Cityscape Abu Dhabi 2008
Jeff Roberts finds that the desire for dollars is driving design.
With the painless registration process and an abundance of free parking still fresh in my mind, I gazed across a sea of kandura-clad GCC nationals and quickly realised that Cityscape Abu Dhabi is a very different animal from its Dubai counterpart.
The inside of the exhibition hall revealed concentric circles of massive stands housing the region's most prominent real estate investment and development firms.
The core housed those companies that have been long established as lions in the field, while the first periphery featured those looking to build both contacts and portfolios in the lucrative market.
Pre-conference workshops entitled Real Estate Finance & Investment, Structuring Islamic Real Estate Deals and Sustainability in Terms of Economic Viability, spoke volumes about a clientele that seemed more interested in investment opportunities than architectural trends or environmentally friendly solutions.
Smaller developers were peppered throughout the second and third rings, while the furthest periphery seemed to be reserved for architects, designers, model-makers and niche businesses. The arrangement alone suggested a conference built on the concept of separation of man from money.
Robert Szantner, partner at Yamasaki Associates, perfectly summed up the focus of the conference: "[Sustainability] throws up economic challenges," he said. "Whether or not you can demonstrate the cost/benefit is pretty tricky.
Clients want to say that their buildings are green and sustainable, but they have to find ways that those things can become sales aspects."
"As designers we have to be able to respond to sustainable issues as well as a client's financial goals," he added.
To be fair, the popularity of the sustainability pre-workshops suggested that developers in the region are considering sustainable solutions more now than ever before.
While some projects continue to over-market themselves as 'green communities' or 'LEED pre-certified', architects and engineers are seeing a marked re-evaluation of priorities.
"I think [investors] are really getting used to sustainability here now. In the UK it's been on the agenda for a long time but the capital cost is an issue," said John Robertson, founder and director of John Robertson Architects.
"Here, clients are prepared to invest in the initial capital from day one. They see the added value."
In fact, Arup associate and Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) member Lachlan Brown is optimistic about a LEED-based measurement tool that will soon take the environmental responsibility out of the hands of the client or developer.
"EGBC is putting together a rating tool for green buildings, which we're hoping will be ready by the end of the year."
On a positive note, Yamasaki has been a leader in energy efficient design in Saudi Arabia for more than 50 years and Szantner is encouraged by the interest he's seeing in the UAE.
"Many of the [sustainability elements] being considered, we've already done in Saudi Arabia....Conservation is very important in that environment," said Szantner. "It's good to see there's a real interest in this."
While sustainability appears to now be fully commodified as another real estate sales tool, the fact that it's now driving positive changes to building design has to be applauded.
With royal appointment extending the show by an extra day, 50,000 visitors and deals totalling US $36 billion, the future of Abu Dhabi's architecture looks to be both sustainable, and serious.