Dubai and the Mumbai Egg

Cityscape 2009 may have been a much more muted affair

A view of the crowds at Cityscape 2009.
A view of the crowds at Cityscape 2009.

Cityscape 2009 may have been a much more muted affair in its exhibition spaces, but the attendant World Architecture Congress was galvanised by a lively debate about the growing importance of infrastructure and the long-term maintainability of buildings, which are important issues for both MEP and FM.

He congress kicked off with typical Cityscape razzmatazz as James Law, chairman of James Law Cybertecture of Hong Kong (or, as he likes to call himself, ‘chief cybertect’), dazzled the few audience members who had managed to defy the gravitas of Donald Trump Jnr. in the main conference venue with the mind-boggling idea that, one day, buildings would mimic planets.

Law was, of course, referencing his own Technosphere project, a 0.9 million square metre building in Dubai touted as the single largest spherical structure in the world.

One of the many startling features of this mooted project is a self-contained, internal river of 500,000 cubic metres of water that would “provide a new way of cooling a massive structure, modelled on the concept of human settlements flourishing around water bodies.” Law then invited his somewhat dubious audience to imagine a city of Technospheres, a veritable Technopolis.

Having tantalised with the seemingly impossible, Law then proceeded to elucidate a very real project, the 32,000 square metre ‘Cybertecture Egg’ commissioned by Vijay Associates (Wadhwa Developers) in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla complex.

Wait a moment, Mumbai? “The most amazing thing about this project is that it is not happening in Dubai, but in Mumbai. This shows just how much the world is changing,” commented Law.

What he perhaps meant was that the pioneering spirit of the architectural frontier represented by Dubai (and celebrated yearly at Cityscape) had since been transplanted to other developing countries like India.

It also points to a peculiar problem of Dubai, which has almost become a victim of its own success: “The notion of an icon has become almost banal here. You have to build a non-icon now in order to be iconic,” quipped Peter Rees, London’s city planning officer.

Steel diagrid
The ‘Cybertecture Egg’ served to effectively highlight the interlinked issues of energy efficiency and sustainability.

Based on a steel diagrid, this egg-shaped structure does not have a single column, which means a floor plate with a 95% utilisation. The ovoid shape also saves 20% on building materials, while the pointy bit is directed at the peak azimuth.

The cantilevered structure features a ‘sky garden’ as a ‘solar buffer’. The entire façade is covered in solar panels, while the building recycles its own water and is naturally ventilated. “None of this would have been possible 10 to 15 years ago,” remarked Law.

Hines MD Dr Jurgen Herre then proceeded to present much more sobering statistics. Speaking about the impact of the economic downturn on the GCC as a whole, he reminded everyone that the global economy had experienced its “longest and deepest cut since the 1930s.

It cannot go back to its previous level in a matter of months. Hence the UAE’s infrastructure spend to support its economy. Public spending is the most viable form of economic support at present.”

Dr Herre said that Dubai, in particular, had “shifted from a developer- to a tenant-driven market in a relatively short space of time.” In the 2008-2009 period, only 25% of total projects had been shelved.

However, from January to July 2009, “so far only 7% of construction and infrastructure contracts had actually been awarded, which is simply a disaster,” noted Dr Herre.

The current situation of over-supply in the residential and office space markets had resulted in “competition between good and not-so-good buildings.”

This posed a particular challenge to architects in particular: “How to make Dubai feel like an urban space where people feel inclined to stay longer than three years …” Hence property management is going to become ever more critical.

Evolution of buildings
“It will bring us further in the evolution of buildings. The market is no longer speculative, but is about supply and demand and creating the right product. It is not just about design anymore, but more about constructability and functionality.

The execution is so bad; in 10 to 15 years many buildings will have structural problems,” warned Dr Herre.

“What will be an A1 location in Dubai in 10 years’ time? Or even in 12 to 24 months around the Burj Dubai after the Dubai Metro is fully operational? It will be a totally different ball game.

Developers will be obliged to keep the end user in mind. Who will be the people inhabiting these buildings? Most projects are targeting the high end. We have to provide solutions for the middle class, as their needs are not being addressed.”

Dr Herre warned that sustainability and ‘green’ technology only stood a chance of succeeding “if it increased profits or added value.” The focus is shifting from rental per square metre to a total cost approach.

“If a building has better indoor air quality, then sick days go down, posing a significant benefit.” Many modern buildings are aesthetically pleasing, but what about their maintainability in years to come, questioned Dr Herre.

Such an approach was initially more expensive, he admitted, but if it is integrated during the design stage, then it only represented an incremental cost increase. “It creates additional value for you as the owner, as you can ask higher rents for a more efficient building. Investors will accept a reduced capitalisation rate as the maintenance will be lower.”

The future
What does all this mean for the future? Dr Herre does not gild any lilies: “The outlook is positive, though I am not sure if we have seen the worse yet. There is still a lot of risk out there.

In the long term, funds in the region are excellent. We are seeing an expanding young populace, which means more customers. In the short term, however, we will see continued distress in the region.

“The first wave was prior to 2009 when we began to experience liquidity problems. This ended up as a full-blown economic crisis, the second wave.

The third wave, which is financially distressed assets, is only likely to make its full impact felt in the last quarter of 2010, as real estate tends to lag 12 months behind the rest of the economy.

Industry-wise it is probable we have not seen the worse yet,” was Dr Herre’s sober prediction.

Green Technologies MD Mario Seneviratne said the ‘hot topic’ at the moment was reducing the region’s carbon footprint, one of the highest in the world, and making sustainable communities.

“We receive nine out of ten enquiries as to LEED accreditation after tender stage. There is no chance of achieving LEED Platinum after the schematic design stage, as you have already missed the opportunity of many common-sense things. Sustainability should be the mainstream focus of any project, and not just an add-on.”

Seneviratne added that all professionals involved had to assume responsibility for achieving sustainability.

“It is impossible to carry out a sustainable project without the entire team on board at the beginning, especially in terms of goal-setting and continuous monitoring. Energy modelling is an integral part of this process.”

Rees concurred succinctly when he remarked: “Any fool can design a good building, but it takes a genius to design a good space.”

He said that the industry needed to focus on “remaking spaces that have ceased to be places. Dubai is still relatively new, comprising individual buildings with nothing much in-between.

We have got to figure out what to do with these spaces. It is not just bankers who have gotten us into this mess; we ourselves have been producing ‘wacky buildings’.”

Rees said the industry was in a position where it was now possible to build anything.

However, after the downturn, “people are now starting to look at the real worth of buildings.” This means that ancillary disciplines such as MEP and FM will play an increasingly more important role in the brave new world being built.

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