Atkins design director: building services Keith Hill explains how the MEP industry in the Middle East is maturing into a more European-type model.
Employed initially by Roger Preston & Partners, Hill came over to the Middle East to work on the Chicago Beach Resort Development, later called the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Wild Wadi, one of the region's most iconic developments. But the project for which Hill has the biggest soft spot is as unassuming as the Jumeirah Beach Hotel is famous.
"Obviously many projects stand out due to the great people one has worked with. I think you obviously pick out the big high-rises like the Almas Tower and different projects like The Address, Downtown Dubai. But for me probably the project I have used the most and the one I certainly get the most value out of is the Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS), because both my boys go there for one thing. It is a great community school and a kind of a model."
To a certain extent, this reflects the general shift in the construction industry from iconic projects to basic infrastructure. "In terms of Atkins, we want to be the world's best infrastructure consultant. What do we mean; don't we do pipes and wires? Put this into context and you realise that Atkins covers so much more than what people perceive, from roads to everything in the built environment."
The Jumeirah Beach Hotel marked an auspicious start for Hill in the MEP sector in the region. "It was certainly by far the biggest project in the Middle East. From what I understand, it was the second- or third-largest commercial project in the world at the time. It was a good challenge, and a good experience." This flagship project was followed by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which resulted in "a little dip, certainly very minor compared to what happened ten years later." Hill subsequently returned to the UK to work for Atkins in its London office.
The Middle East market is characterised by shorter timelines, he says. "When you are working here, timelines are more constrained, but things actually get built. So you tend not to have that big lag on a project, whereas in Europe there is quite a lot more prior consultation, which is all good and what should be done. So the industry differs slightly in its approach to major projects." Hill then returned to the Middle East at the beginning of 2002, which marked the beginning of the most recent and sustained boom period in the construction industry as a whole.
"That year it started edging up and just kept on going ever since. Business was obviously good in the period from 2002 to mid-2008, until it all started to go pear-shaped in the world economy. Up to that point we were delivering some considerable square meterage of projects that we had actually designed, delivered and handed over. That rate of work was sustainable up to a point, but then it just seemed to go through one of those stages where it was driven more by world events than by anything else," says Hill.
Did the boom period mean that health and safety and build quality were inevitably compromised? "Certainly not for Atkins; we have always had a very strong health and safety focus. Yes, it does get tailored to the local market in terms of client expectations. We have had a strong health and safety focus since our Chicago Beach days, which set a high benchmark, and I would like to think this is something that has never been degraded over time." Hill says the construction industry in general in the Middle East has "matured seriously" in terms of health and safety in general. "It is much more respected now, and the statistics are good, which is as it should be."
As for the latest buzzwords of sustainability and green building, Hill says Atkins interprets this as Carbon Critical Design (CCD), which is an Atkins trademark, along with the strapline ‘Plan Design Enable'. "That is really what we are focused on, and it probably puts it into slightly more context for people, because sustainability is such a huge, all-encompassing statement. I think it is such a broad statement because it means different things to different people.
"It is great to get people motivated, but then it needs to be tailored. It is almost as if there are just too many good ideas. They are all good stuff, but which one should the client focus on, particularly at a property level?" This is where CCD comes into its own. "It has certainly proven useful, and has provided good momentum," says Hill. Atkins is working on high-level carbon-critical planning tools at present, which will ultimately lead to design and then operational tools.
"We have not gotten quite that far yet. It is a whole suite, all driving to the same point of everyone becoming really conscious of building energy management." Has this new focus, in turn, added another level of complexity to MEP? "I think there is a level of complexity with everything we do in terms of engineering. However, most of it derives from the relatively straightforward starting point of what the end user needs."
If all these boxes are ticked, says Hill, then a proper scope of works can be defined. "Only then can you actually deal with getting the building form right and addressing functionality through space. However, more important than anything else is whether or not people can use the space. It is all about people." Initially this plays very strongly into the hands of the architect, "but it has huge overlaps with the engineering sector. All that is basic stuff, and you have not designed anything yet. It is just about the underlying thought processes."
It is only at this stage that one "can start looking at how the process follows ‘good' or ‘better' engineering. It is not a case of saying we are not good engineers; it is a case of saying just check what you are doing and where you are going, and whether or not you can introduce anything that might be better without going over the top. You are just relooking at your basic fundamentals in terms of the end user, which is always where you are coming from, as opposed to the next step, which is energy recovery."
Hill says this is "not just an engineer's problem, but an architect's issue as well." Recovery technologies are then followed by the final step, which is renewable energy. "It is very easy to jump to the final one without going through all those other steps. You can throw a lot of toys at the problem, such as putting in photovoltaics. However, this means you have missed the first step, because you have made it very complex for the end user to understand what they are supposed to do.
"Our experience at Atkins is to hand a building over to a client and then do a walk through with and presentation to the engineers, explaining why we have done things in a certain way, and what the maintenance issues are, as we did with The Address," says Hill. In some way this is a pragmatic means of ensuring due diligence in the design process itself. "We definitely feel we are doing the right thing and are going in the right direction. Whether the industry is catching up to us or we are merely catching up with the general industry trends, I do not know. At the end of the day we are all innovating and moving forward at the same time, and that is really key to the whole process."
Commenting on the fact that a lot of new building stock in Dubai, for example, is perceived as being not particularly energy-efficient, Hills says this could be a general misperception. "There are things there that could perhaps be better, but at the time they were designed I am sure they were right. Again there is a level of context that needs to be given. It is very easy to make snap judgement calls; we all do it. That is why ‘sound-biting' is so dangerous at times. Everything needs to have a context. If it can be evolved or innovated or moved forward, then clearly it should be. Now whether or not that takes more money - it certainly takes more time - I do not know. It has to be undertaken on a project-by-project, and even a sub-component by sub-component, level at times."
In terms of specific projects that Atkins is working on at the moment, Hill says many consultants are wary of giving away such information at present. "A lot of our projects are at the very early stage. Combined with the economic crisis, people are a little bit more nervous than usual. Maybe they have not tied up all their downstream issues, and there are no people at the end of the line queuing to snap up the assets, as they were before."
Added to this, says Hill, is "a case of, I guess, more process in the paperwork now, mirroring the European market more, and becoming more prevalent here. This is all good, as it brings a different level of innovation and understanding to bear, but it is bound to slow things down further. If you are actually going to audit yourself every time you do a development or a master plan, you cannot do it in a snap judgement way, because then you are not according it your due respect."
What this all means at the end of the day is "in my view a slightly more mature market," says Hill. In terms of specific challenges, he cites ongoing transition as a major issue. "I think we are in that big transition stage right now, certainly if you look at Abu Dhabi as a focal market. It is now the centre of attention, probably as it used to be back in the 1980s.
"We have been in the Middle East for over 40 years now. We started originally in Umm Al Qawain. We are used to working in what is perceived as alien or different markets. We are actually moving back into such areas again as they have got a chance to spread their wings and do something different."For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.