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Sun 23 Dec 2007 09:22 AM

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Al Warqaa Courtyard

Architectural ‘fast food' gives way to Arabian tradition.

Designed to adhere to historical architectural precepts and inspired by the vernacular of the Bastakiya, the Al Warqaa Courtyard offers tenants a clever combination of tradition and modernity. The design of this new offering from Cm³, aimed to define a new category within the typology of the traditional apartment building.

Located in Al Warqaa, on a plot that has been zoned for dense residential development, Cm³ architects, Omran Al Owais and Atif Khawaja, decided to introvert their first large-scale residential development and build around the concept of the traditional Arabian courtyard. "Although we enjoy an international lifestyle in Dubai, Cm³ is trying to preserve the Arabic flavour in its buildings. We are hoping that those ideals will be reflected in our designs," says Al Owais, partner and creative director of Cm³.

I like Burj Al Arab and Burj Dubai, but they’re ahead of their time. They should have been built 20 or 30 years from now - Omran Al Owais.

The Al Warqaa Courtyard's 12 courtyard gardens are physically and visually linked, which allows the first floor of the building to act as a vast open space for the residents. "The first floor is basically a park. The hallways are all open to facilitate wind flow; the courtyards are all public, meaning you can move from one to the other; and all 12 courtyards incorporate different features," says Khawaja, partner and executive manager of Cm³.

Courtyard concept

Al Owais and Khawaja realised early in the building process that Dubai's municipal regulations require several openings for ventilation shafts and lighting wells throughout the units. So they calculated the amount of space per unit that would be unusable in a traditional building and converted it into usable space by incorporating the courtyards. By using both exterior and interior courtyards, Cm³ has ensured that every unit in the building has direct access to a courtyard and thus, natural light and ventilation.

The idea of the courtyard encompasses two key components in Arabian architecture: privacy and protection. "The courtyards are perfect for a family. They offer a place in which traditional women can relax and enjoy the weather in a private space where nobody can see them," says Al Owais.

Because of the potential for development in the surrounding plots, the reality of the location is that residents of the Al Warqaa Courtyard cannot expect to have an expansive view in the future. That said, the introverted courtyards promise a green place of respite away from the distractions and noise of traffic and construction.

Moreover, due to the open architectural plan and the inclusion of the courtyards, air is allowed to travel throughout the buildings, which reduces thermal heat gain and ensures the comfort of the residents. "The combination of interior/exterior courtyards gives us more façade to expose and creates landscaped space for the whole community," says Khawaja.

An additional function of the courtyard is safety. By utilising the courtyard, children can be allowed to go outside and play unsupervised. Al Warqaa Courtyard also incorporates regularly monitored closed-circuit television in its public spaces, which offers another level of safety to the residents.

"Because I am Emirati, I'm familiar with the traditional culture, what people are seeking from their homes and what is possible with the climate. We are not competing with Emaar or any of the really big companies; instead we are trying to create a better version of regional architecture," says Al Owais.

"When we started construction on Courtyard, the surrounding environment was desert, so we thought the architecture should work with the desert. The exterior should be rough and tough but at the same time offer a soft, modern interior," adds Al Owais.
Therefore, the language of the entire building is embellished in thick desert volumes and mud-textured paint. Subtle openings frame views of the gardens, which allow natural sunlight into stairwells and corridors.

Architectural regulations

The architectural regulations in Al Warqaa allowed for a three-storey building and demanded that the ground floor be dedicated to parking for residents. In what has traditionally been a point of contention given security concerns, Al Owais and Khawaja were able to convince the Dubai municipality that ground floor parking - that offered direct access the living units - can be safe and add value to the property.

The stringent three-storey rule in Al Warqaa would have been problematic for more commercially-minded architects, but this stipulation worked well with Al Owais's original design concept for the building.

"I try to design structures that do not exceed three levels," he says. "In my opinion, anything higher than ground-plus-three (G+3) levels is not architecture. It is something else; it is more commercial, more mass production. It is ‘fast food' architecture."

"G+3 buildings embody true architecture. Those projects allow the architect to be more creative. The building itself is more of a human scale. You can relate to it; you can interact with it. The end result is usually much more impressive than just building towers," adds Al Owais.

On this particular project, Cm³ married the architectural stipulations with its original concept by dropping the structural slabs of the first floor by one metre, which provided root protection to the structure and allowed the use of plants, trees and reflective pools in the first floor green areas.

Cm³ knew the municipal regulations, it knew that the size of the plot lent itself well to a shorter, more expanded development, but it was its creative inspiration that resulted in the inclusion of courtyards and the Bastakiya-like vernacular. "This is architectural language that worked in traditional architecture and is now working for us," says Khawaja.

Architectural theory at Cm³

Al Owais and Khawaja recognise that the architectural trend in the region is to move toward super-communities, but the other trend that is giving them cause for concern is the brashness with which Dubai's modern developments are overshadowing architecture that focuses on lifestyle functions.

"The infrastructure is not working with the architecture. The architecture is not working with the environment. People want to be able to access the city on foot. Here, everything must be done by car. [With our projects] I'd like to bring people out; I want to help people interact with the city and socialise with each other. To do this, we must shorten the buildings and spread out the built space," says Al Owais.

At the moment, Cm³ is working on a full portfolio of commercial and residential projects, but whether very modern or quite conventional, Al Owais and Khawaja always endeavour to incorporate some degree of traditional flavour in their designs.

"In our [residential] architecture, we try to highlight that how we live today can be very close to how we used to live. We try to work with the client's original concept, implement some traditional components, and make it better," says Al Owais.

"As architects, Cm³ has a good mixture of business sense and creative inspiration. If Atif develops a technical plan for a building, I usually come and mess it up with creative alterations. Our buildings always have the right spices, or elements, just sometimes not in the right proportions," says Al Owais. "My job is to make sure we have the right proportions of spices in the building."

Concept designer:Cm³

Real estate developer:Cm³

Lead architect:Cm³

Construction cost:AED 25 million (US$ 6.8 million)

Construction began:April 2006

Opened:August 2007

Capacity:76 units

Built space:125,000 ft²

Plot size:50m x 80m

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