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Smart building

More and more authorities are investing in school building projects

A project being constructed by Arabtec in Saudi Arabia.
A project being constructed by Arabtec in Saudi Arabia.

RELATED ARTICLES: A lesson in school building | School's InAl Fara'a, Wates spy new year Abu Dhabi schools

In sharp contrast with the days of high-rises, hotels and real estate, a new demand for infrastructure is sweeping across the GCC. This year, a pronounced focus on soft infrastructure, and particularly schools, is prevalent.

Like many other sectors, most of the demand for schools is driven by anticipated population growth and limited, out-of-date facilities. For example, whilst the demand for pupil places is expected to grow 5% in the UAE alone in the next few years, in April this year, waiting lists of up to 3,500 applicants were recorded for individual schools in the country, and a large number of facilities were accused of being inefficient, poor quality and antiquated.

In some cases, the problem is even more acute. In Abu Dhabi especially, ongoing issues related to the inadequate safety standards and high prices of ‘villa schools’ have forced the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) to order the closure of all 71 villa schools in the region – 25,000 pupils reportedly enrolled at premises which put their lives at risk.

Unsurprisingly, this has put massive pressure on both the public and private sector to build a high number of new schools quickly and efficiently in order to accommodate the 45,000 pupils who will need replacing when the schools shut down.

This is on top of a lack of schools for low and middle-income families, which is seemingly creating hostility among poorer expatriate families.

“School fees are very high in top level expat schools and we simply need more schools to put a downward pressure on the price,” says architectural firm Stride Treglown’s general manager Nathan Hones.

“Leaders of the UAE recognise that the strength of local Emiratis in business and of the global economy starts with a firm foundation in education, but it also realises that if it wants to keep the wealth of the expatriate experience here, it needs to cater for their children’s education at all levels of society.

In recent years, a great deal of time and money has been invested in tourism, energy, residential and commercial projects, but now the UAE government is catching up on those sectors left behind, such as transportation, power and education.”

Of course, for contractors, consultants and architects, heavy investment in schools projects means a fresh influx of new contract wins on the table.

Earlier this year, ADEC revealed plans to build thirty private schools in the next thirty years alongside proposals to renovate an additional 15 facilities each year after the UAE government committed AED 17.8 billion to social affairs, education and healthcare, of which AED 9.8 billion was set aside for education.

In July, bids were sought for several new schools due to be constructed across six plots of land in Khalifa City B and Mohamed bin Zayed City, scheduled for completion in 2013.

Meanwhile, developer Aldar Academies, which has already built four private schools in the GCC, is currently constructing the Al Bateen secondary school, which will cater for as many as 1,300 pupils.

Expert school builders and joint-main contractors for the project, Al Fara’a and Wates Construction, believe there are real opportunities in this sector.

“There is plenty of funding available for school projects, as they are carefully sought and planned initiatives of the government and of major developers,” says Al Fara’a Integrated Construction Group’s vice chairman, Chimanlal Gangaramani.

“The truth is that governments have committed to improving education standards, and along with a focus on infrastructure and civic facilities, we expect to see a lot of continued investment in the education sector by the authorities and private investors alike.”

According to other school building experts however, there may in fact be more private investors shouldering the costs when it comes to replacing villa schools - distinguishable from private schools being developed by the likes of Aldar Academies for wealthier families and those being renovated or built by the ADEC.

“The problem in Abu Dhabi is that you have villa school owners who have previously been making 30-40% profit with a thousand pupils cramped in an inappropriate villa school, now needing to fund a building of around AED 25-30 million whilst reducing their profit margins to 10-15% and with payback periods of around 10-15 years,” explains Hones.

“Even though ADEC provide land to these villa school owners, it does not address the construction costs. The only way the school can cater for this is to increase their cashflow by increasing school fees, but this is almost impossible as the ADEC mandate that if you are transferring students from one school to another there is a cap on how much you can increase fees.

In addition, the struggling villa schools will now be expected to provide top quality teachers and facilities, which will add costs again.”

He adds: “As a result of this, many of the clients who have come to us for services are school owners, businessmen, and one semi-government backed developer. But the latter is looking at a VIP school, which unfortunately does not address the need for more low-income schools.”

Hence, a potential issue for contractors considering whether or not to get involved in a school project includes differentiating between the publicly-funded and upper-end private school projects, and those aimed at providing affordable school facilities in the place of villa schools, which may or may not affect payment terms.

Strict architectural requirements
Separately, and from a construction point of view, perhaps the main challenge when considering school building is a lack of experience. Evidently, it seems that without having some expertise in the field, it can be difficult for new contractors to enter this market.

More constrained by time and site safety than other projects, respectively due to the imminence of school terms and the need to protect children during school renovation, education projects are typically expected to meet much stricter criteria than other projects, with a far tighter approval process and very detailed requirements for architectural and MEP works.

“There are a myriad of requirements particular to school projects, and it is in the interests of the school management team and developer to be selective when choosing their contractors so they can ensure the benefits are maximised from a long-term facilities and operations point of view,” says Gangaramani.

“For a start, schools are extremely time-bound projects, which need to be handed over in time for children and teachers to start the new term or year.”

Wates International’s Middle East director Matthew Kennedy agrees. “Schools have to be ready for the start of the academic year, so construction projects must focus on a late summer completion to permit F.F.E. fit out in time for the teaching staff to ‘move in’.”

Notably, time constraints are also a key consideration in respect of the detailed requirements for architectural and MEP works, which according to industry experts, these are becoming stricter with a new focus on quality, sustainability and modernness.

“The demand in the UAE is not just for schools, but for creating better learning environments with innovative solutions for making learning a creative and happier experience,” explains Dewan Architects’ executive director Ammar Al Assam.

“From a design point of view, education projects are normally low rise projects, with the major challenges being functionality, performance and safety rather than external architectural image.”

In line with this view, ADEC’s minimum requirements for private school facilities compel architects to take some key factors into consideration when designing a school.

First, is the location of the site itself. Sites within 3.25km of an airport runway for example are seen as inappropriate for school buildings, as are sites located unsafe distances from high-voltage power transmission lines, adjacent to sites containing toxic or hazardous substances, or those within 500m of any facility that might reasonably emit or handle hazardous materials.

These are among an array of other sites which are also considered inappropriate or dangerous. Other restrictions are put in place when it comes to the number of levels in a building.

For schools housing children grades six to 12 for example, the maximum permitted on all except high density urban projects is ground plus two floor-levels.

Additionally, as concerns the architect, attention needs to be given to surrounding traffic, so as not to disrupt local traffic plans and ensure pupils are not required to cross vehicular traffic to reach carparks.

Sports areas need to be accessible, whilst allowing for sports and outdoor learning spaces so that schools can effectively meet the full curriculum.

Added considerations include library size, washroom location, storage facilities, the need for administrative areas, as well as classroom size and layout.

“It is important, especially when it comes to building low income schools, to maximize the use of each and every room so that the school does not pay more than it needs and so that each room is efficient as possible,” says Hones.

As regards MEP works, the requirements are stringent again, arguably, even more so than the architectural specifications given their association with technology, sustainability and pupil comfort.

Clearly, when it comes to technology, MEP subcontractors have a responsibility to ensure every school building is suitably fitted with power lines connecting them to servers and the internet, as well as the basic power supply.

“School building is improving all the time to promote learning,” says Kennedy. “ICT is a big part of that.” Assam seconds this argument, in his assertion that “modern educational buildings tend to require technological facilities such as sophisticated audio-visual equipment and state-of-the-art information networking systems.”

Pupil comfort, on the other hand, and indeed, sustainability, is more to do with ventilation, plumbing, lighting and acoustics.

“Education projects differ from typical projects as they have the objective of creating a sustainable, comfortable and dynamic learning environment.

“For the first time, sustainability features such as energy-efficient air conditioning systems and water-saving devices have been incorporated into school design and building,” says ADEC’s section manager for Educational Facilities Design, Alberto Treves.

“Orientations, insulation and shading devices are also now being carefully planned, in addition to all of the electricity required for daily consumption in classrooms being generated on site.”

He adds: “Further key features of the new school designs include special attention when it comes to maximising the use of daylight, as well as maintaining indoor air quality, acoustics and thermal comfort to provide students and teachers with a healthy, safe and stimulating work environment.”

Indeed, according to Assam, it is cleanliness and a healthy environment that is most important when it comes to school building. “Building schools that are healthy and clean learning environments is crucial. It includes careful selection of materials and intelligent energy modeling exercises.”

Thus, to noone’s surprise, ADEC is very specific in its list of MEP or ‘systems’ requirements about how sustainability and pupil comfort is to be achieved.

Whilst the lighting must meet British or American standards, the building’s thermal HVAC system must be “designed, installed and operated to enhance learning and teaching by eliminating thermal distractions”.

Specifically, temperature, humidity and ventilation must be controlled. These requirements are in addition to those which state that plumbing fixtures must be age-specific, classrooms must be designed with a minimum of 5% gross floor area of the space as an area of glazing, whilst there has to be at least one operable window in every room and high sound-transmission, room separators installed between critical instruction spaces.

For experienced contractors like Wates and Al Fara’a, these considerations are pretty standard. “It’s the simple things like, trips, finger traps, lighting levels and child-sized washroom facilities that need to be thought about,” says Kennedy.

“The key to a successful school is a good design born from a thorough understanding of the academic curriculum and timetable, and one that is built with quality and safety at the forefront of the project team’s minds.”

And for those who are not as experienced, ADEC claims to have made the whole process much easier. “At the beginning of a project we provide firms with our design manual, which contains not only standards and guidelines but abundant examples of what we consider best practice in educational facilities design,” they say.

“This makes the quality control process very transparent, and it is mostly verification that ADEC expectations are met in every project.” One thing’s for sure, they’re bound to be easier than hospitals.

Education projects currently under construction:

  • The Al Bateen Academy
  • The British School Al Khubairat
  • Al Yasmeena School extension
  • 6 schools in Al Ain
  • 5 kindergarten schools in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi 
  • Higher Colleges of Technology Women’s College, Ras Al Khaimah
  • New York University, Abu Dhabi
  • Oasis International School, Al Ain

ADEC’s strategic development plan:
ADEC is developing a Strategic Plan that will guide the Council-led initiatives to improve education in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The plan sets the strategic direction and objectives for ADEC.

The purpose of the plan is to outline a comprehensive educational improvement and financing model to assist the Council in implementing its education reform plans in the most effective way.

One of the key priorities is to increase both quality and access to private schools in the Emirate, with more affordable options for high quality, private education for all communities and residents in Abu Dhabi.

Tips for successful school building:

Top tips for school building from expert school builders Wates Construction and Al Fara’a International:

  • Tap into expertise across all stages of the project lifecyle – from as early as the design stage.
  • Optimise each phase of the project through the application of best practices.
  • Take into account issues such as LEED compliance and value generation for the benefit of investors.
  • Collaborate with subsidiaries and suppliers. 
  • Integrate the design and build process to shorten timescales and improve the cost effectiveness of the project.
  • Choose materials carefully, understanding that construction costs are less than operational and maintenance costs.


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