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Sat 21 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Building a community

Construction Week checks out the current progress on Downtown Jebel Ali and examines the need for communal spaces in modern complexes.

Building a community
Building a community
The galleries is an eight-building complex comprises comprising offices and apartments.
Building a community
Deputy executive director Salah Ameen.
Building a community
A podium garden at the galleries, DJA.

Construction Week checks out the current progress on Downtown Jebel Ali and examines the need for communal spaces in modern complexes.

The Dubai-based developer Limitless - part of Dubai World group of companies- has been on something of a PR drive of late; however, removed from the usual stories about breaking ground or topping out towers, these press releases have had a much more human feel.

They've dealt with how people would ideally like to commute; how far Dubai residents walk each day on average; and creating a sense of community.

For all the wondrous projects that Dubai has realised, words like ‘tallest' and ‘biggest' have often crowded out ‘friendliest' or ‘greenest', so CW was intrigued to see the site of Downtown Jebel Ali (DJA), a project that has placed much emphasis on quality of living.

"Work on The Galleries began with piling in mid-2006 and the main buildings were completed at the beginning of 2009," says Limitless deputy executive director for the Middle East Salah Ameen, who has also acted as project director for the DJA development.

DJA, explains Ameen, is a 2 million m² master-planned development that runs 11km back from Sheikh Zayed Road, to the south west of Dubai. The Galleries is an eight-building complex comprising offices, apartments, retail and leisure facilities which was the first community project to be completed within the first phase of DJA.

"We already have multinationals renting offices here, such as L'Oreal and Ericsson," continues Ameen. "We're now approaching 50% occupancy, with many more retail outlets, restaurants and cafes to come."

Impressively designed and finished, these buildings have, however, been completed; not the stuff that Construction Week is usually interested in. For that, we head to one of the podium level gardens that adorn all The Galleries' buildings.

They're designed to add a lifestyle twist - a green, landscaped area for office workers to enjoy a coffee break. More importantly, they provide a spectacular vantage point from where to view all the construction work that is taking place.

We look out over the 11km corridor of DJA that, once completed, will comprise four separate zones, each with its own dedicated interchange. Infrastructure works are being carried out by ARC and Kier Dubai.

"We're concentrating on infrastructure, of course, as it's essential we get this right straight away. Around 80% of that is now in place in zone one, while the figure lies at around 50% for zones two, three and four. It's a really tight schedule and we're extremely close to it - all the major areas have been completed."

Leaning over the walls that run around the podium gardens helps to get an idea of the work involved, its sheer scale and the speed at which contractors are asked to operate. A huge channel has been dug along the route that a road will run. "That wasn't there before the weekend," says Ameen. It's Sunday morning.

Most workers, however, are buzzing around a 300m-long strip that runs between the two main sides of The Galleries. The strip of trees, water features, benches and picnic spaces is an area of pride for Limitless.

"There are lots of trees, as well as an amphitheatre that holds 300 people and a giant screen. The amphitheatre will be a venue for cultural, arts and social events; we'll show things like the World Cup, F1 races and Wimbledon on the screen - a real focal point for the project.

"It's a place for people to enjoy - not just an office where you have to come to work but a living environment to interact with."

This 20,000m² accounts for US $32.6 million (AED120 million) of the $544 million The Galleries project, but Ameen insists that it could have actually been done for much cheaper.

"It's about going further. The finish and the detail is essential and, for that reason, we're using a heavy granite for the flooring. It costs around four times more than the standard stuff. We also imported hundreds of trees from China - they had to be correct."

It's strange that even at this early stage, before the water features are filled and people eat lunches and chat on the flowing lines of the benches, the heavy granite makes a genuine difference. Compared to many of Dubai's developments, it gives the whole project weight - a feel of permanence or, bizarrely, age even.

Balancing that are the main water features that lie at each end of the plaza. One will have modern, decorative fountains, while the other will be alive with fish and turtles.

Such is the rate of work on this outdoor area, Limitless expects it to be completed by the end of the year. On the day of CW's visit, more than 200 workers swarm around, and a smiling Ameen shares a, "As-Salam Alaykum" with almost all of them.

A large portion of these are laying the intricate stone work, while a roughly equal amount have been set to work on the complex lighting systems.

Pointing a narrow trench, Ameen adds: "There, what we call the shallow services are going in - telecoms and electricity. Sewerage and district cooling are, of course, a long way beneath us now.

"From a project management point of view, yes, it can be a very big task, as we've a range of different contractors. Now, for example, there are the pool contractors, the landscape contractors, the lighting installers and the MEP contractors.The main buildings at The Galleries were constructed by the Japanese contractor Taisei, with Al Habtoor taking the lead as the principle landscape contractor.

Imagining the edge of the plaza to be flanked with restaurants and cafés, as Limitless hopes it will be, it's easy to imagine the area as a charming, atmospheric European street; something that, in itself, is a commendable feat of design and construction.

"Even during the height of summer, the plaza will receive just two and a half hours of direct sunlight per day. We've maximised shaded areas and you can imagine how pleasant that will be during the rest of the year," explains Ameen.

Inevitably but still unfortunately, the design expertise for such a project was not available locally.

The Galleries was designed by Pittsburgh's Burt Hill Architects, while the landscaping of the plaza came from the imaginations of designers at California-based SWA.

"We turned mainly to US-based architects with international experience, which really makes a difference to this over other projects. We wanted a landscape that interacted with its surroundings and its occupants.

Transport is a key ingredient in the living ethos that Limitless has tried to bring to DJA, and the Metro station that lies a few hundred metres from The Galleries is a reminder of that.

 "I was with the RTA a month ago and they said that the station would be up-and-running by March 2010. We did a lot of research with a dedicated team and between DJA and Jafza (Jebel Ali Free Zone), we believe we'll get around 20% usage - that means 40,000 people using this station alone."

Limitless corporate media relations manager Rebecca Rees adds: "We accept that people will want to use cars and that's a question of education, but the point is that you don't have to. There's mass transport and you've everything within a stone's throw - Citybank and Standard Chartered have now opened offices here."

The first 300 residential units are expected to be delivered mid-2010 and Limitless hopes that many of the companies with offices or head quarters in The Galleries will take advantage of the residential units for their employees.

With The Galleries covered, we take a drive around the rest of the zone one site. Two substations are currently under construction - one each for zones one and two - with the first ready in three months' time.

Seventy-six further projects have been approved by Limitless for development by third party developers. Many of these have already broken ground on their projects and workers we're visible on some of these. Others had made tentative steps, placing hoardings around the site. This, says Ameen, had not been the case a couple of weeks earlier.

"We have a specific developer code that must be adhered to and each sub-developer also has to submit a programme - as standard, that means five years from handover which in most cases has already taken place.

"We ask them to share their programmes so that we can help them to deliver DJA together. Of course, now more than ever, we do realise that projects will be market driven too."

Work is underway on a flyover taking traffic directly from Sheikh Zayed Road to zone one of DJA, with Japan's Shimizu Corporation carrying out that contract, along with the work on interchange eight, due for completion in 2010.

Ameen also points out where, he hopes, work will soon begin on the development's first mosque. The design has been approved and there will be room for 450 worshippers. The tender for the mosque will go out soon.

Both the interchange and the mosque are signs of a young but maturing area.

Jebel Ali still straddles the divide between being the barren expanse of desert it once was and the industrial, manufacturing capital it's set to become. Its sense of place and identity is palpably growing, with the giant Maktoum airport just minutes away, where work, according to some reports, has already begun on runway two.

More business and industry can only be a good thing for the area and help to increase the value of projects such as Downtown Jebel Ali. In years to come, it may be that Limitless has not just constructed a mixed-use project, but a tranquil oasis in an ocean of industry.

Cranes full of Eastern Promise

On the roof of The Galleries, various parts of lift machinery were installed using seven machines from Chinese firm Zoomlion with the model number TC6517A. While these cranes are not the most expensive on the market, they have some good features, such as modern PCL control and a 10-tonne SWL. Munusamy. Mano, the HSE manager from Taisei, the main contractor on the commercial towers was most satisfied with the performance of them.

"These have been good cranes" he said. "We bought them brand new for this project, and we have had no trouble. Actually, the support from the factory has been excellent." Cranes from Asia have become a common sight in the Middle East over the last few years. Price aside, during the boom times, they were all anybody could get hold of, with lead times of around three months as opposed to as long as two years for some western brands at the time.

Like most modern CAD-designed cranes, the seven identical units were designed to be modular, so that they might be easily taken down and moved somewhere else when the project is complete. Speed modulation with frequency conversion means a more stable operation.

Quality was a concern, especially with the grade of steel used in some Chinese products, but with this brand Mano had no such worries. "They undergo regular and very thorough inspections" he said, indicating coloured stickers which signify a recent check.

Up on the roof, it was a pleasure to witness the attention to detail in keeping the place as safe as could be. All the scaffold towers had an inspection tag, which was renewed every seven days if safe.

 The men all wore the correct PPE, including high-impact eyeware, and Mano assured Construction Week that all of the crane operators had refresher courses on the ground every six months. Wouldn't it be great if all construction sites were run in that way?