City Report: Al Ain

Review the projects & plans set to drive growth in the UAE Garden City

CGI of plans for area next to Al Ain's new Hazza Bin Zayed stadium.
CGI of plans for area next to Al Ain's new Hazza Bin Zayed stadium.
Al Ain Zoo is being extended to include new safari-style zones.
Al Ain Zoo is being extended to include new safari-style zones.

It is understandable that so much of the focus on construction in the UAE has been on Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with their increasingly ambitious and eye-catching range of skyscrapers.

However, this can mean that interesting work which takes place elsewhere in the UAE is sidelined, despite the fact that the levels of innovation in some of these projects are of a world-class standard.

Take Al Ain, for example, where last week a three-day ceremony took place to mark the opening of the new Hazza Bin Zayed stadium. The stadium is the new home for back-to-back UAE football champions Al Ain.

The 25,000-seat stadium, which was designed by Pattern Architects and built by contractor BAM International, is an engineering feat, that was covered in-depth in issue issue 496 of Construction Week. Yet it is just one part of a wider development, which says a lot about the city’s plans.

Like many of the live projects being developed in Al Ain, there is a desire for it to assist the city’s economic growth while ensuring that it doesn’t encroach on its heritage.

Al Ain is known as the UAE’s Garden City as it has grown from a natural oasis at the foot of the Jebel Hafeet mountain and has long been a centre for agriculture and Bedouin life.

Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council (UPC) created a new masterplan for the city, Plan Al Ain 2030, in 2009.

This provides a blueprint for future growth and sets ambitious targets. For instance, the most recent survey by Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi reveals that the region has a population of around 586,000. The target is for this to increase to 1m by 2030 and for the number of homes to grow from 86,800 to over 202,000, with the bulk of these being created within Al Ain City.

The city, which is described as the “soul of the Emirate” by the UPC, due to the fact that its natural oases have continuously sustained life for over 5,000 years, has a high proportion of nationals. Of the 439,100 Emiratis who live in the Abu Dhabi region, 178,500 (40% of the total) are based in Al Ain.

Development plans are thus tempered by a desire to preserve its feel, meaning that its housing need can’t be solved by recreating the skyscrapers built elsewhere in the UAE. There are strict architectural guidelines in place – both in terms of the type of materials that are allowed to be used and in terms of scale.

Buildings should be no more than 20m in height – typically ground-plus four storeys. In such a context, the development planned around the stadium seems quite ambitious. The stadium itself was delivered in just under 17 months on a 45,000m2 plot, but forms the centrepiece of a wider 500,000m2 site set to contain a 172-bed four-star hotel, two office buildings with 20,000m2 of space, 700 residential units in apartment blocks connected by green spaces and retail/leisure space for up to 50 shops and restaurants.

It will be built in phases, but will also contain public courtyards, walkways and tracks throughout the development to help promote “a healthy and modern lifestyle”, according to its developers.

Tamer Ibrahim Chaaban, branch manager for property consultancy Asteco, believes that the apartments will be in demand. Although rents had remained stable throughout much of 2012 and the first half of 2013, the second half of the year saw increases of 5-10% across all types of residential property.

“All areas of the city are proving popular. People are coming to Al Ain – new staff from government and new companies.”

Chaaban added that some of the recent growth can be also attributed to the Tawtheeq system of real estate regulations (similar to Ejari in Dubai) that aim to provide greater transparency between landlords and tenants. This has reduced the amount of sub-letting.

"Rents are quite high, and there are not many available places,” he argues.

Typical rents for a one-bed apartment range from 30-37,000AED a year, depending on location and property conditions. Two-beds go for 40,000-50,000AED. Villas range from 90-140,000AED a year.

Most of the new housing being developed privately is on individual housing plots or on small blocks of townhouses. The only large-scale private housing schemes have been on schemes such as Wahat Al Zaweya where plots went on sale to nationals at last year’s Cityscape events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The project, which borders the main Dubai-Al Ain E66 route, is being developed over four phases on a 22.7km2 site, with 1,500 plots being offered during phase one.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the vast amount of government money being spent on housing, schools and other infrastructure through the Abu Dhabi Services Company, Musanada.

A briefing given to CW by Musanada’s executive director of building project management services, Eng Ali Al-Haj Mehairbi, states that it is currently working on 19 live projects in Al Ain with a combined value of around $4.4bn (AED16.1bn).

In housing, for instance, it is overseeing the design and construction of 3,000 villas for nationals at Jebel Hafeet, including associated infrastructure such as parks, eight mosques, a family development centre and a health clinic. The project is being developed by Tamouh and built by contractor Trojan, and is scheduled for completion by mid-2016.

A further 2,000 villas are due by the first quarter of 2016 at Ain Al Fayda, where Trojan again is main contractor and Al Qudra developer on a $1.2bn (4.3bn) project.

Housing projects set to finish this year include a scheme containing 110 villas for nationals within the Mezyad and Um Ghafa residential areas of Al Ain City, which are being carried out under a $40.6mn design and build contract by Nael General Contracting (NGC).

NGC is also set to complete a $25.9mn housing scheme for nationals under the third phase of development of the Neima and Salamat residential communities. This phase incorporates 51 new villas on a 15-hectare site at Neima and 13 villas on six hectares at Salamant.

In the education sector, six packages for construction of new schools under phase four of the Abu Dhabi Future Schools programme were awarded in August last year for completion by October 2014.

Package 1 for two schools at Al Muwaiji and Jimi worth $50.7mn (AED186.3mn) was awarded to National Project and Construction, Package 2 for schools at Salamat and Neima worth $56.4mn (AED207mn) to NGC, Package 3 for a single school at Al Yahar worth $25.2mn also went to NGC and Package 4 was awarded to United Engineering Co.

Package 5 for a 44,000m2 all-age school for more than 1,000 pupils in Al Shuwaib worth $27.1mn (AED99.5mn) when to Ghantoot Transport and General Contracting, while Package 6 was awarded to Al Fara’a General Contracting.

The biggest single contract to be awarded by Musanada within the past 12 months has been in healthcare. A new 719-bed hospital for Seha is set to start on site this month, with a view for completion by 2020.

The $1.2bn project includes a main hospital site, substations, utilities and logistics centres, an administration building, rehab units and a morgue.

It was awarded to an Arabtec-led consortium that included Spanish firm Constructora San Jose, with electrical works being carried out by Strabag.

Longer-term targets for the Plan Al Ain 2030 framework includes developing a new central business district complemented by a dense population of retail units, which will involve development of under-used land in the existing centre.

Andrew Goodwin, a director of Cornerstone, which is a recently-established property development arm of Abu Dhabi Co-Operative Society, says that Al Ain currently has “a significant supply of retail, with most of the mid-market brands being well-represented”.

“The recent opening of Al Ain Mall extension has introduced some new high-end brands into the city with a broader range for the first time and it is taking time for these to become established as a destination, something that will improve as more shops open.”

In terms of malls outside of the centre, Goodwin argues that communities to the north have seen centres such as Wahat Hill open with new supermarkets, which he argues are large enough to draw audiences from a wider area – and will need to do so to thrive.

“New local and central malls are being discussed, but developers are likely to want to see the existing supply leased up before major new commitments are made,” he said.

The other major long-term plan for the city involves the introduction of a new 'Gateway Transit Corridor' through the centre to reduce reliance on cars.

This involves the creation of five major city ‘nodes’ that will all link to the new central business district through bus and (eventually) tram routes.

A node at Ashraej is considered to be a priority, as it sits at the crossroads to the city’s airport and is surrounded by universities and knowledge-based firms, so could eventually be as important to Al Ain as a central business district.

The CBD will also contain a proposed high-speed rail terminus linking Al Ain to other UAE cities.

Yet although the links between Al Ain and the UAE’s two biggest cities will rely on highways for the foreseeable future, Chaaban believes that this won’t stop demand from people looking to relocate as rents increase elsewhere.

“This year, we will see improvements in rents," he argues. "It won't be huge. But I expect that it will involve people coming fron other cities. I expect rents to increase both in apartments and in commercial space.”

Pet project

The new Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre at Al Ain Zoo could be the first 5 Pearl-rated building in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Although much of the attention on leisure in Al Ain has focused on the Hazza Bin Zayed stadium, an equally impressive project is nearing completion at the city’s zoo.

The zoo, which was initially opened in 1968 by the UAE’s founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is currently undergoing a major expansion, with a new desert learning centre as its star attraction.

The Sheikh Zayed Learning Centre has been designed to the highest sustainability standards. Not only does it meet LEED Platinum status for its design, but it also looks set to be the first 5 Pearl-rated building to complete under Abu Dhabi’s Estidama rating systems.

Simon Long, a senior FM consultant at Mace Macro, which has been the facilities management consultant during the project’s build phase, explained that 5 Pearl-rating has already been achieved for the building’s design, “but everything’s going through now for the certification on construction.”

The expansion plan for the zoo involves the creation of a series of new wildlife zones, where natural habitats for various parts of the world including Africa, Arabia, Asia and North America are recreated.

The zoo’s successful breeding plan, which has taken place over the past few years, has boosted numbers of indigenous animals like the Oryx, and the Desert Learning Centre will sit in the middle of the Arabian zone. The 13,000m2 building has three floors below ground and four above. It also has a range of specialist AV equipment highlighting different aspects of Bedouin life.

Long says that a great deal of thought has gone into the building’s design (created by Austrian architecture firm Chalabi Architekten & Partner) to ensure that it not only hits, but maintains sustainability targets throughout its lifespan.

For instance, virtually all of the centre’s roof is covered by solar PV panels.

“They'll actually look to generate 17% of the total electricity usage via the PVs,” he told CW.

Internally, concrete core reservation - pipework laden with concrete to aid the building’s cooling rather than using directional vents – has been used alongside an absorption chiller.

“Even though it's a technology that has been used elsewhere, it is fairly new for this area,” he adds.

“We’re using ground heat exchangers as well – we might as well lose some of the heat through the ground as opposed to try and mechanically cool it. Energy-wise, it's far more efficient.”

Similarly, sun-reflective technology has been used on windows to prevent solar heat gain, while the most efficient ranges of LED lighting and a grey water harvesting system has been used throughout. A large pond that serves as a water feature also doubles as a supply for the fire-fighting system, if required. Water is also filtered via reverse osmosis, as opposed to electronic filtration systems.

“There's been a lot of time and imagination spent on what has been put in there,” he adds.

Mace Macro’s involvement with the project began with design reviews, and it has advised the client throughout construction. The building achieved substantial completion in June 2012, but is unlikely to open until the Arabian desert zone that surrounds the building is completed.

Long adds that another factor that will be important in maintaining the building’s 5-Pearl status for operations will be the performance of the HVAC and building management systems. It has spent the past few months monitoring the building's environmental performance, with the help of a number of specialist suppliers who monitor solar PV and HVAC equipment. The latter is controlled remotely from Austria.

“It's a very interesting building and it's been a learning curve – particularly in terms of the Estidama requirements.”

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