscapes to using Xeriscaping planting. I think you see a lot of planting in Dubai and it's a little 'bling bling'. You've got to pick the right plants for the right place and I think now people are picking plants and putting them in the ground but they don't belong in the desert. We have to pick plants that actually require less water, that will thrive on the fact that they have less water and the high temperatures, and then Dubai itself will start healing as an environment and making outdoor spaces that are comfortable for people.

Probably number one on my priority list is street trees. Let's give people shade because it's so hot, and how we orientate the buildings, what we clad the buildings in is what the outdoor space is all about. When you have a lobby space that opens out onto the southern portion of the building it's not going to be a very nice space unless you provide some kind of shade or maybe even misters, different ways to cool it off so that people are comfortable in that kind of environment.

What is Xeriscaping?

It's basically picking plants that are indigenous or native to an area. In Dubai, that's pretty hard because we live really truly in the desert but there are other things in Xeriscaping that you can do. You can pick up plants that actually live in deserts, for example. It has a lot to do with soil amendment. Right now a lot of the planting installations go in and it takes a while for the plants to thrive because there aren't the organics in there that the plants need or the nutrients, but there is a series of things we do, like having mulch.

Is sustainability something that clients are starting to ask for?

It's interesting because Sheikh Mohammed came out with a statement in 2007 that Dubai would be green. They haven't defined what green means but for us we have been talking about this and applying this, the owners would nod and their head and say yes but now they are understanding that yes, this is something they really want to do. In the US, you are actually seeing the financial benefits from an owner point of view for better rent, sales etc if you go green.

Is the green movement a lot bigger in the US?

In the US as well as Europe, Scandinavia is really into it. The two biggest things in the desert that we as designers and owners and developers should really focus on is our solar orientation and water conservation. Every single building out there should look different on four sides. If you think about any building that you've been to, if you're on the southern side of that same building in the afternoon, no matter if you've got window shade or not, it's going to be more uncomfortable and the temperature is higher on that side of the building, so the architect and landscape architect planner should really be thinking about that instead of making glass boxes that look the same on every side.

To me that is very much about outdoor design and we as landscape people and landscape architects and planners can help the industry architects, engineers understand the value of it because we have to ..... 100% of our work is about outdoor.

How do you think Dubai is changing?

It's getting to be a hot market in the sense of competition. Before it was like if you had your building built, you'd sell it, you'd sell it on paper. Now it's getting a little bit more, ‘how am I distinctive, how am I different', and that to me is showing the maturity of the market, people are taking a stand that they do want that difference, they want the distinctive what makes this place different from that place.

And right now I think from a social point of view the mall has become the pseudo chance meeting place. It's a very social thing to do, go to the mall, it's indoor, it's cool. Now the challenge ahead of landscape designers and outdoor designers in Dubai is getting the folks that are going to the mall outside in great places and there are few of them right today.

But I think the beauty of Dubai is where it is in the world. It is finally attracting world class people here to make it a world class city and it will at some point compete with cities like London, New York. It's still unbelievable how fast it's grown in such a little time and now it's our time as outdoor designers to prove hey we're going to make it here just like those other places even though we're sitting in the desert.

What role do you think outdoor design will play in propelling Dubai to this goal of being a world-class city?

I think it's probably the number one agent right now to do it. It's our time to stand up to the place and help those that develop Dubai understand that it's important. I think Dubai is a place that has taken some really neat wonderful steps about making a commitment to it. They've got organisations out there talking about all the things that make great cities great. And usually when people talk about great cities, they're talking about the street experience, the walking experiences, the collective outside gathering places and it's like wow, here it is, it's coming.


Fact file

Established: 2004 in Dubai (1936 in Pennsylvania, US)

Presence in region: Offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Number of staff in region: 404

Services: Landscape architecture, architecture, engineering, project management, creative visioning, interior design, creative services, and master planning

Key projects in region: MotorCity, Dubai; Jebel Ali Village, Dubai; Salam Resort & Spa, Oman; Lusail Golf Community, Qatar

Website: www.burthill.com

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