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By Orlando Crowcroft  www.constructionweekonline.com

With the emphasis on building faster, higher and taller, thinking big never came easy during Dubai’s construction boom – resulting in a city that lacks public space and is so often all too reliant on the car.

But this attitude has changed since the financial crisis, with other GCC countries keen to learn from Dubai’s mistakes. Saudi Arabia has a number of master planned mega-projects on the boards, while Abu Dhabi has put big picture-thinking at the centre of its 2030 plan.

It is a good environment to be in for a firm with a track record like HOK. The design firm responsible for Dubai Marina, Festival City and, most recently the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), HOK does not need to go far to point to its credentials.

But Daniel Hajjar, HOK’s Dubai-based vice president, believes that it is not just attitudes to the importance of master planning that have changed, but the nature of master planning itself.

“Master planning has really become more than an engineered statement. It has become about looking at how you can create quality within the urban environment, as opposed to looking only at how to break a development up into the most convenient grid,” he said.

It was something that HOK tried to achieve with its Dubai Marina framework, one of the few new residential sites in Dubai that is not dissected by highways and unbearable outside in the summer heat.

“It was perhaps one of the first ones that responded to the public realm, within the city. In the sense that it really was, and remains, truly public. People can go down, walk along the waterfront, and you have these pockets of urban space where you can relax and watch the world go by,” he said.

“In that sense I think it’s done very well for itself.”

Of course, the Marina is very much an exception to the rule in Dubai, a lesson not lost on the rulers of Abu Dhabi. The emirate’s 2030 plan has set down guidelines for everything from building height to the width of pavements, and ensured that the planned metro system effectively links the city.

“The thing that should be admired with Abu Dhabi is the fact that the political will is there to address some of the issues that we continually talk about but that we never do anything about,” Hajjar said.

“It’s going to be an interesting exercise primarily because no other place has done it in the Middle East. We’ve had master-planned communities but never a master planned city.”

It is well-known that the climate is one of the biggest challenges for designers in the Middle East, and creating habitable outside space is one of the aims of Abu Dhabi’s plan. Hajjar pointed out that since HOK first started planning communities and developments in the Middle East in the 1980s, people’s attitudes to the heat, and what temperature is bearable, have changed.

“When I first came to Dubai no one would sit outside in March, April, May, now you see people quite often sitting outside. As long as it is comfortable,” he said.

“If you actually take away the humidity, it is hot but you don’t need very much to make it comfortable for yourself.”

HOK has looked at a number of strategies within particular projects to tackle the issue of heat. One of which, using spill air to cool down outside areas, has proved effective at Zayed University, where a large outside ‘quad’ area is cooled using air from the classrooms.

And then there is KAUST, of course, the current poster boy of sustainable development in the Middle East. KAUST was designed by a joint effort of nine HOK offices across the world in order to deliver it on a tight time frame.

“KAUST was specifically designed with the classrooms quite tight together primarily because we did not want a lot of sun penetration between the blocks, because that would go against the whole philosophy of providing shaded alleyways and pedestrian access between the buildings,” he said.

But aside from the significant achievements made at KAUST in terms of sustainability, Hajjar believes that it is a truly master-planned development, a campus designed on a similar idea to university towns in the US or Canada.

“I think the interesting thing behind that project is there is a tremendous affinity between the different components, it’s not just some campus stuck out in the middle of nowhere without residential or commercial to support it, it has almost become the classic university town,” he said.

Like many firms, HOK sees a future market in Saudi Arabia, a place that has money, ambition and a very real need for infrastructure, housing, schools and facilities for its growing population.

“I don’t think anyone in this part of the world can ignore the Saudi market, and we never have actually. The Saudi market has always been an important market for us,” he said.

Qatar too will be an important market for HOK, and Hajjar points to the country’s focus on education and the gas industry. Qatar also has ambition, demonstrated by its audacious bid for the 2022 World Cup and its plans for the new Doha International Airport, which HOK will be the design architect for.

Wherever HOK is working in the next few years, Hajjar thinks that the market in the Middle East, and the mindset of developers here, has changed since the financial crisis. Developers no longer want to replicate the growth seen in Dubai in 2009, so designers are no longer required to fulfill their clients’ weird and wonderful demands.

“One of the issues that became extremely acute was that when the boom was happening many people looked to Dubai and said: ‘We want to develop like that.’ We even had people calling from as far as Central Asia who wanted to develop like Dubai,” Hajjar said.

“But Dubai developed like that because of certain conditions. I think there is a change of attitudes now. Muscat is not Dubai, Manama is not Dubai and Abu Dhabi is not Dubai. There is a very real character within each of the countries in terms of how it should be looked at, what it needs to be looked at as, and how it needs to develop as well.”

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