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Sat 30 May 2009 04:00 AM

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Building Al Ain

Plan Al Ain 2030, launched in April, will guide the development of the City for the next two decades, during which time the Urban Planning Council of Abu Dhabi expects the population to double. As the first construction contracts are rolled out over the next six months, Al Ain Municipality urban planning director Talal Al Salamani tells us how it will be.

Plan Al Ain 2030, launched in April, will guide the development of the City for the next two decades, during which time the Urban Planning Council of Abu Dhabi expects the population to double. As the first construction contracts are rolled out over the next six months, Al Ain Municipality urban planning director Talal Al Salamani tells us how it will be.

What is the scope of Plan Al Ain 2030?

We are liaising closely with the Urban Planning Council (UPC) of Abu Dhabi, and in consultation with the UPC, we are going to run a number of projects.

This system is a prototype that we hope will be a success.

The first plan is concerned with the city of Al Ain itself. The second is concerned with the urban planning framework incorporating all of the settlements, towns and villages within the Eastern Region of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (of which Al Ain City is the capital).

There will also be projects that revolve around the ongoing improvement of the downtown area. The projects will deliver the full circle of services including transit, urban regeneration, and improvement of existing infrastructure.

Will you talk us through the early stages of the construction timetable?

The new residential area will involve the private sector. The developer will build the community houses and the infrastructure for the overall area.

The first step is the design of the prototype villas which will be approved by the client, in this case Al Ain Municipality. We will then start the construction of the infrastructure, and following that, the contracts to build the villas will be awarded by the developer, which is Aldar Properties.

To run some of these stages in parallel then becomes a project management exercise. We will start doing basic, or in some cases major, frame infrastructure and at the same time we will begin some of the basic villa construction like foundations and so on.

By this stage the government will have allocated a budget to the developer for the construction of the villas.

So the villa construction is fully government funded?

Yes, the government will finance all of the construction work required to build the houses and the infrastructure. The villa prototypes will be delivered in a way that will suit the Emirati family size and the architectural style will be blended into the architecture of the city of Al Ain.

How will the funding be administered?

Instead of paying it straight to the developer it will be put in a fund and the developer will have access to that fund. There will be a system of supervising and releasing the payment according to the amount of work that is to be done.

Based on that approach the developers will get a contribution to the construction of the Emirati housing, which will be paid according to a fixed rate. This will be a measured works contract.

When will the first tenders be issued?

We hope that we can start things by the end of this year. We have appointed architects to design the villas and the consultants to work on the infrastructure. We actually started with one architect, but with the current downturn, more were invited to get different pricing. We assumed that the design drawings and the approval required may take six months or so, along with preparing tender documents. We hope that construction will start sometime this year or early 2010.

So what will be the next step?

The urban regeneration – the community facilities, the neighbourhood centres, the district centres, educational, healthcare, leisure, and commercial activities – will be based on an investment basis. The developer will benefit from getting the investment area designated for investment sites, which will then be developed on a build-operate-transfer basis.

Al Ain Municipality will give a lease, say for a certain number of years, with rates that will detail a certain percentage of the net profits, and at the same time it might elaborate on the detailing of any commercial activity.

This system is a prototype. We hope it will be a success. If it is, we might consider it as a possibility to be repeated in other areas across the city.

Construction costs are relatively low at present. How will you guard against cost escalation?

That’s covered. Take the infrastructure works for example. You would have cost, plus 5%. So we measure the cost with our project manager and then we pay him 5% extra as profit for overhead management.

Further, the government of Abu Dhabi now adopts the Fidic as a contract procedure for construction. This gives both parties, contractor and client, a fair deal. If you price the contract according to the cost of cement and steel today, then in six months, if it drops or climbs, we will revalue the contract, accounting for the new material costs, and the amount of work executed. We will evaluate the amount owed. This handles the issue of inflation.

How do you guard against disagreement over costs accumulated over time?

Construction materials will be priced on an index established by the Department of Planning and Economy. That is a current index of the market, which everyone is aware of and cannot be disputed. We will measure the contract accordingly. This approach is not only fair, but it will help the contractor to put in the right pricing. In the absence of such a thing the contractor may exaggerate and there might be some hidden risk somewhere, which would not be good for either party.

Construction opportunities: Al Ain to instigate “aggresive” hospital building program

Analysis of Plan Al Ain 2030 offers insight into the distinct construction opportunities that will arise across the city as the plan is rolled out. Here is what the plan says.

Healthcare

Despite its well-regarded hospitals, Al Ain is currently in the low-to-medium segment of hospital beds per 1000 people. In order to prevent that ratio from slipping, Al Ain will aggressively need to build more hospital beds as the population grows.

Residential

Al Ain will see strong demand for residential units across all sectors of the market as the population grows. There is a projected over-supply of luxury units, and an undersupply of mid-to-affordable units.

Retail

Increasing population and tourism will lead to a growing demand for retail space. Al Ain’s ratio of retail m2 per resident is comparatively quite high and will remain so.

Education

A key priority of the Abu Dhabi government is to grow the universities in the emirate to retain Emirati students and attract GCC students. This strategy should keep Al Ain in the high segment for tertiary institutions.

What is the population of Al Ain today?

As a region, around 400,000, while as a city, almost 300,000. As the plan runs through to 2030, by this time we hope to accommodate a population of 1 million. More than double the current population.

Today Abu Dhabi is all about sustainability. How do you plan for this kind of growth while being sensitive to the principles of sustainability?

In order for us to digest this move we have to keep in mind that this plan covers the next 21 years.

You put forward a scenario that can accommodate your ambitions.

Looking at the reality, no one knows what will happen by 2030 so from a planning perspective we can put down scenarios and growth projections, and make decisions regarding directions of growth in the urban environment, then put in place rules, policies and plans to ease the impact of that growth.

We need policies that cover infra-structure for example, and our need to generate more power and water, and to create more jobs.

The most successful plans are those based on a more realistic approach — ones that are flexible so that with each review you can devise, amend, and if necessary, upgrade your plans.

When you start thinking for the long run, you do not table a low estimation of population growth, because with any sudden growth beyond your expectations, you would get behind. So you put forward a scenario that can accommodate your ambitions.

It’s a matter of how you look at things in a strategic way. How have you planned the public transport infrastructure?

The urban transport plan for the city is multi-model. It will fit in with the Abu Dhabi surface transport master plan (STMP). The main spines discussed earlier make it easier to introduce a light train, an underground subway, or a bus system.

The inter-city connections to Abu Dhabi and Dubai will rely on a major train with a stop in downtown Al Ain. The plan has designated certain sites and put a hold on certain downtown areas to allow for that. Once such a train reaches the urban boundaries it will be taken underground all the way to the downtown terminal.

Most of Al Ain’s streets have a big median in the middle, between 4m to 8m, and the buildings have 50m setbacks from the median.

This enables traffic and utility planners to accommodate which ever mode of public transport is required.

This could include a tram in the middle along the median, or an underground system, and we could also accommodate a 4th lane dedicated to a bus service or to a car pooling system. We are not going to claim more land. The land is already there. But we are going to redesign the length of the corridor.

The STMP will reveal to the municipality what we need to execute, when by, and within what budget. Such a plan will lead to an action plan and then to detailed budgeting.

From a developmental point of view, Abu Dhabi is progressing comparatively well despite the global climate. To what would you attribute this?

There is wisdom behind holding your horses and releasing them at the right time. To some extent, comparing against some experiences in the Middle East, I would assume it was a little more conservative in the beginning.

There were some strong movements, two or three years ago, but those movements were controlled in a way that when the crisis hit, the government had the upper hand to decide on the health of those projects. Was Plan Al Ain 2030 inspired by any particular cities worldwide?

The main challenge for Al Ain is Al Ain itself. How can we make it livable, attractive, and yet still manageable?

How can we market Al Ain city as a relaxed urban centre where you can drive from work to your home in 15 minutes maximum?

Then there is the added value. Al Ain has a natural setting, with Hafeet Mountain, the six oases, the wadis and the dunes. These are what directed and drove the planning of the city.

We planned so delicately because we want Al Ain to stay Al Ain.

We wanted to maintain the history and the setting, and the high percentage of locals within the total population. All these provide a blend of social and cultural characteristics that energise any planner to place them within an urban setting.

We are proud today, to say we are the city of G+4 [No building in Al Ain is more than four storeys high]. Many people say, ‘Tomorrow you will have skyscrapers like any other Gulf city.’ But no, we do not need them. Al Ain is for those who appreciate the uniqueness of the city. It’s for those who empathise with our cause of maintaining an inland urban setting, specially tailored and customised to maintain its unique sense of place and people. With that approach, we have tried to tackle the issue of master planning this city.

Sustaining Al Ain

The Abu Dhabi Emirate has focused its sustainable construction ambitions behind the wide-ranging Estidama initiative that covers environmental, economic, social and cultural sustainability.

Al Salamani reveals how Plan Al Ain 2030 works alongside the practicalities of Abu Dhabi’s sustainability drive.

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has pledged to generate 7% of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020. How does your plan facilitate this?

Developers will have the freedom to suggest power supply, water treatment methods, compost plants, recycling procedures, and other projects that will ease the impact on the environment and the existing framework of the city. For example, one of the developers plans to power part of his development with huge solar plants.

It’s a matter of regulations and rules. In Abu Dhabi, we are capable of controlling that because of the nature of the big developers. They are to some extent supported and encouraged by the government to attract private sector involvement. All parties would respond positively to any clear, efficient and competent policy on energy saving and energy regeneration that promotes a carbon zero or carbon neutral environment.

Would you support moves to make the Pearl Rating System, under the Estidama initiative, regulatory, or is a voluntary system sufficient?

This is a worldwide dilemma that we in architecture call passive and active systems. Passive systems include aspects like building orientation. Most active systems start with subsidising.

In all our work there is always an engineering solution, an education solution, and a law enforcement solution. If you have a problem with a roundabout, it is not enough to include a traffic light. It is required that whoever passes the red signal will be stopped and could be banned from driving.

Law enforcement in our case is preparing the right building code and the specifications together with supportive measures for anyone who would like to take that option.

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