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Ahmed Al Khatib, chief development and delivery officer, Expo 2020 Dubai, outlines how the Expo 2020 Dubai site has come together, the key milestones ahead and how he plans to deliver the project on time and under budget

Ahmed Al Khatib: building the Expo 2020 Dubai dream

Ahmed Al Khatib, chief development and delivery officer at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Ahmed Al Khatib comes across as quite a laid-back character, with a very chilled-out personality. Despite that, something has irked him.

“It doesn’t get appreciated,” the chief development and delivery officer at Expo 2020 Dubai, says, referring to the little fanfare those involved in construction usually receive.

Clearly, the general public just doesn’t comprehend the amount of work required to bring a once-in-a-lifetime masterplan like the Expo 2020 Dubai site to fruition.

“Everybody thinks, ‘why are the buildings not coming up?’ But, again, the site is huge”

“Everybody thinks, ‘why are the buildings not coming up?’ But, again, the site is huge,” he says, adding that the Expo 2020 Dubai project isn’t any normal construction site.

“The site is a big site, of course… it’s a city. It has all the components of a city: it has infrastructure, it has substations, it has buildings, it has basements, it has landscaping, parks, water features, metro, residential. So, it has everything you can think of that can happen in the city.”

However, Al Khatib has many reasons to be rejoicing on the day we meet him, as work on the site has reached a major milestone.

“So, as of today, we completed the infrastructure completely, 100 percent… All the roads, all the utilities, the drainage, telecommunication, water, electricity, all completed… We’ve finished all the roads except for the final layer – we will keep it late – and the road markings, so it stays fresh. The landscaping of the entire site is in progress…

“We have two parks with an area of 45,000 sq m of greenery. Those are in progress and due for completion very soon, we are waiting for the planting season when [the weather] gets better. The shading structures – across all the concourses – the steel structure is in place and the fabric is available and we are waiting to install the fabric by the time it gets closer to the event,” he adds, the enjoyment of knowing the project is coming together palpable in his voice.

Crowning glory

One the keystone moments occurred last month when the final piece of the Al Wasl dome was lifted into place, representing a significant step in the construction of the centrepiece for the site. Enclosing a space of 724,000 cubic metres and standing 67.5 metres tall – higher than the Leaning Tower of Pisa – the 130-metre-wide domed steel trellis encircles Al Wasl Plaza, a structure that will be the heart of the Expo 2020 site.

“This new architectural marvel joins a long list of inspiring designs that our country has created through collaboration, sheer hard work and the unending, ambitious vision of our leadership and people,” Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of the Expo Dubai 2020 Higher Committee, said at the time.

“We lifted 830 tonnes up in one go. It was a very challenging process and a learning experience”

During Expo 2020 Dubai, Al Wasl dome will be the largest 360-degree projection surface in the world. Weighing 550 tonnes of moulded steel, the dome’s 22.5-metre crown had to be precisely positioned on top of the vertical trellis.

It was completed using a technique called strand-jacking. Including the structures and equipment required to lift the dome during this process, the total weight was 830 tonnes – equivalent to 600 saloon cars.

Eighteen hydraulic jacks, aided by steel lifting ropes connected to 18 freestanding temporary columns, were used to slowly raise the curved steel crown.

Working through the night, 800 engineers and construction technicians carefully monitored every millimetre of the process, using GPS indicators throughout to ensure perfect alignment.

The dome was the culmination of 14 months of preparation, beginning when the final pieces of the dome’s steel trellising left Italy in June 2018.

“It was literally like building a very complex piece of jewellery, with the detail, the alignment of the steel and over 2,500 pieces we needed to weld together to make sure it’s done right,” Al Khatib recalls.

“The margin of error was 3mm, which is really something like almost zero. We had all the experts from all over the world that worked closely and carefully making sure it looks as its promised, which it does… We lifted 830 tonnes up in one go. It was a very challenging process and a learning experience.”

The workers on site have also completed three of the surrounding buildings of Al Wasl, with two more in the process of being finished.

The dome of the Al Wasl Plaza  – which will form the centrepiece of the Expo 2020 Dubai site – was the culmination of 14 months of preparation

“The themed pavilions – Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity – they are in progress. Towards the end of the year and beginning of next year, they will be done and completed with exhibitions,” Al Khatib confirms.

Under budget

Al Khatib concedes that the most challenging aspect of the project is that while other landmarks may be able to push back the launch date if they decide they need more time, he does not have that luxury, as the site must be ready to open on October 20, 2020.

So, I wonder, are the organisers throwing money at the project to make sure it is delivered on time? On the contrary, Al Khatib says the opposite is the case and “it is actually below budget”. According to the budget documents submitting as part of the Expo 2020 Dubai bid, the total capital expenditure for the site will be AED25bn ($6.8bn). A report by HSBC said the total budget for the project is AED33bn ($8.9bn), with AED23bn ($6.2bn) being invested in urban development and infrastructure projects.

Al Khatib with Reem Al Hashimy, director general of Expo 2020 Dubai. Construction engineers and officials are confident of the site’s progress

One of the reasons there was no need for extravagant spending is because the site is using modern, innovative design principles, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), to make sure there are no costly or time-consuming mistakes. “On the software side… we have a twin city of the Expo, which is a digital city of Expo already built. Of course, this helps in detecting any clashes with the MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing], between the building and services, between the roads to manage the interface, between every single element of the entire master plan,” Al Khatib says proudly.

The digital reproduction of the site can anticipate any potential mistakes and different design and construction options can be planned out and tested in real time.

“You just do the design and insert it in the bigger model. If anything clashes you fix it, rather than do the design, produce the drawing, appoint a contractor, give it to them and they find [the challenges] while building it. They detected so many clashes… this is normal in such a big project. Even within the building, when you put a window, if there is a clash with the A/C system it detects it. Yes, it’s costly, but it’s very, very worth it,” he says. And if that extra spent on new technology means the project comes in under budget and one time, then it is money well spent.

Coming together

While the Expo 2020 Dubai masterplan has been locked in place since May 2017, the site is also a blank canvas for the more than 190 countries who have been invited to participate and organisers also need to manage all these different nations and all their varied timelines and schedules.

Al Hashimy said that Expo 2020 Dubai will be one of the world’s largest global gatherings to ever take place

“We have allocated more than 80 blocks for the countries that will build their own [pavilions]. And, of course, we’ve delivered all the infrastructure to their plots. We developed guidelines for each country, a document that explains the plan, what type of services would be reaching  and the regulations that they need,” Al Khatib says.

“Some of the countries are building here for the first time. So, to make their life easier, we have created this one-stop-shop and we have it both physically and online. So, they just log in and upload the drawings and they are received by our team. The objective is to keep  up a continuous dialogue with them, so they’re not surprised by something.”

Al Khatib says some countries have started on site and some are already at the final stages. “It is expected, inshallah, by the end of this year to have a huge number of countries on site in the construction stage,” he predicts.

Expo legacy

Going forward, the site also has a strong legacy component and Al Khatib says this has been factored into the planning.

“There will be a transition period for the countries. As per the regulations, all countries need to dismantle the pavilions and to remove them from the site. Getting the site tidy and removing all of whatever we built to host the event for six months, I would say about maybe eight months  to  one year to complete the full transition,” he says.

The ongoing construction of the Sustainability Pavilion of the Expo 2020

The masterplan took this into account and emphasised that sustainability was a key element early on. “We started with the thematic districts, the three petals. Those were the first projects that we started on when we broke ground. They consist of about 86 buildings. The direction we received was that nothing we built gets demolished. So, it was a very difficult equation to find the solution. Everything we’ve built remains… other than the temporary car parks,” Al Khatib says.

So, will there be any surprises to look out for when the gates are finally flung open and the big reveal happens?

“We have also one plot that will have a very unique water feature that is also under construction right now,” he says intriguingly. The construction phase may not get the massive airplay or appreciation it deserves, but in a year’s time when everyone finally gets to see the iconic site for the first time we know many will be smiling and delighted that everything is finally in place, on time and under budget.

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