Global design firms are battling for lucrative school deals in the UAE
Schools and educational facilities have long been bread and butter for designers and architects in the UK.
But the last couple of years has seen many firms up sticks and move to the Middle East, as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait seek to shore up education sectors that have historically lacked investment and resources.
In 2010, it is the UAE that is leading the pack in terms of opportunities for designers and architects, with the Abu Dhabi Education Council boasting a budget of AED9.8 billion for schools alone. ADEC already has 18 schools underway in Abu Dhabi, designed by various global firms, and plans for many more as part of its 10 year strategic plan.
“The existing school stock in the government sector is extremely poor,” says Nadine Nackasha, head of British firm BDP’s Abu Dhabi office. “One of the key things that parents complain about here is that they can’t find good schools for their kids.”
BDP is one of a number of UK firms that have set up shop in the UAE in an attempt to cash in on ADEC’s new education drive. The firm is currently involved in a design competition with a dozen other firms to design 15 new schools for Abu Dhabi.
ADEC is happy to admit that ageing facillites are one of the main reasons why growth in the emirate’s school stock is needed, but rising standards and new facilites are also a factor. Matthew Kennedy, Middle East director of Wates International, the construction company currently in a joint venture with Al Fara’a Integrated Construction Group to build two major government schools in Abu Dhabi, knows about these new challenges first hand.
“Designs for schools are improving all the time to promote learning and academic achievement. ICT is a major part of the design, while seemingly simple things, such as trips, finger traps, lighting levels and child-sized washroom facilities, have to be considered,” Kennedy says.
But sustainability, the buzzword in Abu Dhabi in the last few years, is also paramount, explains Alberto Treves, section manager for education facilities design at ADEC. “This is the first time that sustainability features have been incorporated into school design, including energy efficient air conditioning systems and water-saving devices,” he says. “Orientations, insulation and shading devices have been carefully planned, and electricity for classrooms will be generated on the school site.”
BDP’s Nackasha says that these new demands, as well as an increased budget for new builds, make the education sector an exciting market. It also seems that in 2010 ADEC is ready to put its money where its mouth is – while in 2005 it required schools to be built for AED2,300 per square metre, now the budget is closer to AED4,500.
“ADEC’s aspirations are very high, on a par with the BSF programme in the UK, which is very exciting. It’s great that high standards are being set,” Nackasha says.
“They do have a lot of the same principles, but the local climate has to be taken into consideration as well as the promotion of sustainable materials, which is very new to building programmes here.”
The public sector is only one area of opportunity for firms in Abu Dhabi, demand for private schools is also growing as the emirate expands. The recent announcement from ADEC that over 70 ‘Villa Schools’- low fee, private outfits that cater to the children of expatriates in Abu Dhabi – would be forced to close by 2013 has left an estimated 45,000 students needing new facilities.
UK firm Stride Treglown, which recently opened an office in Abu Dhabi, has targeted this corner of the market. The firm has already found that fulfilling ADEC’s high standards for new schools with the limited budgets of villa school owners has been a significant challenge.
“You have villa school owners who have been making 30 or 40% profit with a thousand pupils in a cramped and inappropriate villa school, now needing to fund a building of around 25 to 30 million dirhams,” explains Nathan Hones, general manager of Stride Treglown in the Middle East.
“Even though ADEC provide land to these villa school owners, it does not address the construction costs, the land is often way out in Mussafah or Bani Yas City where it is available, but not overly desirable.”
One of the most onerous requirements for the villa school owners is having to provide larger spaces per student, and having to incorporate science labs, music and recreation facilities and special education areas into their new facilities. In some cases these facilities are not required since the schools teach Indian or Filipino curriculums, with less emphasis on music and the arts.
In order to address this, Stride has been working with ADEC to modify its requirement for villa schools, and the firm has already had some success. The most recent design manual issued to architects looking to design private schools has reduced the space per pupil from 2.2m2 per pupil to 1.8m2, and requiring music and art facilities only in schools where those subjects account for more than 40 hours per week in the curriculum.
“This is a real step forward for ADEC who seem to have been listening to the struggling low income schools and have made a number of concessions,” Hones says.
Sustainability is still a factor for designers looking into the private school sector, but Hones believes that green initiatives, and their cost, are easier to justify to developers when they are applied to a school than an office building.
“When people worry about sustainability adding to construction costs you usually find it’s developers selling apartments or office buildings and trying to recoup the cost at the point of sale. But ADEC look at the capital costs as they run that over an operating cost of five years, so when you do that it does tend to make even more sense,” Hones explains.
“The school is the end user and you’re not trying to recoup that initial capital cost after day one, you’re running it over five years.”