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Sat 12 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

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Safe as houses

Cityscape Jeddah will increase the focus on Saudi Arabia's demand for homes.

Safe as houses
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Safe as houses
Al Kohbar
Safe as houses
Jeddah Gate
Safe as houses
Atkins’ Riyadh Tower is set to become a new landmark for the city.
Safe as houses
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Safe as houses
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Cityscape Jeddah will increase the focus on Saudi Arabia's demand for homes.

It is little surprise that Saudi Arabia continues to draw hungry developers, contractors and designers to its dusty cities. As rich in ambition as it is in oil wealth, the GCC giant's growing population is creating the demand to fuel an imminent construction boom.

At least that is what the organizers of Cityscape Jeddah are hoping. The property road show hits Saudi Arabia's coastal hub this month, and director Deep Marwaha expects potential housing projects to dominate proceedings over the three days.

Marwaha points out that 80% of Saudi Arabia's population is under the age of 39, and many are married couples in search of affordable entry-level housing to start their own families. With a population likely to reach 27 million by next year, the government are rushing through legislation that will provide Shariah-compliant mortgages to enable young couples to leave the roost for the first time.

"There is a growing urgency to balance residential developments so that everyone has the opportunity to buy a house that fits their needs and their budgets," Marwaha said.

Architects and engineers have been making the move into Saudi for many years, and some, like Atkins, already have major projects underway in the capital. Joe Tabet, the designer of Atkins' Riyadh Tower,  believes that there will be plenty of work for firms in the country once the housing market begins to get off the ground.

"As soon as the government pass the new law regarding financing and mortgages I think the boom will start in Saudi Arabia," he said.

Yahya Jan, vice president and design director at NORR Group in Dubai, agrees. NORR  is currently in the process of opening an office in Saudi Arabia and already has two major projects underway in the kingdom, a tower block in Jeddah and a massive housing development in Al Khobar, near the Bahrain border.

Like Tabet, Yahya believes that laws to enable young Saudis to obtain mortgages are essential if the kingdom's market is going to boom, but he says a potential problem is the emphasis so far on low-level design in the housing market.

In cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah, housing has traditionally been villas spread out across vast areas, Yahya feels that if Saudi is going to house its population in a sustainable way, the country will have to embrace the vertical living favoured in neighbouring UAE.At the same time, Yahya believes that architectural development in Saudi Arabia needs to focus on city planning, something that cities such as Dubai have largely ignored.

"Everyone has traditionally been fixated on objects here, not the space between the buildings. I hope that mindset will change," he said.

"I don't think necessarily that what Saudi Arabia needs now is flashy buildings, It needs a bigger vision of how these cities are going to develop."

Atkins' Tabet, however, thinks that although Saudi Arabia is rich, financial considerations will prevent development in the region from getting out of hand in the way that it did in Dubai. He argues that just because Saudi Arabia may be seen to be more financially secure, designs need to make financial, as well as aesthetic sense.

"The challenge for us as designers is to design buildings that are of the highest level of quality and sustainability, but can still keep to our client's budget," he said.

"There is still the same risk as there was before. Even if you have a million dollars now you are still in the recession, you're not going to spend all of your money, you are going to be careful how to spend it," he said.

Nevertheless, the demand is certainly there. KSA has one of the highest housing densities in the world and a report published last year by Jones Lang La Salle showed that 900,000 people in Jeddah alone were living in "unplanned settlements", otherwise known as slums.

"Industry analysts affirm that low-cost housing has joined business parks as the top two investment attractions of Saudi Arabia due to surging demand for residential units," Cityscape's Marwaha said.

Designers can rest assured that at least in the immediate future, Saudi Arabia will be crying out for good design if it is to fulfill its ambition of housing a growing population.

"I think people are certainly hanging their hats on Saudi Arabia. It's a popular place because there is pent-up demand for everything in the market," Yahya said.