Progress report: Construction at Expo 2020 Dubai site

Expo 2020 Dubai's construction workforce will double next year as activity reaches a crucial period on the megaproject

Construction is steadily progressing at the Expo 2020 Dubai site in Dubai South [ ITP Images / Ajith Narendra].
Construction is steadily progressing at the Expo 2020 Dubai site in Dubai South [ ITP Images / Ajith Narendra].
Numerous UAE and international contractors are involved with the project [image courtesy of Expo 2020 Dubai].
Numerous UAE and international contractors are involved with the project [image courtesy of Expo 2020 Dubai].
Sustainability is a key focus of Expo 2020 Dubai's construction scheme [ ITP Images / Ajith Narendra].
Sustainability is a key focus of Expo 2020 Dubai's construction scheme [ ITP Images / Ajith Narendra].

Expo 2020 Dubai's senior vice president of real estate and delivery, Ahmed Al Khatib, brings Construction Week up to speed on one of Dubai's most important projects in an exclusive interview.

Major construction work for Expo 2020 Dubai will be completed in October 2019, leaving plenty of time for testing and preparation before its doors open to the 21 million visitors that organisers expect will attend the six-month event.

The project is now at a crucial point in its construction timeline, with little more than a year to go until the complex building and infrastructural works need to be finished. With activity accelerating in preparation for the busiest period, Construction Week finds out how work on the 4.38km² site is progressing.

Ahmed Al Khatib, senior vice president of real estate and delivery at Expo 2020 Dubai, tells Construction Week that an “impressive pace of progress” has been maintained since early work on the project, located in Dubai South, began in 2015. He emphasises that “close collaboration” between all of the stakeholders on site has been vital to help “coordinate logistics and ensure that work continues according to [...] schedule”. This momentum is crucial as Dubai prepares to host the first-ever world fair in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

In terms of progress, construction is well advanced on the three Thematic Districts that form the core of the expo site. All three districts – named Mobility, Opportunity, and Sustainability, based on Expo 2020 Dubai’s sub-themes – will be connected by Al Wasl Plaza, the centrepiece of the site. Work has started on the erection of steelwork pieces that form the domed trellis of Al Wasl Plaza, after the parts arrived by ship from Italy, where they were cast by Cimolai.

READ: Construction details of Expo 2020 Dubai's German Pavilion revealed

Foundations and structural works are now complete within the three Thematic Districts. Moreover, all concrete works for the districts have been completed, with about 243,000m³ of concrete poured. Precast production and installation is now taking place, with façade, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, and public-realm works also in progress. Khatib says the Phase 1 infrastructure package, which includes work for the Expo Village and the Dubai 2020 Metro Line, is almost complete: “Our Phase 2 infrastructural works will be completed in 2019.”

Both packages include building sewage lines, electricity cabling, telecommunications, fire systems, storm water drainage systems, a road network, and car parks. All three 132kV substations were completed earlier this year and are now live. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) plants will generate and distribute power for the Expo 2020 site. Earlier this year, the authority revealed that the total construction cost for its three substations stood at $114m (AED420m).

Khatib says he is pleased with the pace of progress to date, adding that he expects activity to go up a gear in the next nine months. Project stakeholders will have to build upon and grow their respective site management strategies as more workers arrive to build the development. 

To date, more than 42 million work hours have been completed for the project, and there are approximately 20,000 workers on site now. The number of staff on the ground will double to 40,000 when building activity reaches its busiest period in the first half of 2019 – this headcount figure represents both manual and non-manual workers, including third-party stakeholders and building teams for the 100-plus international participants.

NEXT PAGE: Expo 2020 Dubai's sustainability KPIs and waste management strategy

There are currently 45 tower cranes on site, and ongoing works on the project include shade structure and canopy installation. This is being carried out by the Middle East division of Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Middle East, a division of the UK-based structural engineering firm of the same name.

UAE-based companies play an important role in the construction efforts. Contractors including AF Construction, Arabtec, ALEC, ASGC, Besix, Khansaheb, and Tristar Engineering are all involved with the scheme. Al Naboodah Construction has completed early works for the project, and it is also working on the car parks and associated roads, in addition to civil defence and emergency response buildings. Other notable names involved with the development include Emaar Properties, Meraas, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, China State Construction Engineering Corporation Middle East, as well as many other local and international players.

Construction teams have shifted enough sand to fill 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools since work started on the project in 2015. All of the stakeholders are working to reuse as much excavated material as possible, as part of the expo’s efforts to balance cut and fill activities.

This is just one of the many key performance indicators (KPIs) contractors are abiding by, Khatib explains: “In total, the site has 41 KPIs covering the sustainability of the project, [which focuses on] not just the construction of the expo, but the design and commissioning of the entire project as well.”

READ: Dubai's Route 2020 metro line notes construction progress

Expo 2020 Dubai may go on to become the most sustainable world fair to date, and Khatib believes the eco-friendly measures implemented for the scheme are having an impact across the emirate. “All of the construction guidelines we have here are raising the standards for the whole of Dubai,” he notes.

Building teams follow a waste strategy that encourages firms to reduce, reuse, or recycle as much as possible. This includes construction waste, as well as solid and municipal waste.

The expo’s goal is for 85% of all construction waste to be segmented, allowing surplus materials to be treated and diverted away from landfill. This target is higher than the UAE Vision 2021 goal of diverting 75% of solid municipal waste away from landfill.

Asphalt mix used to surface 30,000 under-construction car park spaces – which will be completed in Q2 2019 – was reformulated as part of the expo’s sustainability drive. Around a fifth of the mixture used to manufacture asphalt for the road that Al Naboodah Construction is building comes from recycled tyres.

“We carried out a series of comprehensive tests on various asphalt mixes to see what works best in the heat and [to determine] how much pressure it can withstand,” Khatib says, adding that this could be the first time in the region that this technique has been used on such a large scale.

NEXT PAGE: Expo 2020 Dubai's focus on the future

Further sustainability efforts include using photovoltaics to power all of the expo’s temporary lighting. Elements of prefabrication have been rolled out to minimise offcuts and waste, and as part of this endeavour, materials such as gyproc have also been ordered to standard sizes.

The expo has also established an on-site nursery to grow thousands of plants for the development, and approximately 13,000 mature trees and 300,000 shrubs have been grown to date. These plants are all treated with recycled water.

Compliance with the expo’s stringent environmental policy holds a high scoring category when construction tenders are being evaluated. It is not a decision based exclusively on price, as may often be the case across the global construction industry – indeed, worker welfare and waste management rank highly on the list of attributes that firms need to demonstrate in order to win work on the prestigious project.

READ: Construction tender floated for Expo 2020 Dubai's Dutch pavilion

Construction contracts awarded for Expo 2020 Dubai amounted to $2.9bn (AED10.8bn) last year. More than 24,000 companies from 145 countries are registered to do business with the expo through its eSourcing portal as work continues to ramp up.

For construction projects on the scale of Expo 2020 Dubai, where a multitude of contractors and sub-contractors are involved, it can often be hard to ensure all parties follow the same guidelines on safety and sustainability. However, thanks to the commitment demonstrated by construction stakeholders on the expo project, this not been an issue, and its major building works are expected to complete on time in October 2019.

Coupled with the project’s industry-leading sustainability and green building initiatives – such as using recycled tyres for asphalt, significantly reducing waste, maximising renewable energy opportunities, and converting moisture into water – the expo is making great progress in areas that transcend its timely delivery. As Khatib says, Expo 2020 has raised the bar for construction standards in Dubai – and it will continue to do so in the months to come.

NEXT PAGE: All you need to know about Expo 2020 Dubai's three Thematic Districts

The winning design for the Opportunity Pavilion was created by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), an architecture, design, and building specialist based in Copenhagen and New York. BIG says its design for the superstructure, which sits at the tip of the third petal-shaped district, allows the building to have the largest possible shading structure with the smallest possible volume. Lighting is woven into the architecture, with linear lights embedded in the façade. The saw-toothed shape of the pavilion allows natural light to filter in through the north side. South-facing solar panels will generate clean energy for one of the expo’s three primary anchors. The Opportunity Pavilion is the only one of the three pavilions not to have a legacy phase. It will be disassembled when the expo closes its doors after 10 April, 2021.

READ: US picks Big Things Group for Expo 2020 Dubai pavilion build

Designed by UK architectural practice Foster + Partner and managed by Emaar Properties, construction of the Mobility Pavilion is being carried out by ALEC. Laing O’Rourke provided pre-construction services. With a built-up area of approximately 23,439m², the mobility theme will be represented by encouraging visitors to explore smarter ways to transport people, goods, and knowledge, from drone-related jobs and driverless cars to innovative mobility solutions for people with disabilities. In an exclusive interview with CW in June 2018, ALEC’s chief executive officer, Kez Taylor, described the trefoil-shaped structure as “technically challenging”. The thematic district features a 15,000m² floor area, which includes approximately 4,000m² of exhibition space. As part of the legacy planning for Expo 2020 Dubai, the Mobility Pavilion may be transformed into high-spec offices.

In March 2018, ASGC won a contract of undisclosed value to work on the Sustainability Pavilion. Emaar is managing the delivery of the project, while Grimshaw Architects created the winning design. Sitting on a plot of 29,000m², with a floor area of 17,000m², it will exemplify sustainability in its own design by aspiring to a net-zero energy superstructure. Solar panels will produce around 4GWh of electricity a year and surplus power will be fed into DEWA’s grid. A humidity harvesting system will capture air moisture, turning it into water. The building will produce up to 22,000 litres of water per day through humidity harvesting and recycled grey water. The cutting-edge pavilion will be transformed into a museum after the expo.

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