The evolution of fit-out trends within the GCC

The evolution of construction standards has raised the bar for fit-out designs, operations, and contract models in the GCC, Neha Bhatia finds


Last month, ISG Middle East announced its financials for the year so far, reporting a 36% increase in annual revenue worth $76.2m (AED280m), and net profit rise of 84% to $1.5m (AED5.7m), year on year.

Commenting on the results, Alan McCready, managing director of the firm, said: “The ISG Middle East team has produced a strong performance this year – the best since 2009.

“This result was driven by hospitality projects and engineering-led, large-scale office fit outs, which we specialise in and have become known for within the UAE market.”

The firm has increased its activities in the office fit-out sector this year, according to McCready. ISG Middle East is diversifying its activities across the hospitality, leisure, and engineering services sectors in order to mitigate the impact of low oil prices on its core sector – corporate fit-out.

The company’s work in UAE’s capital city includes headquarters for Daman and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. In Dubai, it boasts a selection of hospitality refurbishment projects, such as the first two phases of the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates.

In combination with ISG Middle East’s 2015 results so far, the firm’s current contracts would suggest that the UAE’s fit-out sector has gained momentum of late. Indeed, the same could be said for the region as a whole.

Heightened construction activity, and the completion of structural works on large-scale developments in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, mean that the GCC’s fit-out industry has its hands full heading into 2016.

Fit-out operations have evolved in line with industry changes, and modern fit-out designs and practices are transitioning to suit international standards. ISG Middle East’s McCready attributes this evolution to the rapid globalisation ambitions of local GCC markets, such as the UAE and Qatar.

“There has definitely been a gradual but consistent move towards international standards of corporate office fit outs,” McCready tells Construction Week.

“The increased presence of international architects has contributed greatly to the modernisation of office design themes, and balancing that with the creation of space that supports the way business is done in the region. There has also been an increased focus on natural daylight and its utilisation through the opening of corridors and the use of glass partitioning instead of closed gypsum walls, which obviously block the light.”

Remarking on the UAE’s commercial fit-out sector, McCready adds: “Commercial office fit-out design is unrecognisable in Dubai and Abu Dhabi from a decade ago, [and this can be said] for at least 70% of the market. Bright, light, open-plan work spaces [with] break-out and collaborative areas [are] now the norm.

“The legal sector may still opt for a more traditional look, [with] dark-wood veneers and private, closed-office environments. But even this sector has largely moved to contemporary office designs over the past five years,” McCready explains.

Client choices have also altered, and the choice between Cat A and Cat B fit-outs is now largely made on a case-by-case basis. Tom Gilmartin, business development manager at ALEC Fitout, says: “The preference for Cat A and Cat B fit outs varies per sector, typically relating to commercial office projects.

“On large-scale hospitality projects, some clientele prefer to lease food-and-beverage (F&B) or retail spaces within their hotels, providing shell-and-core finishes for their tenants. However, the majority of clients prefer to fully fit out and operate their entire asset.”

ISG Middle East’s McCready adds: “Generally, developer clients opt for Cat A during the most competitive period of the property development market cycle to enhance their product and support their leasing process. During more prosperous, bullish times, they may be likely to attempt to lease their product as a basic shell-and-core offering.

“We would advise developer clients leasing a commercial building to fit out a small number of Cat A floors and show suites, and to promote tenants fitting out other floors from a shell-and-core basis. The reason for this is that the majority of the Cat A raised-floor and ceiling grids would need to be removed in a typical commercial fit out to facilitate the services installations above ceiling and below floor,” McCready explains.

This advice is demonstrative of the fact that fit-out contractors are evolving to suit clients’ needs. In cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, the current trend is to award MEP, and furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) contracts as a single package.

“Another trend is to value engineer and propose alternative materials in order to achieve demanding budgets,” adds to Gilmartin, whose employer has worked on projects such as Hamad International Airport in Qatar, and Reel Cinemas | The Beach (pictured), and Vida Downtown Dubai Hotel in the UAE.

“[We employ] similar strategies when executing affordable and luxury hotel projects, as the client will always demand a high quality of finish and value for their budget spend,” says Gilmartin.

“It is critical for the client [that] designers and contractors work closely together in order to successfully deliver the project.

“Typically, the majority of savings through the use of alternative materials, design detailing, and value engineering can be achieved by focusing on the guest rooms and corridors. It is possible to achieve high-quality finishes for both affordable segment and luxury projects by utilising local materials and suppliers in lieu of international suppliers, simplifying design detailing, and providing alternative materials to those specified – without compromising on the design intent,” Gilmartin continues.

The Middle East’s sustainable fit-out sector, meanwhile, has attracted its own share of converts during recent years, according to UAE-based Summertown Interiors’ managing director, Marcos Bish.

“As sustainability has become a major issue for our society, the fit-out industry has experienced increased pressure to implement environmentally-responsible practices,” he tells Construction Week.

“In recent years, we have witnessed an increased awareness and demand for recyclable or recycled materials, and local raw materials to reduce transportation footprints. The emerging demand for reusable and local materials has had a positive effect on their availability and prices in the market, fostering the adoption of green practices on a larger scale.

“The seamless integration of technology in the workplace is another key trend, with a growing demand for electronically-controlled fittings able to regulate lighting and airflow from central locations, through smart-touch screen panels,” Bish continues.

As with most operations for sustainable projects, however, green fit-out work requires copious amounts of planning before work can commence on site.

Summertown’s Bish concludes: “It is important at the beginning of the project to consider if you want to go green. Taking eco-friendly measures later on in the project can be very expensive. For example, start with your site selection – a greener site will need to have good transportation links to reduce the carbon footprint of your employees, and will maximise the use of natural daylight so that you can reduce energy consumption.”

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