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Building towards a better quality city

Mohamed Al Assam, managing director, Dewan Architects and Engineers, talks about his hopes for the future of development in Dubai.

Mohamed Al Assam is the MD of Dewan.
Mohamed Al Assam is the MD of Dewan.

Mohamed Al Assam, managing director, Dewan Architects and Engineers, talks about his hopes for the future of development in Dubai.

Tell me a bit about your company.

My practice in the emirates goes back to 1976.

I then established Dewan in 1984 in Abu Dhabi. In a few years the company became very well-known in Abu Dhabi for its professionalism and quality of design. Since the late 1980s, it has been considered as one of the best companies in the UAE.

In 1998, we expanded into Dubai, where our growth was even better.

Now we have 285 staff in both of our offices, of which about 75% are architects. Our volume of work at present exceeds US $25 billion - on the drawing board and in construction.

What are the main problems affecting your profession?

One issue is the complexity of the projects and the complexity of the procedures, especially when introducing new procedures from the government authorities to maintain quality; the market here is not used to it yet.

So everybody here is complaining, including us, about how long it takes to get a building permit for a project.

We know that in England or in the US it might take months or a year to get a permit for an important project, as it has to pass many authorities, councils and people. This is something we have begun to experience here and it is something we are complaining about.

We used to get a building permit in about three months, whereas now we don't receive it in less than six months.

This is something we weren't prepared for, but it is something we have to live with. Everybody is learning. There are a lot of projects but the permitting authorities have not expanded at the same rate.

The other major problem, like many industries in Dubai, is resources.

Is there much conflict between architects and other parts of the construction industry?

There is always a situation between us on one side and the consultants on another, and the project managers on another. There are issues but it is not at the level of a conflict. This is just part of the business of relations.

How do you deal with it?

We argue all the time. But it is not a conflict; it is just a few minor disagreements.

What is your view of the quality of buildings in the UAE?

The quality is improving tremendously. If you look at the buildings when I first came here 32 years ago, the contractors used to use aggregates from the seaside full of salt to build with. But the quality, when speed is required, does slip a bit.

Over the last few years, the awareness of quality buildings is a lot better than before. The whole standard has improved. You can still get medium standard in simple buildings, but as a general rule everything has improved.

With the rapid growth, sometimes buildings are constructed with too much emphasis on aesthetic design rather than function. Some projects look very beautiful, but in a few years you will find they will fail. From the street they look very nice, but the people living there find it difficult to live there.

Is the quality close to Western standards?

For average standard buildings it is about 80%, but for quality buildings it is maybe 90 to 95%. Quality has improved, especially in high-end buildings. It is as good as anywhere in the world.

Are you always happy with the way your designs have been developed and built?

You will never be 100% happy because you did the design and you are happy with it and the client is happy with it. But then you go through the design process and there is a pressure to finish the project in a short period of time, plus there's the problem of resources.

Once the project is under construction it is out of your hands and under the control of the contractors. So you can never achieve 100% of your goal.

Sometimes you find a contractor or developer who does not have a clear vision of maintaining quality - they prefer to complete it quickly, even if it is on account of quality. Usually we are almost satisfied.

Would slowing down the pace of development help improve quality?

It could be done a bit slower, but it is a free country and it is not the government's policy to control it.

Other countries such as China have issued restrictions on development in Beijing and Shanghai to slow down growth.

I don't know if I'd suggest a similar thing should happen in Dubai, because the circumstances are different here.

The UAE, until about 10 years ago, was a series of big villages. The development is required to put the country on the map.

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