By Christopher Sell
Building traditional Arabic architecture on a man-made hill of sand requires careful planning.
There are many aspects of Dubai Festival City that have captured the public's imagination. Swedish flat-packed furniture and the world's largest Marks & Spencer (outside the UK) are just two of them. But it also features a development that represents something of a departure from the more conventional apartment blocks that appear on a daily basis in Dubai.
Al Badia Hillside Village is perhaps indicative of a new raft of developments that can be seen in the city. Two weeks ago,
profiled the Lagoons development, which is unique for its ecological aspirations, but also for recognising that the paying public is no longer willing to accept typical high-rise tower living.
According to Richard Polkinghorne, general manager, development, Dubai Festival City, there is, without doubt, a more discerning market developing in Dubai.
"Until now, being a developer has been quite easy. Whatever you put on the market, you lease. But we know that as the market matures, this will change," he says.
"People go to places for preferences - we are doing our own analysis and know that ‘place making' is something that people are looking for. The same building in two different places will have different values because of its place, location and the amenities around it."
Polkinghorne draws parallels with London's expansion and development, which saw its outlying settlements consumed as it expanded over the years. What has taken place now, he suggests, is the ‘villagication' of cities, which sees these same settlements re-establishing their primacy. "People might say they live in London, but they actually live in Camden or Hackney."
Polkinghorne believes this process can be seen in Dubai with such developments as Al Badia Hillside Village, and for developments of the size of Dubai Festival City, establishing an identity for each development is the way forward.
"Festival City is obviously very large and to make it work as a development, we are making communities, so each area has its own characteristics," he adds.
From this came the idea to develop an entire hillside village, which would be self-contained, complete with a range of services, amenities and accommodation together with a small central business district and market square.
Al Badia's design was the result of a design competition that saw five international firms submit plans. The winning design, by Xavier Bohl, was deemed the most complete and rigorous. Taking its influence from traditional hillside communities of France or Italy, the village aims to recreate community living by placing high-density living along the steep sides of a hill to create the image of a city wall. The design then incorporates lower density housing as it moves away from the top. Town houses will be staggered down the hill in order for them to have uninterrupted views.
The current build programme, worth US $54 million (AED200 million), comprises a set of seven town houses and should take between 14 and 16 months to complete - seven will become 30 once the village is fully complete in five to six years' time. Each block will contain approximately 27 apartments, with a total of 900-1000 apartments across the entire development. The masterplan also features 650 villas plus a small town centre, but Polkinghorne says he is keen to avoid an overt tourism-feel, like the Madinat Jumeirah, so that Al Badia remains very much a traditional village.
So far, construction has been a challenge due to the lack of other examples of such projects in Dubai and little topographical variation in the region. "Building on a hill is not a mystery, it just isn't done here," he says. "It adds a level of complexity, but we are learning to regularise structures and services and finding out what works and what doesn't. The design is currently driven by the façade, but we need to learn to drive the design from the inside a little bit more." He adds that one advantage of building the first few buildings is that lessons can be learnt from the prototypes, which can then be carried forward.
In order to create part of the hill, spoil from the extension of Dubai International Airport was used, with the remainder being brought in from elsewhere.
"The main challenge when building on the hill is to ensure that the required bearing pressure was achieved for the structures, and to design the structures to ensure there was no slippage or subsidence," he says.
This was especially important as construction took place on a loose granular fill. And these concerns were exacerbated due to the site's proximity to Dubai Creek. Polkinghorne admits that some of the marine sediment is very poor, which results in the piles not getting any bearing, and that particular attention has to be paid to geotechnical work. This means that even on the relatively small builds, two or three test piles are required.
On-site coordination was particularly complex as not enough attention was paid to the consequence of accelerating construction, which led to specific logistical challenges.
"The impact was greater than we thought. I think coordinating the services and roads has been the biggest issue. You will find our project manager spends a lot of his time managing interfaces. It is usually where they spend time, but it is critical [on this project]." In the future, as construction begins on the next range of buildings, sequencing of utilities and services will be given greater attention.
The methods used in the construction process have been designed for efficiency. For the 650 villas that are scheduled to be built, the first 105 will be built by the end of next year. Al Futtaim Carillion recently won the $46 million contract to build this first phase, with the potential to secure deals for the remaining villas. Polkinghorne says that key to the award was the contractor's use of a novel construction method known as form blocks, which will reduce the time to build the villas. "They won the tender quite handsomely - the method of construction is much easier and takes at least 20% off construction time, so the time to market is shorterned." Mobilisation has begun and this phase of the project is expected to be complete in 12 months. The intention is to deliver the villas in lots of six, with the first ones earmarked as show homes to gauge further interest.
The Festival City brand is expanding outside the UAE, with other sites planned in the Middle East and North Africa. In the third or fourth quarter this year, work will begin on the Cairo Festival City. Located in an area near the airport known as ‘New Cairo', it will be a third of the size of Dubai's, and lower in density. It will be a villa estate complete with mixed-use areas. Show homes are currently being built and the shopping centre is being designed.
To create a self-contained village in a true Arabic style - and perch it on a man-made hill - is a substantial undertaking and illustrates innovative style and an understanding of evolving social and lifestyle demands, which will most likely govern future residential developments in Dubai.