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Fri 22 Aug 2014 01:55 AM

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Behind the scenes of Msheireb Downtown

Doha’s ambitious plan to completely redevelop the historical centre of the city is gathering pace. The man in charge of the masterplan, Msheireb Properties chief executive Abdulla Al Mehshadi explains all

Behind the scenes of Msheireb Downtown

One project in Doha is aiming to achieve two very big outcomes: a restoration of history and the world’s largest environmentally friendly master development.

Msheireb Downtown, in the centre of the Qatari capital, will backtrack a century to restore six of the city’s oldest homes and then propel forward to create 100 of the most advanced green buildings, each with at least a gold rating by the US green building certification programme LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

The new developments also will signify a rebirth of Qatari architecture, an element Msheireb Properties, a subsidiary of Qatar Foundation that has been established to manage the city centre project, laments has been lost through the desire for modernisation in recent decades.

Msheireb Properties CEO Abdulla Al Mehshadi says the experimental project will blend the best of all worlds.

“We cannot expect people to be passionate about preserving history with it being difficult to live in — people are now accustomed to having modern living items,” Al Mehshadi tells Arabian Business Qatar. “So from there came the idea of mixing the two: having pure Qatari architecture [and] having something modern to the extent that people could live easily… in fact we’re trying to take that to the next level by adapting the smart city solution.”

The new buildings will house residents, retail outlets and office space, as well as two history-themed hotels. Little glass will be used in their construction to limit the infamous Qatari sun’s penetration inside, while verandas will help provide shade, reducing energy consumption needed for artificial cooling.

Outdoor community gardens also will be a feature, while an underground road network and 10,000 car spaces will take most vehicles off the surface roads, allowing a more pedestrian-friendly area with cleaner air.

Streets will run north to south to facilitate the natural wind flow, while alleyways will also help provide some cooling. Rather than individual air conditioners for each property or block, the design includes large district-cooling units to service multiple buildings to consolidate energy production and reduce wastage.

The development will house Qatar’s central metro station, with connectivity to all three lines. A public bus service and a covered walkway to Souq Waqif, a key historical attraction, also will promote public transport use.

Al Mehshadi, a qualified engineer and former consultant to Qatar’s Ministry of Environment, says it is about time the environment was treated as a central focus of development.

“It’s global demand nowadays to be sustainable, to reduce the fuel emissions, to reduce the CO2 footprint and the impact on the environment,” he says. “We’ve been exhausting our resources and we need to slow down that exhaustion, and hopefully we’ll reverse the cycle where we contribute to the cleanliness of the environment and make sure the next generation are going to have clean air to breathe.

“With that in mind, Msheireb will set the standard and show others that it’s doable and it’s doable on truly commercial grounds; it’s not something that [exists because] Qatar Foundation or the Qatar government are willing to spend money.

“Msheireb Downtown is built on a true commercial model, so we will make money at the end of the day, we will add to our architectural language, we will add to preserving of the environment, sustainability and all of that, and yet we will make money.”

Insisting Msheireb Properties has been established on traditional commercial grounds, Al Mehshadi denies the development’s environmental features will inflate the overall cost, which he says is not yet known.

However, he concedes making a profit on such an experimental project is only possible because it is a master development — a feature few major cities in the world have the space to do in the central business district.

“I wouldn’t say there was an additional cost; there was a careful synergy created,” Al Mehshadi says.

“So [for example], rather than each house having an air conditioner installed, we’re having big district cooling plants that will serve all the buildings, so rather than having one building wasting here and another building wasting there, we’ll have one synergised supply of air conditioning that will meet the demand as it goes up and down, and by that we’ll reduce the energy consumption.

“But because I’m a master planner I could do that, I’m not a single building developer. Because I overlook an area of 35 hectares I could decide where the buildings could be put in order for me to gain the most of the prevailing wind direction, the shade created by the sun movement and so forth, and ensure that you always have shade that reduces the temperature on the building and on people walking around.

“We’ve decided to have all the car parking underground so you’re not going to have cars driven on the grid, which means that you’ll have people walking around without CO2 emissions and all the effluent that comes from car engines.

“These don’t cost too much but the advantage for us is we work on a master plan and can move things around subtly without having too much impact on the product model from a financial point of view.

“Is sustainability expensive? I don’t think so. I haven’t seen it to be expensive.”

Even so, putting aside cost, the project “ought to be done”, he says. “We cannot afford to ignore the impact that we have been putting and the strain that we have been putting on the environment.”

The project is almost half-way through, although there is little construction visible above ground. Al Mehshadi says the company has been taking interest from potential commercial tenants — including “an interesting variety” of anchor tenants — but it won’t be ready to start selling or leasing properties until mid-2015.

The residences and retail outlets will span affordability and luxury.

“We cannot afford to leave out any tier of the community,” Al Mehshadi says. “We have to have every member of the community feeling as though they can go and enjoy Msheireb, it’s not something for an exclusive tier of people or exclusive layer of the community. So we will have the luxury, we’ll have the normal [and] we’ll have the very, very basic.

“If you look into the old Msheireb, it had that. It went from the high level [when] it used to be the commercial centre in Doha, then it lost its glamour and it [started housing retailers that sold] things of a very basic requirement, like electricals. We have to bring that; this is the history that we’re trying to capture, we cannot go to a certain area of history and say ‘this is what we want’; we want the full history of Msheireb and for that we have to provide all the services and uses for all the visitors.”

Msheireb is the original heart of Doha. But as oil-rich Qatar rapidly became the wealthiest country in the world, the capital’s inhabitants migrated to newer suburbs, gradually leaving the centre to deteriorate.

With it went the unique Qatari architecture, but Al Mehshadi says the 21st-century Msheireb Downtown will resemble what modern building design would have been had the country’s architecture never died.

“[Today’s] buildings… are always copied from around the globe but we need something that talks about how the old architecture and the old urban planning developed through the years,” he says. “And what you see in Msheireb is just that: looking into the past and thinking what would we have created if we continued developing our architectural language? It’s like slipping into the past and reaching into the future.”

It also will help cement an identity for Qatar’s capital, he says.

“In any city you have to have an identity. I would not want to replicate cities from different parts of the world; Doha needs to have its own identity and I think Msheireb will help in creating a unique identity for Doha,” Al Mehshadi says.

Msheireb Properties also is funding a research project in conjunction with Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design that will look at sustainable urban development in the Gulf, drawing on principles used in the past that may have been forgotten and could be re-applied to urbanisation in a world seeking greater sustainability.

Ultimately, the research aims to create a Gulf Encyclopaedia for Sustainable Urbanism, which would be used as a guide for future development in the region. The project’s three phases — past, present and future — will study the region’s environment, urbanism, architecture, society, culture and economics.

The discovery of vast oil and gas reserves in the mid-19th century has led to rapid urban development in the Gulf. As governments and citizens have sought to use the liquid gold to quickly catch up to more developed countries, sustainability has only become a key concern in recent years.

Al Mehshadi says he hopes the research will help create an official reference for new developments.

The company also has delved into the past to collate stories from the original Msheireb area, including interviewing former residents and their descendants.

“We’ve also been visiting and meeting with people who’ve had some history in [the area at] that time,” Al Mehshadi says.

“Hopefully these will become the material we use to tell the Msheireb story when we are close to announcing the project. We should have certain publications or documents to help people understand why Doha decided to create the centre in this particular area. There’s quite a wealth of history on the story of Msheireb and we’d like to share that with people.”

While Msheireb Properties’ focus remains on its flagship project, Al Mehshadi reveals he has also begun work on three other developments, including initial groundwork at one site. He declines to reveal too many details but says they are master developments, smaller than Msheireb Downtown, and they also will be sustainable.

“These are our principles, we cannot deviate from them,” Al Mehshadi says.

“Our focus now is on Msheireb because that will bring credentials and credibility to the organisation, it’s really the biggest project we’re handling so it’s taking a lot of our resources and attention.

“But I’m sure with the economy being so vibrant, moving upwards, we’ll be handling more than three or four projects.”

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