With Dubai's reputation being one of breath-taking views and hot climates, Becca Wilson reports on how it is possible for companies in the region to maintain healthy and vibrant exterior landscaping features in the Emirate's developments.
Landscaping has become an important visual appeal in the Middle East with many high-profile exterior and interior projects being completed and maintained on a daily basis.
The recent announcement of the Middle East’s first Botanical Museum in Sharjah is proof that the local landscaping industry is now flourishing.
Dubai based Planters Horticulture has been contracted by the Government of Sharjah to advise and execute the interior landscaping. The museum has been specifically designed to create a pre-historic rain forest, a unique and ironic concept for an area that doesn’t see much rainfall and where sand covers the majority of land.
Interior and exterior landscaping are two very similar models, but require different types of maintenance. Here the focus is on exterior landscaping.
Rajan Dewan, director, Al Khatib Cracknel says Dubai has to think about how it is viewed by people. “Dubai is a new city development and people are coming from all over the world. But any human being would like to live in a comfortable environment and when you are building something you have that in mind and you are trying to create that attraction.
“People don’t like to see a jungle especially when the weather is not that comfortable for most of the year. Dubai has to think about these things and landscaping is a very important aspect and development.”
There are two types of landscaping maintenance, irrigation and horticulture. Dewan says he believes that currently, FM companies either offer one service or the other – not both.
“I haven’t come across a FM company who’s fully equipped with both irrigation and landscape maintenance. Maybe the people who do golf course maintenance are, but if there are companies offering both services they need to make sure they have qualified people working for them,” explains Dewan.
Irrigation systems can be complex. Once the project has been handed over to the FM, it’s important for the company to appoint someone who is knowledgeable, understands irrigation control systems and is passionate. “They shouldn’t be an ordinary gardener or plumber – it will save a lot of man power hours and money if someone understands the system,” states Dewan.
He also thinks the market is crying out for facilities management companies who can provide both the irrigation and soft landscaping services. “If you have two different companies engaged then both of them will clash. I think people are demanding them to have both because you cannot rely on a company from outside to look after the planting and a facilities company to look after the irrigation. It makes sense to have both jobs given to one company so they can take care of everything.”
In his experience, the pump station is looked after by the FM but the landscaping is given to a separate company. “If everything came under FM then I think it would make a lot of sense. It will make the whole process very efficient. I would definitely like this to happen and see more people in the market more knowledgeable about irrigation control systems, which are now becoming very popular,” explains Dewan.
The UAE alone is expected to consume 600 million gallons of water a day in 2015 and the 2006 Global Human Development Report concluded that 90% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa will live in water-scarce nations by 2025. This is not surprising when figures show the Middle East contains only 1% of the world’s fresh water.
Massive investment into more desalination plants has meant that 60 to 70% of the total water supplies to the UAE are desalinated and the figure is rising every year.
“In this part of the world you cannot sustain landscape and irrigation. There is no rainfall, the ground water is bad, the quality of soil is bad, the soil has no nutrition and it is very loose, especially in Dubai. The moment you put water on it, it immediately drains down. So you tend to lose a lot of water through drainage,” says Dewan.
This is something Ralf Stahl, managing partner of Zeoplant agrees with. “By starting professional irrigation management, in some cases you can cut down irrigation costs by 20%. That’s without any additional irrigation products.”
There are many irrigation products available in the market place, all designed to help control the speed at which water drains through the soil. The initial costs of these projects can look quite pricey, but return of investment is said to be around one to two years if the product is used as stated by the manufacturer.
Because of the lose, sandy soil in the region we have very high filtration rates. “When the water reaches the level of the root zone where it will actually be required, I think around 50 to 60% is used and the rest is lost by either evaporating on the surface or by drainage.”
It all depends on the quality of soil being used. In the Middle East it’s imperative to mix products into the soil to improve the water holding capacity. Some of the regions developers are buying into using these products, but some contractors often have a different idea. “You have a contractual team who get their bonuses out of the savings they make. So in general terms, they are not interested in using expensive systems and controls,” explains Stahl.
“Of course we’re getting more and more developers who are looking for quality and sustainability, but let me be frank with you. I would still say that 80% of everything happening here is still done cheaply. Saving budget, costs and quality whereever they can to make a nice margin at the end of the day,” he adds.
Again, it’s all about educating – something people in and out of the industry keep referring back to.
Yet, Stahl is seeing an increase in the local younger generation being more concerned about water consumption.
“For the last three years we have been educating the market about water saving and the benefits it can bring. We often get the impression that when you are talking to the new generation of local people coming into the senior positions, they are much more aware and open and say “yes, we have to save our natural resources. We have to look after our children and grandchildren. We can’t keep on wasting like this”,” explains Stahl.
With the plants needing more water and daily irrigation in the hot summer months, it’s encouraging to hear people are now starting to think about the most efficient way to irrigate. “Irrigation is extremely important if you want to develop a nice and healthy landscape. If you want to see all this lush green you must maintain and provide proper water,” Dewan adds.
Implementing the correct irrigation system in this region is imperative. It’s a very cost effective and convenient way of controlling the water consumption. If the FM is not involved at the design stage, it’s down to the developer to ensure the right systems are in place for efficient and effective irrigation control.
Dewan says that once the architects have defined the landscape and the horticultural team has chosen the plants, it is then ready for the irrigation system to be individually suited to the landscape. “We have to think about where the water is coming from, what sort of control is required, how is it going to be maintained, how much sophistication is required?
“Different plants have different water requirements – grass requires less water than other plants. Palm trees need the maximum,” explains Dewan.
To date, there has been no studies indicating how much water is needed for different types of plants. This is something Dewan would like to see changing as currently, people are relying on personal experience and guessing how much water is needed.
What can help, is to make sure the developer and contractor implement an irrigation system that will not only help control the amount of water being used, it will also cut down on maintenance as the process is automated.
In theory, the FM should be involved at this stage and it is them who will have to look after the project once completed. “We would like FM companies to get involved at the design stage so they can first understand what type of system they are going to be using and second, if they have any particular requirement we can adapt to meet these needs,” says Dewan.
Irrigation systems can be as sophisticated as you need them to be. As Dewan points out, what is the point of employing more staff to turn valves on and off when technology can do it all for you?
“We are using technology to control the irrigation network on a global basis. Take Festival City for example, we are doing that and I can control the systems from here. I can change the timing of a particular valve, open and close the valve and see what’s happening overall,” explains Dewan.
Companies like Rainbird, Hunter, Toro and Signature Control all build these systems. Dubai Municipality has been using the Rainbird one for the last 15 plus years, they have controls installed all over the city and they’re all linked back to the central control system in Garhoud.
There are positive and negative impacts of using these systems. The positive is that there’s both stand alone and integrated irrigation systems.
“Technology is so advanced that you have features available where, for example, if a pipe burst in the night you could have an alarm on your cell phone informing you. You can then quickly get up and use your computer to sort out the problem, rather than going to the site. It makes life easier for operators,” says Dewan.
“The negative point is there are not that many people who really understand this technology. Especially when we design something, we hand it over to the client and there’s nobody there to look after it. Half of the time we let this go into the hands of electrical plumbers and they feel they are out of their depth so ignore it and go back to their normal switch on/off controller. There’s no point spending money on a sophisticated system if they are not going to use it.”
Using the right type of system will save a lot of water and a lot of labour. Maintenance is a labour intensive job, for example, you want to irrigate a public park when no-body is around or there are minimal people there so you won’t disturb them. “You can’t expect someone to get up at 2am and open the valve, it has to be done automatically. You need a system that is run on a network to be able to do this.
“So if it does save a lot of labour and we have maybe 1000 valves, if you think how much time this would take two guys to individually open and close these valves, if you have technology you can control everything sitting there without any hassle. One man is required to control the whole park or the whole network,” states Dewan.
Compared to conventional hose watering, automatic operating systems can save more than 70% water consumption. “You should not be using hose watering at all, it’s not on. We are struggling to have water,” adds Dewan.
As previously mentioned, the region has and will continue to heavily invest in using recycled water. Most of the sewage in the city is recycled back into the city and used for landscaping. But some people, especially those in the villa’s see the water as dirty water and don’t want to use the treated water. Dewan explains that because the water is full or organic matter, it saves on fertilisers.
He says: “You see all the lush green lawn areas and they use minimal fertiliser because this water is full of organic matter which is very good for plants. We have been having discussion with Municipality engineers and their main concern is that they have to go back to the landscaping area very frequently because the growth is so fast due to the quality of the water.”
Using waste water for the landscaping does a double job – it takes care of the waste water so it’s not dumped back into the seas and then it comes back and you can use is for irrigation. “It’s fantastic for the plants, they love it,” says Dewan.