The late-April launch of the 412-metre-high Marina 101 tower was a landmark occasion not only for the developer, but also its architectural consultant, Dubai-based National Engineering Bureau (NEB). With only five completed buildings around the world that exceed the 100-storey mark, the project put the firm in exclusive company.

Marina 101 provides further evidence of the opportunities the Dubai building boom is giving to local firms to participate in some of the world’s most challenging schemes. The scenario is not a new one. The 1930s high-rise boom in the US made firms like Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), and construction companies in the Far East grew into major corporations on a diet of major projects in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s and 1990s.

NEB was founded in the mid-1980s, but it was not until 2002 that its name began to be noticed in the Dubai construction market. In that year, Jamil Jadallah and his partner joined the company.

After 12 years as an engineer at Dubai Municipality’s building and housing department, Jadallah realised Dubai offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ‘When I came here in 1989 the projects were small. Then, as the buildings and the market became bigger I realised there was great potential if you have the knowhow and the right contacts. So I thought: Why not start something on your own?”

The company’s fortunes have mirrored Dubai’s meteoric rise. In 2002, NEB started work on its first major projects: the 40-storey Shatha tower in Dubai Media City, and 15 seven-storey buildings at Emaar Properties’ development. When Jadallah joined NEB, it had a full-time staff of seven. ‘You have to have seven employees to get an unlimited licence,’ he explains. Now NEB has more than 220 employees and is working on projects with a total value that exceeds AED 8,000 million ($2,200 million).

While landmark developments such as Palm Jumeirah and the Burj Dubai grabbed the headlines, NEB found most of its opportunities arising in such schemes as Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lake towers. It is working on 16 tower projects in Jumeirah Lake towers alone. ‘It was the right time, the market had just started to boom. Many more projects followed and it seems like every day there is a new city with new projects coming along,’ says Jadallah.

Although new projects are plentiful, this has not translated into easy pickings for consultants as the market remains as competitive as ever. With so many properties on the market, developers increasingly search for cutting-edge designs to make their projects stand out. Time and money are also critical. Off-plan sales that mean projects have to be turned round in record time and, perhaps more important, rising building costs put greater pressure on developers’ budgets than ever before.

‘You have to provide good designs that match the clients’ requirements and the demands of the end user. Fast-tracking means you have to complete the designs on time, but most important of all, the designs have to be cost-effective. In other words, they have to be economical to construct,’ says Jadallah.

Branching out

NEB has been on a steep learning curve, and is now in a position to take the experience it has gained in Dubai elsewhere. The company has opened branch offices in the neighbouring emirates of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The company is working with a US consultant on Shams Abu Dhabi and has started the design of several tower projects of about 30 storeys around the capital. Outside the federation, the firm has also begun working in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and has even submitted designs for projects in Bulgaria. ‘Dubai has become the standard for the whole area. If you can work in Dubai and do a good job here, it is easy to be successful outside,’ Jadallah says.

Expanding into foreign markets is now a priority for NEB. ‘Even though the situation is still encouraging in Dubai for the next five to 10 years, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ says Jadallah.

With continued growth in Dubai and the rest of the Gulf, opportunities for local companies to work on major projects will remain. For NEB the sky is the limit. ‘We are working on a concept for another project in the Marina area that will be even taller than Marina 101,’ says Jadallah.