Face-to-face: Nigel Eckersall

Nigel Eckersall says Qatar must take its chance

Nigel Eckersall, senior design manager for Shapoorji Pallonji.
Nigel Eckersall, senior design manager for Shapoorji Pallonji.

Nigel Eckersall, senior design manager for Shapoorji Pallonji, says Qatar must take its chance to build some of the world’s most sustainable cities

You only have to leave a couple of weeks between trips to Qatar to notice how quickly the landscape of Doha and beyond is changing. Such is the pace of work, it can be easy to forget how quickly key areas such as the Corniche or West Bay have developed.

Sitting down to speak with Construction Week Qatar, Nigel Eckersall – a veteran of the country’s construction industry having worked in the Gulf state for ten years – senior design manager for Shapoorji Pallonji, reflects on what has been a remarkable period of progress.

“I feel like I’ve got a real affinity with Qatar having started here ten years ago when I worked on the older Intercontinental Hotel. You couldn’t even get a taxi from that hotel to the middle of Doha back then, and the West Bay was just a collection of four and five storey buildings. So I’ve really seen the place grow and I know the potential it has to create something that is really sustainable,” he said.

Whether the country will fulfill that potential will depend on the work that is done over the next decade and a half, taking in the World Cup in 2022 and on to the realisation of the National Vision in 2030. Some observers have made comparisons with the boom seen in Dubai in the early 2000s, but Eckersall is adamant that Qatar must make its own mark.

“I’ve said to people that Dubai created a development plan because of its geography that followed Shiekh Zayed Road which created a linear development plan. But because the place is a complete one-off, it has been a huge success despite this linear planning – as such the rest of the region should not use Dubai as a role model.

There seems to be a mentality in the Middle East that we have to build these big, straight long roads and put big retail areas at the end of them that people have to drive to – it’s the WallMart effect which is only now being realised by many western cities as the catalyst of destroying local sustainable economies that flourished for generations.

These ‘Wall Mart effect’ planning ideas based on a car economy do not create hotspots for investment or design”
Instead, Eckersall is a proponent of building communities around transport nodes, and, with the Doha Metro still in its infancy, he believes that Qatar has a golden opportunity to develop world-class sustainable areas.

“The model we have to look at is developing mixed-use communities around the metro stations, and Qatar has the opportunity to lead the region with this model. These areas should not just be built as commercial, residential, education, healthcare or entertainment, they should actually be all of these things, so each transport node becomes a community and a sustainable hotspot. Sustainable hotspots create benefits for the developer as they can rent out at a maximum. In a recession everything comes back to hot spots – they’re a guaranteed return for developers.

“We have a transport hub and we need to look how that can breed mixed use. If you create hubs of live, work, play, they are sustainable, and I don’t just mean green, I also mean in terms of economics. I think Qatar has the opportunity to develop walk-through villages, where you can leave your car and use public transport. So Qatar could become the smartest city in the GCC region because it’s aiming to put its infrastructure together correctly.

“There are other advantages, too. If I have a community around a metro station, I need less infrastructure development than a longer, spaced-out project. Qatar has a power issue because of the expansion in population and projects; so if we can create cities that use less power because of how they work, we don’t have to ask the government for as much power.

That means the government saves money, and that resource can go into healthcare, schools and education, while developers can actually reduce overheads through reduced infrastructure and utility costs. It’s a ‘win, win, win’ situation for everybody. The tenant gets a walkable city, the developer can maximise its return and governments can reduce demand on energy needs.”

But for this vision to become a reality, more collaboration is needed between all parties responsible for the work happening in Qatar. And, given the deadlines for the Doha Metro project, that collaboration is going to have to happen sooner rather than later, as the days where companies thought they could simply start again if a project went amiss are over.

“The forums between the top consultancies and the government bodies are closed, and I think that they have to be opened up to the developer and contractor market because it’s really important that they are heard in this discussion. That’s not happening at the moment and the wrong types of developments are happening as a result.

“We need to get this right because once you build a city, they money isn’t there to fix it. In the last boom, we could build towers and not worry about what they looked like or how they functioned, because the mentality was that we’d just knock it down and start again. But what has been realised is the money isn’t there, so you build it once and build it correctly. That means they need to be asking the schools, asking the healthcare, and bringing bigger working groups together, but that isn’t happening.

“The long-term plan says this should happen, but what I’ve found in reality is this isn’t happening on the ground. Developers or clients are approaching me to look at what they’re proposing for their plot, and you see that this plot is right next to a Metro station, but they have not even spoken with Qatar Rail – they’re just building whatever they want. Hence the forum needs to have base to which we can all interact with.”

As is often the case, the catalyst for change is likely to have to come from on high. If that can happen, it is then up to the designers and contractors to prove that the mixed use model is more beneficial to developers, clients and the Qatar government. It is then, Eckersall believes, that the case can be made for the collaborative approach to become the industry standard.

“There should be a planning legislation that lays out the directive, and offers financing and access to developers. There needs to be more of an investment model around the transport hubs, rather than an urban dream model, and, as a design and build contractor, I believe we have a real role to play in that, because clients look to us for a vision.

We should be saying to our clients, ‘if you put a school, a medical centre and some residential on your site, you now have a robust development model that not only creates a sustainable opportunity but it can also withstand the ups and downs of economic markets, something which we saw in the last recession how fragile the local development models actually were ’. They [the developers] will thank you and it’s at that point to start the debate.

“It comes back to the investment model, so if you can show the private owner of the land around the metro station that you can create better profit and when there is a recession, yours is the office that is always full, he’s going to welcome the ideas. As Qatar gets busy, more pressure is going to be put on the design community to go back with strong ideas, so that community needs to come together and share their ideas about their projects.”

As a company with design and build capabilities, Shapoorji Pallonji is also in a position to help make the country’s construction and supply chain processes more efficient. As evidenced at April’s Construction Week Qatar Leaders in Construction Summit, there is a big swing within the industry towards this approach.

“The first thing big developers are saying is ‘can you do design and build?’. The contractors are getting involved sooner, because we offer opportunities to rationalise design with efficient construction processes which assist with programme cost and time. That is going to be important in Qatar as the country gets more demand on the delivery of the construction market.

“If we can construct more of the project off-site, we can reduce logistics, reduce site delivery and hence reduce the demand being placed on the infrastructure – this is how Qatar can become efficient. That is another way the country is building up expertise; and a skill of construction logistic planning that the Qatar market can show the rest of the world that we’ve built infrastructure that works, and by the way, well in advance of any pending World Cup, we are ready and fit for the event.

“The airport is already ready and the port will be a world leader. The country has more positives than it maybe gives itself credit for, we need to look at how the country will maximise the opportunity it has and tell the world about it.”

But with immovable deadlines, Qatar has to get it right the first time round. There is still time to make sure just that happens, says Eckersall, but the time for action is now.

“The legacy of Qatar 2022 has to be that we looked at the culture of old Qatar and created a new Qatar which will live on for generations, and will create places that will be used for as long as you can imagine. This is the time for an eleventh hour peer review of the design and the industry comes together, then we can create a really strong city. We have a duty as professionals to create that legacy for Qatar.”

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