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Site visit: Capital House, Abu Dhabi

Residential tower in the UAE capital hopes to take the market by storm

Abu Dhabi’s Capital House features balconies overlooking the surrounding Capital Centre district.
Abu Dhabi’s Capital House features balconies overlooking the surrounding Capital Centre district.

There are some projects that generate a lot of noise when they are finished and then there are others that simply go unnoticed. David Cockerton, fund manager at SinoGulf Real Estate Investments, believes that Capital House, located within the Capital Centre development opposite Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), falls into the first category.

The development is a 93.45m, 30-floor residential tower containing 332 one- and two-bedroom apartments along with amenities such as a swimming pool, gym, children’s play area and five retail units on the ground floor.

Capital House is a key asset, along with International Tower, held in the IndustRE Development Fund, a closed $300mn real estate development fund managed by SinoGulf and their partners Eastgate Capital Group, with a combined investment value approaching AED1.5bn ($408mn).

Purposely located next to International Tower – a Grade A office building – Capital House entered the market this month. And Cockerton can’t hide his excitement.

“I understand people are salivating at the moment,” he said. “The agents and the brokers in particular want to get their hands on the project because they know that the building will lease very, very quickly. It’s there as a complementary project to International Tower. People would have taken space in International Tower knowing that Capital House was being developed and are now relishing the opportunity to come inside and have a look.”

He added: “I have personally gone into every single recently-constructed and recently-launched residential building in Abu Dhabi over the last eight to 11 months. I’ve done that so we know that the various design decisions taken at Capital House will be well-received by the marketplace.”

The plots for Capital House and International Tower, the latter which launched in 2012, were bought in 2007. With the global financial crisis taking hold a year later a decision was taken to hold back development of Capital House as the market was “still trying to find its feet”.

“We worked very hard post-financial crisis to make sure that we got the best value for money out of the construction contract,” said Cockerton. “Construction prices took a bit of a tumble in 2008/09.”

A design for the building had been completed by Woods Bagot, which was also behind International Tower, but then SinoGulf started to look at remodelling the project. This eventually led to the exit of Woods Bagot and the appointment of Maisam Architects & Engineers in 2011 to work from schematic design through to construction.

“I can’t think of anything that was fundamentally wrong with the original design,” said Cockerton when I asked why SinoGulf chose to reshape the tower. “It could have been built; we chose not to.”

Pressed further he said that Maisam’s new design had brought in significant cost savings and also raised the building’s residential capacity from 250 to 332 apartments.

“The bottom line is the efficiencies we have gained by using Maisam have reduced the construction cost and efficiencies in the way the design could be implemented by the contractor,” said Cockerton.

“It has reduced the amount of time it took to build. So what you have now is a building that has cost less and been delivered in a shorter space of time and it has apartments in it that are in our opinion probably more valuable; so therefore the design is an entirely appropriate repositioning of it to that effect.”

An innovation Maisam introduced was to make the project a design and build scheme, given its 24-month timeframe. Ali & Sons Contracting was chosen as the main contractor.

“It was a two-stage assignment – schematic design and then design consulting along with the contractor,” said Emad Muqattash, area manager/partner at Maisam.

“We became part of the contractor’s team, providing in-house design, construction monitoring and quality control, which really was a unique experience. It has its own difficulties, but in terms of fast delivery it was a success, overall. That’s the beauty of design and build.”

Muqattash said one of the challenges at the outset was that piling was already cast as per the old design; having taken place simultaneously with International Tower.

“We had to take into account the piles that were already cast. We couldn’t increase the weight on them,” he said. “We managed to add two more floors into this building and some structural smart solutions in order to redistribute the loading under the same piling, transfer slabs and transfer beams.”

Foundations were cast in April 2012 and the structure topped out 13 months later. The project peaked from around the time the last slabs were cast up until February of this year, with between 1,000-1,300 labourers on site per day.

“There’s been a real team approach that design and build has engendered,” said Cockerton. “Taking some responsibility for the development of the design from the contractor’s side really starts to fuse the team together.”

When CW visited, the project was close to completion, and has since been handed over. Muqattash said the entire team can take pride in how it has turned out.

“There are very strict guidelines from ADNEC and there isn’t much room to manoeuvre in terms of height and setbacks. We tried to match the colour with International Tower, but the two projects definitely shouldn’t look alike,” said Muqattash.

“The elevation contains lots of balconies, which you don’t really see much in Abu Dhabi, but this is important for the language of residential. We tried to not make the elevation just one block by introducing frames. We think we came up with an elegant, simple, straightforward building that looks very much residential and is very efficient.”

Space within the apartments has been a key consideration, with all of them designed to be open plan.

“You’ll open the front door to an apartment and you’ll have a vista,” said Cockerton. “You won’t walk into an apartment and come straight against a brick wall.

“You’ll come into an apartment and immediately be drawn into a living space. The apartments flow, the apartments respect and acknowledge the way that people live – they don’t put things in compartments. The target market is undoubtedly expats of very many different nationalities and so on.”

Through Maisam’s design, the tower has exceeded the minimum requirement for parking. The firm came up with a split system whereby the majority of apartments were designed facing the street-side with podium-level car parks placed on the opposite side, bringing total spaces to 404.

Meanwhile, following the removal of Abu Dhabi’s rental cap in 2013, the residential market is entering a “period of pure supply and demand equilibrium”, said Cockerton when asked what values new projects such as Capital House can expect to achieve.

“The current situation in Abu Dhabi when you come across onto the residential side of the marketplace is that there’s an excess demand for good quality, well-designed, spacious apartments,” he said.

“So what is most likely to happen is there is going to be more mobility in the marketplace until an equilibrium point is found and an acceptable increase is determined.”

He said Capital House and International House have created a “track record” for SinoGulf in Abu Dhabi, which in turn has led to approaches by parties seeking development opportunities in the Emirate.

SinoGulf is currently assessing a “basket of different projects related to this market – Abu Dhabi – but not necessarily specifically other offices and residential”, added Cockerton.

“They may well include offices and residential but there are other asset classes we are looking at as well,” he continued. “I’d expect us to be announcing something about our activities beyond these projects before the end of the year here in the UAE.”

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