Gulf architects: Local firms thrive in the shadows

07 December 2007
While the big international architects are capturing the public imagination with their cutting-edge designs, local companies are benefiting most from the construction boom

Despite the influx of international architects to the region, the majority of projects depend on the expertise of local architects and engineering consultants. Tall towers, museums, convention centres and luxury hotels may capture the imagination with cutting-edge designs, but they only account for a small proportion of Gulf building projects.

The majority of schemes involve residential or commercial towers, ranging from 20 to 50 floors, and are developed by smaller companies that have purchased plots of land from master developers, which must then be developed to predetermined design guidelines. While these projects may seem small, when compared with some of the regionís billion-dollar schemes, they are still substantial projects in their own right.

The sheer volume of work under way is giving local firms the opportunity to gain experience. "Clients often prefer to use overseas architects," says Jamil Jadallah, architect at the National Engineering Bureau (NEB). "But the amount of high-rise projects being built in the emirates far exceeds what is going on in other markets, so locals often have more experience than overseas players."

The scenario is not unique. The 1930s high-rise boom in the US enabled firms such as Chicago-based SOM to grow into major corporations. In the Far East in the 1980s and 1990s, construction companies grew on the back of major projects in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It is these same companies that have helped kickstart architectural development in the Gulf over the past decade with designs for landmark projects such as the Burj Dubai.

The business potential for architects is enormous. In Dubai, there are hundreds of mid-range tower projects - Jumeirah Lake Towers alone has some 80 buildings under construction and a similar number are under development at Dubai Marina. Both projects have been created by government or semi-government-owned development firms, which sell plots to private investors and smaller real estate companies to develop.

Local firms have used these development opportunities to grow their businesses, while using their local expertise to become dominant players in a fiercely competitive market. For some international practices, the opportunities are no longer as attractive as they used to be. Smaller clients still tend to opt for the lowest bidder, margins are low, and the opportunity to work on landmark projects is not the draw it once was.

"There is so much effort to create signature buildings that they are now all competing and the city go-er becomes numb," says Todd Rice, architect at Dutch firm OMA.

Rice practices within OMA thinktank AMO and recently edited a study of Gulf architecture, Al-Manahkh. "Big names are suddenly compared to local architects who are really catching up on what it takes to create these structures," he says.

Regional giants

Local consultants have mirrored the contracting market, where companies such as Arabtec Construction, Arabian Contracting Company and Al-Habtoor Engineering Enterprises have grown into regional heavyweights.

Dubai-based NEB has thrived in the white-hot market conditions in Dubai over the past five years, designing almost one-third of the towers at Jumeirah Lake Towers. Founded in the mid-1980s, NEB made its name in the Dubai construction market in 2002, when it started work on major projects such as a community of 15 seven-storey buildings and the 40-storey Shatha tower at Dubai Media City. NEB now employs more than 220 people and is working on projects with a total value exceeding $2.5bn.

It is not alone. Other Dubai-based companies such as Arenco, Dar Consult, Adnan Safarini and Dimensions Engineering, have also developed wide-ranging portfolios totalling billions of dollars across the emirates. "Investment levels are high, so everyone is busy and the fees are good," says Jadallah.
These local firms join the established internationals, such as Lebanon's Khatib & Alami and Dar al-Handasah (Shair & Partners), and UK engineering consultants Atkins, Halcrow and Hyder, in dominating the structural design market.

"Some we win, others they win and some times we joint venture because many overseas companies do not have a local office, so they need a local partner," says Jadallah. "Local companies often win because they understand what the client wants. Overseas companies can create beautifully shaped buildings, but architecture is not just about beautiful buildings. It has to be feasible financially because that is the way the banks that fund projects look at things, and that is where the locals normally win the work."

For big projects, clients often favour a combination of an international designer with a local architect of record who understands the nuances of the market, the building permit process and can ensure local codes are met.

The relationship benefits both parties. The overseas architect gains access to a new market and fresh business, and the architect of record is able to gain valuable experience of working on a major project. The combination of international firm and local architect of record has been used across the region for many years. For the international designers working in the region for more than 50 years, it means they now have better relationships with clients and governments than the newer, local firms.

International success

"Truly experienced architects in this region were scarce 10-15 years ago," says Raj Patel, senior principal designer at KEO International Consultants. "Clients required a local team who could understand local codes, permits and customs. So the resulting relationship produced an architect of record. Today, with the abundance of work and the importance of cutting-edge designs, there is a need for an architect of record, but the added value is to have signature architects in-house and regionally based, allowing for a better product from beginning to end."

With strong portfolios at home, many local companies working in the region now want to emulate the international success KEO has achieved. In 2006, the company was ranked number 82 in a list of the top 200 global design firms compiled by US-based publication Engineering News Record. Originally from Kuwait, the company has a strong presence in most cities across the Gulf, such as Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Muscat, and is now expanding into new markets such as Sudan and North Africa, and has become a serious rival to some of the more well-known names from North America and Europe.

NEB is another local company with international aspirations. It has opened branch offices in the neighbouring emirates of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, where it is starting to win work, and has secured projects in other markets around the region such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It has even explored opportunities in Bulgaria.

Although local companies now have the experience to tackle many of the regionís projects by themselves, international architects will still be welcomed into the region by
clients who are keen to capture their new ideas and expertise. "International players have set clients' expectations at a very high level," says a Kuwait-based architect. "They have helped increase the standard and quality of buildings they expect, which can only be a good thing."

International design firms will also continue to be used on landmark projects where the client is looking for, and can afford, something that is truly different. These projects have set the tone in cities that have a limited architectural history ñ few buildings in the Gulf are more than 40 years old.

For example, when designing the concept for Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi, instead of trying to recreate the emirateís architectural heritage - a difficult task in a city where few buildings are less than 40 years old, US-based Gensler used architecture to reflect the local culture. "It is about taking a lifestyle and a culture and transferring that into an architectural form," says Chris Johnson, managing principal at Gensler.

But not every client can afford, or wants, a landmark building. For the majority of clients, the design criteria are based more in economics than making bold statements, and with the experience they have gained over the past five years, locally-based architects will continue to thrive.

TABLE: Selected regional architectural consultants and projects

Project nameValue ($m)ClientDescriptionStatus
Elite Residence165Tameer Holding (Sharjah)91-floor tower at Dubai MarinaUnder construction
Culture Village development300Sungwon (South Korea)Mixed-used development at Dubai Properties Culture VillageIn design
Dubai Sports City towersnaRufi Group (Pakistan)Two residential towersUnder construction
Jafza Convention Centre550JafzaConvention centre and office towers at Jebel Ali Free ZoneUnder construction
Churchill190Deyaar Development (Dubai)A 57-storey residential tower and a 42-storey office towerUnder construction
Summit185ETA Star (Dubai)Commercial and office tower on Sheikh Zayed road between Dubai Media City and Dubai MarinaIn design
Ras al-Khaimah airport free zone280Tasees (UAE)10 commercial buildings, 10 residential blocks, a luxury hotel and a cargo facility at Ras al-Khaimah Airport Free ZoneIn design
Emirates Flag2,000High Rise Real Estate (Dubai)21 mixed-use towers at Ras al-Khaimah free zoneIn design
I-rise151Realty Capital Middle East (Dubai)37-storey tower at site C of the Technology and Media Free Zone (Tecom)Under construction
Bay Square355Dubai Properties (Dubai)12 mixed-use towers at Business BayUnder construction
Abu Dhabi mixed-used developmentnaInternational Capital Trading (Abu Dhabi)Retail area, and office and residential towers on Abu Dhabi CornicheUnder construction
Headquarters building220Kuwait Investment Authority220-metre-tall tower in the centre of Kuwait CityIn design
Ajman 1740Aqaar (Ajman)15 mixed-use towers and podium in AjmanUnder construction
Jumeirah Business Centre272Al-Fajer Properties (Dubai)Three 39-44 storey towers at Jumeirah Lake Towers in DubaiUnder construction
na=not available

Source: MEED

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