Sowwah Island


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Middle East Architect took a tour of the island set to become Abu Dhabi's new CBD.

Sowwah Island is one of the largest ongoing projects in Abu Dhabi so it is little surprise that the site is a hive of activity.

The flagship development, Sowwah Square, has rocketed up since work started last year, with three of the four commercial office towers reaching their final heights, and large portions of the façade now installed.

Meanwhile, construction work on the Cleveland Clinic hospital is beginning, with workers laying the foundations of the 260,000sq2 building after enabling works were completed earlier this year. The core of the Rosewood Hotel - the third building on the island with work underway - currently juts out in the site on the other side of Sowwah Square.

Four other developments have been confirmed for phase one of the three phase development of Sowwah, although construction work has not yet started. These include two more hotels, the Four Seasons and the Viceroy and two commercial towers planned by the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Al Hilal Bank.

As for phase two and three, they are still very much in the planning stage. Phase two  will eventually feature residential and commercial buildings as well as community facilities and parks while phase three, in the north of the island, will be home to Sowwah's transit centre.

All in all, Sowwah is a massive development for Mubadala Real Estate and Hospitality, the company behind the development of the island on behalf of the Abu Dhabi government, and not just above ground. The entire island is being built on a 14 metre podium, with roads, pavements, lobbies and pedestrian access above ground and utilities, storage and maintenance access below.

Much of the infrastructure, including a number of bridges and main thoroughfares, have now been completed, and work is underway on the utilities and substructure below ground. Eventually the low level will include pedestrian walkways and retail outlets, providing access to other parts of the island.

In terms of design, Abdullah Al-Shamsi, a senior architect at Mubadala, is tasked with ensuring that the individual buildings - which were planned and developed by the site owners - match the overall master plan for the site. Mubadala require individual designers to follow a set of architectural guidelines, that tackle the style of design and include requirements for sustainable initiatives.

"We're going through the process of developing an architectural guidelines manual set which essentially goes from plot to plot and maintains base guidelines for the developer. When they buy the plot or they bring somebody else in to develop a plot, the guidelines allow for cohesion to happen," he said.
"Within every site the environment is going to be different, the orientation of the buildings is different, the reaction of one building to the ones adjacent to it is different. We're not limiting the material use but we're limiting the greater material so that the design is relative, and can have a flair to it without losing touch with its direct surroundings."

Al-Shamsi said that the imposing such guidelines on developers in designers is nothing new, plenty of cities set out detailed master plans to ensure that buildings relate to their neighbors. This is all the more true when considering sustainability, a hallmark of the design so far and an important factor for Abu Dhabi's green conscious government.

The three buildings currently under construction on the site were designed before the onset of Abu Dhabi's ‘Estidama' framework, but Al Shamsi said that Sowwah Square building is likely to get a two or three pearl rating when completed. It has also been LEED gold certified.

"Because there were  no (Estidama) standards at that time we took it upon ourselves to bring on the best standards that we knew out there, which was the LEED system, and apply that on Sowwah Island," he said.

The Sowwah Square towers feature a double glazing system with a built in air pocket that allows for a reduction of heat transfer from the exterior. It also has condensation units in between the panes, so any condensation runs into a collection system which is used as gray water within the development as a whole. Floor to ceiling glass allows more light to come in, and shades on the western elevation reduce the heat gain of the building.

"The idea is that these architects coming in will have a base standard that is of great quality, and then they can expand upon that as much as their respective developers would want," Al-Shamsi said.

Despite the pace of development of phase one, Al-Shamsi said there is little worry that phase two and three will lag behind, leaving a half finished development, the sort of which can be seen all over Dubai. Mubadala has clauses written into the contracts that stipulate a strict timeline of planning, design, construction and completion for developers.

"In general, within the sale of every plot we're given the owner or developer a five year life span, to start working, get things on the ground. So there is not situation where you left with empty lots," Al-Shamsi said.

"We won't sell the land to somebody and have them wait to see whether the price will improve, we're doing it the other way around. We take longer to sell and reach an agreement, until we know that they want to build. We've learned from some of the master developments in the UAE that went wrong, and are working very hard to prevent that happening," he said.

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