The master planner

Adding greenery to the mix is an essential design ingredient, Donna Sultan tells COD.


Adding greenery to the mix is an essential design ingredient, Donna Sultan tells COD.

KEO is one of the Middle East's best-known full service consultancy practices, ranking number 39 in a recent UK survey of the world's 100 largest architectural practices and number six in the landscape design category.

It is not just laying out the villas and laying out the streets. It's how you put the pieces together.

Established in the Middle East for over 40 years, KEO began as an architectural and engineering design firm and branched into providing project and construction management services, followed by civil engineering services.

The firm has expanded rapidly over the years and now employs more than 1,500 staff and has eight regional offices.

Commercial Outdoor Design talks with CEO Donna Sultan about the firm's work in the UAE, its views on sustainability, and its future plans.

KEO was recently placed in 6th place in the landscape design category in the Building Design 2008 World Architecture Survey. Why do you think this is?

If you look at particularly the past 12 months, the projects that we have executed, especially the planning projects here in Abu Dhabi, have a huge component for landscaping.

When you're doing a new city for 250,000 people as in the South of Shamkha New City project and you're starting from scratch, there are a tremendous amount of landscape components in it that go from an urban scale to the suburban scale to the streetscape down to the neighbourhood level.

I would say it's the scale of the projects, at the quality level that they were delivered and the partnering that we had with landscape colleagues that have won praise over the past year.

What is the vision behind the masterplanning of projects such as the South of Shamkha New City and the Emerald Gateway, and what role does landscape play in this?

The vision that each of these masterplans was demanding is the quality of life for those that are going to be the future residents of these developments.

There is so much talk about the quality of life and the sustainability and issues like that.

However, if you look at this masterplan and you look at the constraints, the desert being the first one that would come to mind, our first instinct was to use landscape as a means of creating liveable opportunities.

It could be pockets of green, it could be on a micro level looking at whether that tennis court is there between so many different buildings, or whether it is a little park for children to play in, or a water feature to bring an aesthetic and psychological aesthetic that adds to the quality of life for the residents that would be in there.

Is that what you mean when you talk about the greening of the cities?

Yes, we were given the assignment of a new satellite city called Shamkha. With this you start from scratch and develop a meaningful place for people in the future to want to live there, and want to raise families and that challenge is quite enormous.

It is not just laying out the villas and laying out the streets. It's how you put the pieces together, and external design and landscape design is key to planning it right.

Is attention to the outdoor space something that is starting to take off more in the region?

If you look at signature projects in the marketing materials, each of them looks green or blue, either there is water or green that is attracting the investors and so I think that definitely it has been in the region for some time.

I think it has taken off, but at the same time in Abu Dhabi, we have noticed the government has a particular goal of developing residential and city planning that ahead of the buildings is looking at open spaces and looking at the reservation of open spaces in order to give these oxygen areas for people.

It is now mandatory [to consider the planning of green spaces] when you look at the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 where they have stated strategically the importance of green spaces as being an element of good design.

What trends are you witnessing in this region in landscape and outdoor design?

At the moment, what we see is meeting demand to make projects as green as possible and at times this means that sustainability in landscape design is not seen as a priority. However that is changing and both developers and their designers are being more prudent about the palate of plants, adding specifications for better water management, as one example.

What is KEO's agenda on sustainability?

That is something we are paying a lot of attention to since KEO has the other divisions of the project management etc.

We pull in our infrastructure engineers to work with our planners and landscape professionals and consultants right from day one about water consumption issues, irrigation issues, and the key issues of can you really put this thing to be green, can you really put this water body, how large can it be and how is it going to be can you realistically have this thing be from how you expect it be at a design level.

What plans does KEO have?

KEO has offices in most all of the major GCC countries. Our plans are to grow these offices and ensure each of our markets will have full service offices in project management, civil engineering and architectural design.

Fact file

Established: 1964

Offices regional: Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Bahrain, Dubai, Doha, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon

Offices international: Washington and Sudan

Number of staff: Over 1500

Services: Three divisions: Architectural Design, Project and Construction Management, and Infrastructure Engineering

Key projects in the region include: Mohamed Bin Zayed City Towers, UAE; South of Shamkha, UAE; Emerald Gateway, UAE; Public Gardens Program, UAE; Khalifa City A, UAE; Reef Towers, Dubai, UAE


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