Monday, February 19, 2007

High rise sustainability in Dubai?

I've posted before on the development of Dubai's "sudden city". I raised questions about the sustainability of the project that proposes among other things, to construct a string of artificial islands (most in the shape of a palm tree, and one cluster that forms a map of the world), an indoor ski resort, and the world's tallest skyscrapers.

Dubai master planners say they are sensitive to the needs of building in ways that minimize environmental impacts. They claim that they are seeking to demonstrate how urban high rise development can be sustainable. In fact, they assert that it is a key to urban design in the 21st century and beyond.

One can find some similarities in their approach with those of the "granddaddy of urban dessert projects" Arcosanti -- Paolo Soleri's experimental city in the Arizona desert. Density, multi use structures, and vertical construction are clearly methods that can minimize the physical size of the footprint in a world where growing population and expanding urbanization are the trends. Soleri goes beyond the physical footprint and has developed an approach to urban design called Arcology -- an integration of architecture and ecology that enables radical conservation of land, energy and resources. (GW)


By James Duncan
The Mideast News Service
February 18, 2007

The explosion in development activity in the Arabian Gulf region in general and the UAE in particular in recent years has led to new way of thinking about the approach to sustainable development in high rise communities.

The level of activity in Dubai for example in the last five years is on a scale unprecedented since the building booms of the last century in cities such as New York and Chicago. The desire to live and work in a concentrated area where everybody wants a sea view has meant that high rise development has been seen as the way forward. Available financial resource and a desire to diversify the local economy away from a dependence on Oil and Gas have meant that the drivers for this development boom do not fit many of the recognized parameters for development experienced in mature economies elsewhere in North America and Europe .This combined with the extreme nature of the climate and environment in this erstwhile undeveloped region has created a range of unique issues to be addressed.

Let us explore these in more detail:

Technical Issues

Since the advent of significant Oil and Gas extraction in the early 1960’s there has been a constant process of improvement and acclimatization to the design and engineering standards required in this environment. High temperatures and high concentrations of aggressive natural salts played havoc with early concrete structures. The use of concrete was always preferred due to the presence of local resources and cost implications. Necessity is the mother of invention and over the years sophisticated concrete mix designs and construction techniques mean that the gulf region and the companies that operate here arguably lead the world in reinforced concrete technology.

For example the use of micro silica and sophisticated mix designs combined with a high level of understanding of how to control hydration in high temperatures have enabled the region to push the boundaries of concrete technology. The Burj Dubai currently under construction will not only be the Worlds tallest building when completed at over 700m but is also built of reinforced concrete. In future we can expect to see greater use of pre-cast techniques and steel as the economics of these materials becomes more viable with local production and distribution.

The unique nature of the climate in the region has led to new standards of wind design. The Shamal winds which can blow for 3 to 40 days at a time often have peak intensities at high levels. Where this occurs at say 400m it is loading structure the size of Burj Dubai at half its height so traditional near ground level wind surveys are not adequate and have to be replaced by sophisticated wind tunnel modeling and so forth.

Regulations have been and are constantly being reviewed by regulatory authorities to address many other issues for example fire regulation ,the use of composite cladding materials ,escape strategies and so forth.


Problems associated with the implementation of infrastructure to harmonise with the pace of development which is traditionally the economic driver are not unique to the Gulf region. Many major cities have been through a process of major urban regeneration over the last two decades and there are good and bad examples. The delays to the construction of the Jubilee Line in East London had near disastrous consequences to the success of the Canary Wharf development which now mature is enjoying a high level of occupancy and success. In Yokohama fast rail links were built before the bulk of the major redevelopment was instigated thereby ameliorating many of these problems.

In Dubai time has not been a luxury enjoyed by urban planners and infrastructure has lagged behind the pace of development leading to problems of congestion and so forth. However vast sums are being spent on road and rail infrastructure and it is to be expected that not unlike Canary Wharf these problems will resolve themselves within a fairly short period of the development life cycle.

In Abu Dhabi which in any event enjoys a more open location with fewer constraints on infrastructure longer lead in periods and master planning mean that much of the new infrastructure requirements for large offshore island projects will be in place in advance of development activity. For example on Al Reem Island over $5Bn are being spent on infrastructure provision.

Utilities and Environmental Issues

High on the agenda of new developments are Green Building considerations and these are being fostered and promoted by Government organizations such as the Emirates Green Building Council. A new Awards scheme has been introduced along the lines of the U.S LEED Green Building Awards. Some schemes such as the Wafi City District Cooling Plant have already won Awards in the international forum.

Utilities such as district cooling systems and combined cycle power plants are efficient uses of energy.

New projects are turning to more efficient designs .The Ibis Bay scheme in Dubai Business Bay is a good example where an ergonomic design incorporates many features such as photovoltaic glass panels, natural cross ventilation, green micro climate zones and so forth.

Human Issues

Building an Iconic Skyscraper is not necessarily a recipe for a high quality living and working environment. Lessons have been learnt from the mistakes of the past and the vertical cities of the Gulf are setting new standards of performance and amenity.

Intelligent buildings are commonplace with every possible amenity included in many schemes. Yes your fridge will now also tell you what you need on your shopping list! The inclusion of green zones within tall buildings creates an improved microclimate and the reduction of building densities allows for increased external amenity space. Schools, medical centres, shops and other essential services are increasingly part of the new masterplan.

The sustainable masterplan will be a key to the success of many of the proposed schemes in Abu Dhabi and other Emirates such as Ajman. Here densities and heights of buildings are strictly controlled using restricted Floor Area Ratios (FARs).Great attention has been paid to preserving the delicate local ecosystems and authorities such as TDIC in Abu Dhabi are to be commended for the sensitivity of large schemes such as Saadyat Island and others where natural resources such as Mangrove areas, fauna breeding grounds and marine environments are carefully protected which in turn improves the global environment of the area. Culture and education feature prominently in many schemes with world class facilities such as The Guggenheim Museum planned in new Cultural Quarters that include Opera and the performing arts.


The high rise communities of the Gulf region are not an Orwellian nightmare. The opportunities for developing new sustainable model living conditions for the 22nd Century are being developed in a way that sets the pace for the rest of the world.

Good strategic masterplanning and the use high quality expertise are the keys for the provision of the essential ingredients of good infrastructure, environmentally friendly buildings ,quality services and a living and working environment that embraces not oppresses the human spirit.

James Duncan is Major Projects Director for Northcroft in the UAE. Northcroft is one of the oldest firms of construction consultants in the world established for over 130 years.

Arconsanti's Hyper Building


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