Construction is underway on Manhattan’s largest undeveloped property site, the 10.5-hectare (26-acre) Hudson Yards. The mixed-use development has been master-planned by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) with developers Related Companies and Oxford Properties. The site will house 15 new buildings, making 1.2m sq m of commercial and residential development, most of which will be built on platforms over two working rail yards. The Eastern Rail Yard will include two dedicated office buildings, the 47-storey South Tower and the 70-storey North Tower designed by KPF, and another, the 60-storey East Tower designed by David M. Childs/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, with office, residential and retail units. The masterplan also includes a large cultural hub, a major subway extension, a school and 5.5 hectares (14 acres) of open space and parks.
The development is thought to be costing around $15bn, with 30,000 people working and 10,000 people living in the new West Side district. The South Tower, due to be completed in 2014, is the first building to break ground; it will be integrated with the final extension of the High Line park.
Young American furniture maker Joseph Cleghorn was influenced by Scandinavian culture while living in Stockholm as a boy. This can be readily seen in his workstation titled Satellite, pictured. Its form, ergonomic configuration and engineering have won international awards and have been credited with aiding the development of new Scandinavian design. The desk is made with a ribbon stripe sapele veneer – honeycomb ground with solid sapele edging and has a satin lacquer finish. The legs are made of maple with a white lacquer.
There is something incongruous about the word “greenscraper”. Even though it slips easily into architectural vernacular, it is a difficult term with which to grapple.On the one hand, Foster + Partners’ new high rise is the fourth tallest skyscraper in London’s Square Mile. The Willis Building is bold and brash, boasts more than 5,000 tonnes of steel and has piled foundations the length of four-and-a-half London buses. Twenty-one high-speed lifts travel the 125m-high building at 15 miles per hour, taking staff from the ground to the top floor in a matter of seconds. Thirty thousand people spent a total of 1.5 million man-hours taking the project from inception to completion.But the building excels in terms of its BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) ratings and was awarded 10/10 for its low energy consumption. The high standards of sustainable construction were also commended – material from the demolition of the building was recycled and crushed for use in the foundations of the new structure, reducing both wastage and road miles.The glass facade incorporates high-efficiency double-glazing, and the distinctive saw-tooth design – apart from enhancing the silhouette – prevents overheating, reduces the usage of air-conditioning and optimises the amount of natural light coming into the building. Only about one in five new builds achieves excellence in its BREEAM rating, with the proportion in London far lower. For a skyscraper to achieve it is a particularly tall order. But if any building was going to hit such heights, it was going to be the Willis Building. The team behind this new addition to the London skyline is the architectural equivalent of a super-group, with Foster at the helm, British Land as the developer, Stanhope as the manager and global insurance broking company Willis laying claim to the whole tower.The green theme is at the heart of the structure. StructureTone, the company behind the fit out, managed to carbon offset the project in keeping with the core build. The building is the UK’s first Forestry Stewardship Council-accredited fit out and a wide range of initiatives were introduced to reduce the carbon footprint of the development. These included a 50 per cent decrease in the haulage of CO2 through the use of a consolidation centre, and a recycling rate of over 85 per cent. Mineral fibre tiles, which produce 80 times less CO2 than their metal equivalent, were used in the ceiling.Foster + Partners designed the lift lobby, a show-stopping glossy affair with mood lighting and reflective ceilings, giving a modernising effect to the rest of the fit out.The interior of the building is a corporate fit out to suit a high-end insurance broker. Designed by Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, it includes a 375-seat auditorium, a fully equipped gym and restaurant to accommodate the 2,000 plus staff with its own outdoor terrace.The three roof terraces are a highlight of the finished build. The highest and most impressive, the Client Advocate roof terrace, is used for corporate entertainment and dining, and takes in views of the whole of the city. The statement, however, is in the building – and it is most definitely a trumpet blow that will be heard across the City. In 2007, Willis’ New York division moved into first-class office space at One Financial Centre. Lloyds previously occupied the company’s London site, at 51 Lime Street, before it moved to 1 Lime Street, opposite the new development. Willis really is placing itself at the heart of the insurance sector.When developer British Land was looking for a tenant for the new build and approached Willis, some unusual adjustments had to be made. The insurance broker wanted a tower that it could occupy exclusively. British Land’s head of London leasing, Paul Burgess, says: “It was probably the first time we had ever gone to the city planner and asked to make a build smaller.”The changes went ahead; it was a collaboration that everyone wanted in on.The project is not the first time Willis has worked with Foster + Partners. The three-storey Willis Building in Ipswich was designed by the company’s previous incarnation, Foster Associates, in 1974, and given Listed status in 1991.The new headquarters have been developed as a series of overlapping curved shells, with the sections arranged in three steps. Roof terraces overlooking London are directly accessible from three floors of the office tower. More than 2,000 Willis staff, from four offices across London, have moved into the 28-storey build.An adjacent nine-storey building, 1 Fenchurch, which is part of the same development, has been part let to a law firm. Both buildings have an open and integrated area at street level, more in keeping with nearby Leadenhall Market with its shops and cafes than a financial district.The smaller building’s concave facade shapes the public plaza that both buildings step down to. Its curved corners maintain important view corridors, as well as reinstating a historic route through the site. A fringe of shops, cafes and bars at its base, together with linear seating and landscaping, combine to enhance the public realm.Both buildings have a central core to provide open floorplates and maximum flexibility in use. The entire development is unified visually by its highly reflective facade.The Willis Building won the 2007 New City Architecture Award, not only for its architectural form, but also for its contribution to the streetscape of the City. Chief executive Joe Plumeri says that for a global giant such as Willis, the move also shows commitment to London as one of the world’s leading financial centres. “I have no idea what the BREEAM means, but I am guessing that it is a real good thing.” For him, it is about modernising – and standing tall. The glass structure certainly achieves both these goals.
The launch of the new Lm Lateral Filing System by Triumph, was a highly successful entry into the corporate project market, giving the company a 24 per cent increase in UK annual sales in 2007. Lm offers specifiers and dealers one of the most comprehensive systems of industry standard cupboards, drawers and combination units available today. Triumph’s design, development and manufacturing takes place in South Wales where it employs nearly 400 people and uses UK raw materials, sourced locally. Triumph is now opening a brand new London headquarters for its UK Sales and Marketing operation, in Clerkenwell.
Ten years ago, announcers on the trains pulling into the city used to say “This. Is. Hull” in such a resigned tone that visitors could hardly be blamed for wondering whether they were, in fact, entering a place with a different vowel in the middle. Now they are greeted by billboards all around the station, showing smiley people and a souped-up skyline, declaring: “Hull’s changing. Open your eyes. Welcome to the future.” The area adjacent to the station, now billed as St Stephen’s, was unveiled last autumn and is home to a huge Tesco, dozens of clothing retailers and a Starbucks. When you consider that the area used to reek of burgers and diesel fumes, the aroma of grande skinny lattes is a welcome relief, and certainly provides more convivial surroundings for business travellers and the local workforce alike. The positive mood continues through to the office of John Holmes, chief executive of urban regeneration company Hull Citybuild. “It’s an exciting time for regeneration, as the physical delivery speeds up, and the public can see things happening,” he says. “Hull didn’t have a development corporation and has had to come from way back and try a lot harder. Politically too, it is a bit more stable now, as we have a sense of buy-in from all parties.” Evidence of this revived property scene can be found a few minutes’ walk away from Citybuild’s HQ near the waterfront at phase one of the Humber Quays development. The One Humber Quays address has more than 2,000sq m of lettable space. It is home to the World Trade Centre Hull and Humber, which will promote international trade and development, while the Royal Bank of Scotland moved in last summer. PricewaterhouseCoopers is also due to take 40 per cent of neighbouring Two Humber Quays.Jonathan Knowles, director with DLA Architecture, which is behind the two buildings, says: “One Humber Quays needed to be a very clean and elegant design that almost sits on the water. Two has more of a heavy masonry approach. Hopefully, they will act as a catalyst for the place as a regenerated business district.” Further east along the bank of the River Hull, work will start on the Boom – a £65m scheme comprising offices, retail facilities, apartments and a hotel – in the autumn. Meanwhile, architects McDowell+Benedetti have been charged with creating a landmark crossing-point, the River Hull Footbridge, which is intended to be developed by a bistro-style operator to offer dining throughout the day and evening. Despite this flurry of interventions, I get the impression that Hull is keener to retain its sense of history than cities such as Leeds or Liverpool, where they almost seem to have forgotten there was industrial life before converted-loft living. The city’s Fruit Market project epitomises this, stitching together various old and new elements to create a mixed-use development of residential, workplace and leisure spaces.Citybuild chose Igloo Regeneration as its development partner. “Now that the whole area is being planned together, from the Deep aquarium to the marina and Humber Quays, you are getting a whole part of town to work together,” says Igloo chief executive Chris Brown. “Because Hull comes near the bottom in terms of economic activity, it has been overlooked by mainstream investment. We see that as a positive, though.“In terms of setting up a business, it is really cost-effective compared with Leeds and Manchester. The Fruit Market scheme will provide creative businesses with the type of accommodation and infrastructure they need.”Richard Scott, director with Surface Architects, adds: “Creative industries have a disproportionate effect on regeneration in that these people tend to look more towards innovation, community and networking, and having the right cafes and restaurants. This has a tangible economic, and therefore generative, effect.” Surface is leading the design team for the Fruit Market project, which comprises Sarah Wigglesworth (see profile on p84), Bauman Lyons, Hodson Architects and Jan Gehl. “We say that it is the work of many hands,” says Scott. “There are so many different types of historic buildings, when we start to put new elements in, we are cheek by jowl with different architects producing different stuff.”Less glamorous-sounding than new creative hubs, but just as crucial for Hull’s renaissance as a workplace, are developments by long-standing employers such as BP, which will open a bioethanol plant in 2009. Smith & Nephew is developing its wound-management centre, while Reckitt Benckiser is bringing 150 jobs to Hull following its acquisition of Boots Healthcare International. One of the city’s unique selling points is its people, according to Holmes: “Hull has a stable workforce. People don’t tend to move around too much and they have a good skills base.” Brown agrees: “There is a mental attitude that goes back to its history in shipping in that they don’t have a problem with doing business with Rotterdam, as opposed to Manchester.”As of this month, Hull Citybuild will be subsumed by Hull Forward, which will have a remit to oversee the city’s economic masterplan, as well as its physical redevelopment. In typically upbeat fashion, Holmes declares finally that “there is a lot more to come” – and you don’t doubt him at his word.
The original Peekaboo Chair by Blå Station is across between the classic batwing chair and a futuristic vision. Textiles have been laminated with sound-absorbent felt enabling a person to feel comfortable and enclosed from the outside world. Peek (pictured) is a further development of Peekaboo: a seat that is big on comfort even where space is limited. With its slender proportions, Peek meets this need in a functional and appealing way.
Bosch & Fjord’s radical, colour-fuelled makeover of Lego’s Development Centre in Denmark has created an appropriate springboard for creative thinking.LEGO DEVELOPMENT CENTRE
ARCHITECT: BOSCH & FJORDCLIENT: LEGO COST: UNDISCLOSEDSTART DATE: OCTOBER 2006COMPLETION: MAY 2007FLOOR SPACE: 695SQ MImagine if, after finding the final golden ticket, Charlie Bucket had turned up at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and found nothing but a series of conveyor belts on an industrial estate near Crawley. Instead of Oompah Loompahs, there would be overweight, middle-aged women reading the Daily Mirror and, in the place of amoral and punitive confectionery, Charlie would happen upon greasy hairnets and chipped mugs. He would, to put it mildly, be disappointed. The hearts of people who visited Lego’s old design development centre at the Danish toy company’s Billund HQ must have sunk in a similar fashion. And visiting fathers must have had to invent stories about what it was really like where they dreamt up new Lego products when asked by their expectant offspring. “It was very grey and very dim, with no light coming in,” says designer Helle Sager M¯ller. “It looked like a closed-down railway station. People didn’t feel welcome, either as a visitor or an employee.”Senior designer Will Thorogood is more cautious in his criticism, but confirms the gloominess. “Where you arrived in a place that didn’t look good, it was demoralising,” he says. “The weather isn’t raining today, but it was quite often raining, so that didn’t help.” So who better to cheer up the “interior weather” than colour-loving design practice Bosch & Fjord? From the furniture-less central atrium of the Copenhagen furniture fair and the river of rubbery blood pouring down the stairs of the Maison du Danemark in Paris to packable/unpackable office units, the studio’s designs exude playfulness and, equally importantly, bold colour.“We like to turn up the volume on the colour,” says co-founder Rune Fjord Jensen. “Most interiors are boxes and corners. We try to bring a lot of contrasts in shape and colour. It makes it very powerful.”This outrÈ design sense is combined with what Jensen says is the use of space as a tool for development. “All people are different, so we like to create spaces with different identities, to make different people feel good,” he says. “If people feel good, they work better.” It was just what Lego’s creative director Torsten Bj¯rn, who is in charge of the designers and their environment, was seeking. “The ideal environment was one in which we could reflect our values – spontaneous curiosity, playfulness and quality,” he says. “We successfully express this in the products, but we wanted to translate this into our environment and our culture.”The Lego project involved revamping a series of meeting rooms, the reception area and buffet/cafe area. B&F designed 13 meeting rooms and came up with three different types of meetings they would have to cater for – brainstorming, informal and formal. But that only hints at the wild variety of solutions the studio created. They range from the calming – in the form of the Picnic Room, with bright-green grass and pictures of clouds on the walls – to the disturbing, such as the Ballroom, which has a crystal chandelier hanging against a wallpaper of broad black-and-white stripes. The Cosy and Focus room has a glow light at the centre with a small Persian rug underneath, which is said to be good for focusing on one idea. Another room looks like the set of Big Brother, with chairs, sofas and even a bed. Yet another features four tennis umpires’ chairs in a square, to help generate “high-minded ideas”, apparently. There is a room with a cross in the middle that can be used for a catwalk – Jensen believes in the value of moving around – while another has a large oval table that functions as an observation space from which to watch and make notes on the “consumers” (aka children) playing with the products. I use the word “playful” in talking to Bj¯rn about the design of the rooms, but he says this was not the ethos behind the project. Although the designs are, to a degree, fun, they have all been created to fulfil different tasks, even if these are whimsical. And what of the Ballroom? Some people might find it a little disturbing or confusing, I suggest. “It is good for a brainstorm,” says Bj¯rn. “It’s a provoking room. I am trying to set up the interactions between the different departments to ensure that we have this innovation in the environment.”Bj¯rn hires designers from around the world to give a similar sense of cultural diversity to the proceedings. He says he likes a mix of characteristics. He doesn’t like people getting too comfortable. It is also true that B&F’s designs avoid childishness, even while referencing it. The furniture they use is unostentatious and the ideas are limited to one or two per area. Edges are always clear and the bright colours retain their dignity or freshness. We are not in Great Ormond Street Hospital, here. Indeed, the effect of sitting in such brightly coloured surroundings could be almost alienating. Research indicates that such environments can be most productive for creative thought. Despite its colourful nature, the Development Centre is a highly secretive area. Lego’s operating profits in 2006 were £140m and, like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, everyone would like a look around. I am allowed to view only the welcome area and cafe, and two of the meeting rooms. Dreams are being concocted or refined elsewhere. But such super-secret quarters have a downside: they can be isolating for the people inside who might need to sit down with people from the rest of the Lego campus. The old space made that an unappealing prospect. Even the staff didn’t enjoy being inside. “People used to eat their lunch outside,” says M¯ller. Bj¯rn confirms this: “We had to change the cafe area – it was not so nice for people to be a part of this, every day.” One stipulation of the new area was that it should share a space with the reception area. “To begin with, we were pressured by lack of room,” says Bj¯rn. “But during the brainstorm, it was also conceived as an advantage, as receptions are often boring counters or rooms, without much activity. With this project, we want to show our values when you step in the front door. In that way, you get welcomed by an open environment where you can feel and experience the culture.”But rather than forming a distinction between the reception and buffet areas, B&F created a flowing, blobby table that makes the two spaces one. This peculiar arrangement provides plenty of space within the canteen area and puts the receptionist at the front of the welcome. The surface spreads out like a massive white splotch from the middle of the room. The rest of the canteen area takes an outdoors theme, with green organic tendrils growing over the wall and a bright-green floor. Three pine podiums encourage different forms of interaction. The effect is fresh and relaxing. Around the perimeter of this area are various types of meeting space and a library, which is, perhaps, the only truly sombre place in the building. “This design was important,” says Bj¯rn. “But there were a lot of challenges in this, because the first time I discussed this with the reception, they said they didn’t want to be so visible. Suddenly, they were in the middle of the environment. But we wanted it to be more welcoming, and an environment that projected our values. Eventually, they understood – and they were fine with it.”Other fun elements of the design include a mirror that features recordings of employees’ voices telling people they look beautiful when they stand in front of it. There are also the latest designs from the Lego Masterbuilders, crazed yet talented fans who trade research information for free Lego, such as sound effects on opening doors and two chairs perched on top of the porch. So has this startling transformation had any effect on the designers? “When you came in, there was no one to say good morning to,” says Thorogood. “But now the lady in reception is smiling. It makes a difference.” M¯ller agrees. “In the coming week, we are meeting some people from the factory,” he says. “Now we don’t have to be ashamed.” And the internal weather? “There is more sunshine every day,” she says. I think Charlie would have approved.
Words by Michael WilloughbyAbove the brownfields of the Thames Gateway development sits Campbell Architects’ Observatory, offering views of a town to be, discovers Michael Willoughby.If you want to see the town of Ebbsfleet Valley, Kent, the best vantage point is the new Observatory building, high above it in nearby Swanscombe. But you will need to bring your imagination. The view, though spectacular, consists of about 242 hectares of wet, cracked sandy mud surrounded by small cliffs and dotted with lakes. The conurbation-in-waiting (blame the God-like altitude for such a word), is part of government plans for the Thames Gateway and one of the more concrete signs that at least one aspect of the vastly hyped initiative is actually happening. Land Securities, Europe’s largest property firm, is taking great care with planning the new town’s development. It appears that getting people to move to what is a fairly desolate part of England will not necessitate a Chairman Mao-style workforce redeployment.But it will certainly need time to turn this quintessential brownfield site into habitable space. Up until a few years ago, the site was a vast cement quarry owned by Blue Circle and it will be more than 20 years before a new town with the population of Chichester will be going about its business in an area the size of three Hyde Parks. From this point, the view will be of a new settlement consisting of 10,000 houses, occupied by people working 20,000 jobs in 600,000sq m of offices and half that again of retail, leisure and community space.The Observatory, then, designed by London-based Campbell Architects, does two things: it helps people visualise this unimaginable new place and it provides a space in which to engage various interested publics. The three-storey building – “a straight side, a curved side andtwo pointy ends,” according to architect Chris Campbell – was built on the point at which Land Securities’ design director Adam Cunnington often took visitors when they toured the site. Shaped to maximise the views, it has a curved glass front that runs around 180º to show work underway.The ground floor of the Observatory comprises a vestibule, reception, office space and meeting rooms. The reception has a custom-made sofa curved to fit the sweep of the building. Beyond that, with a visual link to the front, is the office space that is home to a few permanent staff and a number of team members in the area when needed. All office furniture was “borrowed” from head office – the chairs for the meeting rooms were supplied by Vitra.On the first floor, in addition to more meeting rooms, there is an exhibition space with several displays covering the history of the site, its sustainability credentials, the local wildlife, etc. Next to these are a scale model and artifacts from previous civilisations, such as pottery, encased in perspex. It feels like the most local of local museums. The site, however, is of genuine archaeological interest. The country’s second oldest human remains, Swanscombe Man (actually a woman) dating from 40,000 years ago, were found nearby.The top floor is open to the sky with timber decking, telescopes and a mock-heroic commentary provided by Tom Baker in Little Britain mode. The most interesting sight at the moment is the 380kV Thames Crossing pylon. Baker’s sarcastic but affectionate tone – “the Church of St Peter and St Paul, a bastion of solidity in a world of change!” – is either screamingly funny or a slightly arrogant piss-take by the invader outsiders. It’s hard to decide which.The Observatory is an exhibition space for all that has happened and all that will happen, while the view from the roof shows what is happening now. Recently, one could have observed the removal of a stubborn neighbouring hill. However, Land Securities is at vast pains to show that Ebbsfleet Valley isn’t going to be a typical development with rows of identical houses, cul-de-sacs and shopping arcades. It wants to demonstrate that it cares, that it has taken time and put resources into the design. And that much is clear.In planning the town, the company engaged in a complex exercise in sustainability, local consultation, careful transport planning, habitat sensitivity and design-oriented building. The residents will be able to frolic in 400 acres of parkland, and enjoy the lakes and the pint-size cliffs, which were left from the land’s earlier exploitation. In fact, a 150-page biodiversity report has been prepared to the delight (so Cunnington tells me) of Kent Wildlife Trust and Natural England. Property behemoth Land Securities is behaving exactly opposite to its Monopoly stereotype. So why this attention to detail? Why all this niceness? “We are building value in every way; pushing up the liveability and the desirability,” Cunnington tells me. Perhaps Land Securities simply wants to maximise its asset. Transportation is key to its initial investment. Ebbsfleet International, two hours and five minutes from Paris, will be opened in November. The station will link to the new London Eurostar terminal in St Pancras – journey time 17 minutes – when it is completed next year. The town is connected to nearby Dartford, Bluewater (Europe’s largest shopping centre) and Gravesend by the innovative Fastrack, a rethink of a local bus service with reliable arrival times, designated lanes and vehicle priority.The Observatory is visited by all sorts of people, locals included, from the keen to the curious to the conservative. “People say, ‘You are going to Thames Gateway? Oh, you’ve got to see the Observatory! You can’t miss that!’” Cunnington says. Indeed, as I leave, a group from Kent University are waiting to see him. Last week alone, 200 people came through the building to gaze down on the mudflats, including three busloads from Eurostar, officials from the Central England Development Agency and assorted Russians.For meetings (or “a cup of tea and a chit chat” as Cunnington puts it) there is an 18-person boardroom on the first floor and two ten-person meeting rooms on each floor. The boardroom is incredibly popular, he tells me. “The real challenge is preserving its special-ness,” he says. With all the coming and goings, in fact, the Observatory might just be the most useful pavilion in the world. At present, the building is chiefly at the vanguard of a public relations exercise. Three permanent members of staff work here during the week and the London-based team frequently visit. There is a slot between the office and the reception desk that ensures that no one goes ungreeted should the security guard be somewhere else. This was an expensive build, mainly due to the price of adapting the location for its purposes. “The road is longer than would normally be expected for access to a building,” says Campbell, “but this was due to the fact that we wanted to get to the highest point of the site and the location was up a remote track.” The distinctive hairpin approach had to be designed to accommodate wheelchairs. The Observatory is all about access. But, decided Cunnington, if visitors were going to get a sense of the development-to-be, expensive choices had to be made. “There was no other natural viewpoint,” he says. “There was a farmhouse down the bottom, but it was at the wrong end. There was another place but it was in a complete dip. The view from other areas was slightly meaningless.” Bringing people up to the point along a tangled pathway sometimes resulted in grumbling visitors. “People would complain,” he says. “They would say things like: ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ But then they would emerge and they would say: ‘Wow!’ And that reaction meant that, no matter what it cost, this was the right place to put the building because people wouldn’t go away with bad impressions.”There were some cost restrictions, though. The interrupted view from the office is one of a couple of areas where a tight budget erased design features. A spiral staircase, which would mark out the centre core, was planned but came in at too much. “We argued our case,” says project architect Andy Korn, “but in the end it was too expensive.”Was there anything that the architects would have improved had they been given carte blanche? “Maybe curved glass,” says Campbell, idealistically. Despite the budget limitations, the office also ended up with a small landscaped garden, which overlooks the soon-to-be unfolding scene as well as a bike rack with no bikers. “People come out here to munch on their sandwiches,” says Cunnington. “And we had a great team barbecue here.”And Campbell was also keen on making sure the front of the building provided some interest. The ground floor is set back to give it a little more depth. “If it had been on a single plane, it would have been a bit bland,” Campbell says. “But the layering and definition give it some light and shadow.”In time, the use of the Observatory will change. At present, it is home to various wandering project managers and construction people. There is a consortium of architects bidding for Kent’s Schools for the Future programme in residence as I visit. People come down from London to get some work done, Cunnington tells me. “The phones ring less often,” he says. “The Observatory is all we could have asked for and more.”There is an element of cosiness about today’s operation. Despite being a high-flying property executive in Europe’s largest property company, Cunnington uses words and phrases like “chit chat”, “munching” and “wow!” His mum is booking out the exhibition hall for her Rotary Club in May. But his casual manner doesn’t grate like some over-familiar vicar or teacher. Is he the real thing – a familial, sensitive property developer?“We’re a small team,” he laughs. But groundbreaking at the first site is due to take place later this month and soon the building will be home to a different group of people. The brownfields and the Observatory will gradually fill up with those designing schools and transport and services, offices, shops and homes. Land Securities will turn its activities to what it knows best (community relations aside): building and building big.
The big success story in the international property market is Dubai. The figures prove it. But this kind of rapid growth does not come without a price, finds Mark Eltringham.
The story of Dubai is generally told not in words but in numbers. And for a city-state that covers just over 1,500 square miles, those numbers add up to something quite out of proportion with its landmass, population and natural resources. If you’re involved in property or architecture, the figure you’ll have heard most is the one about the number of cranes – it is rumoured that around 30,000 of the world’s 125,000 construction cranes are currently in Dubai.
Dubai’s success in generating these numbers is not even about oil. Dubai is very different from other members of the United Arab Emirates in that oil revenues account for only six per cent of its gross domestic product. Its reserves are less than one-twentieth of those of Abu Dhabi, whose oil wealth has traditionally been the source of largesse for the rest of the UAE.
Instead of oil, Dubai is built on a brand. Dubai Inc is largely the creation of the current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has overseen an exponential growth since he came to power in 1993. He has created a platform for trade, financial services and tourism that relies heavily on chutzpah, jaw-dropping architecture, mega projects, big numbers and free zones for the development of specific businesses and property developments, providing springboards for multinationals. These include the Dubai International Financial Center, as well as Dubai Studio City, the Cultural Village, Dubai Waterfront, Dubiotech, Business Bay, Palm Island and The World archipelago, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, International City, Knowledge City, Sports City and Festival City.The Sheikh, who appears to see Dubai as a business concern as much as a state, is now looking to extend Brand Dubai beyond his own borders. Dubai International Capital, the organisation he set up to develop outside investments, is still in talks with Liverpool Football Club about a takeover. Another of the Sheikh’s investment vehicles, Isthimar, has acquired buildings in New York and has been rumoured to be in discussions about a takeover with EMI and Standard Chartered Bank in the UK.
So far, so glossy. But there are problems. One of them is that Dubai’s interests have met with some hostility abroad, especially in the US. Mark Povey of Dubai-based Transguard Group can see both sides of the argument. “You can take something like the proposed acquisition of US container terminals by Dubai Ports World and understand the unease felt by Americans,” he says. “But equally the feeling in the Arab world is that Dubai is just doing what it and other Middle East countries have been encouraged to do since the Clinton regime. Dubai is a major international player now and in many ways a model state for the Middle East, and the Americans can’t have it both ways.”
There are problems too with the local stock exchange, where insider trading is rumoured to be rife in spite of the government’s assurances that it is pursuing a model based on the financial markets in London and New York. Money laundering is an inevitable consequence of Dubai’s tax free system. And when Westerners (along with many people in the Arab world, especially young Saudis) commend the city for its fairly liberal attitudes towards drinking, prostitution and exposed flesh in public, they are overlooking a government that still has a bit of a problem with the idea of free speech. Local journalists working outside the International Media City enclave are still constrained by archaic laws and self-censorship. Internet access is restricted in most areas of Dubai, with a proxy server filtering out sites deemed to be against its cultural and religious values, including any domains with a .il (Israel) suffix. From a Western perspective the pay and conditions of immigrant workers has always been a concern. According to some, building standards can be lower than in the UK, bordering on shoddy. Procurement methods can also be unclear thanks to local laws and practice, although many developers welcome the idea that you can take a very large project from conception to site in under a year.
The locals too are having to adjust to cultural differences. There are now almost as many Brits living in Dubai as Emiratis. The situation is mirrored in the rest of the UAE, where 80 per cent of the four million residents consist of non-nationals, and where population, driven by immigration, is growing at eight per cent a year. The rapid growth of the region has brought its own structural economic problems. The gap in per capita income at the top and bottom of the social scale has widened dramatically, an inevitable consequence of rapid GDP growth according to economists, but also one that reflects the low pay of certain sections of the immigrant worker community. In spite of its rapid development, there are major pressures on both the residential and commercial property markets as people flood to the area from all over the world. Residents say that their standard of living has fallen over the last couple of years. The lowest domestic rent you can expect to pay is now around £18,500 per year according to HR consultancy Digby Morris.
The commercial property sector is also seeing spiralling construction costs and rents creating tensions in the market. For some commentators, the next phase of development will have to focus on a mature market, based more on ownership of property rather than its creation. Chris Fountain is event director of CMPi and is developing a new event called Working Buildings Middle East, which will look at the development and management of buildings in the region.
As part of that he has commissioned a report which will look at those issues relating to the ownership of buildings.“It has been estimated that Dubai is developing around 500,000 extra residential units in the next ten years,” he says. “Similarly there are currently 100 office towers that have been added to the market in the year to the first quarter of 2007. The question is firstly whether that will be enough. Second, will they be the right kind of space and finally what will happen to them once they are built. What we are seeing is the distinction between architecture and facilities management. It’s the same as the difference between sex and parenthood, between creation and responsibility.”
One man who will be taking a keen interest in this development is Mick Dalton, the Chairman of the British Institute of Facilities Management, who has recently moved to a new position in Dubai to promote the use and development of FM in the UAE. “The government’s decision to develop an economy that is service and tourism oriented has made real estate more valuable and that is what is driving the property boom,” he says. “Issues such as facilities management just haven’t developed at the same pace. It’s not enough to have world class buildings unless you have world class management of them.”
He faces a challenge getting this idea across, according to Transguard Group’s Mark Povey. “International clients are demanding 21st-century service delivery and efficiency, and Dubai is still reliant on labour intensive 20th-century methods. Managing to integrate into this very different business culture has been a major stumbling block for many companies and individuals here. We can expect to see this change as the market matures, but how exactly this will resolve itself is still uncertain.”