Dubai experts gather to discuss the future of UAE waterfront development

At a roundtable held by Middle East Architect in Dubai, industry experts gathered to discuss the future of waterfront developments in the UAE. Among those in attendance were Ihab Nayal from La Casa, Phillip Jones from B+H Architects, André Meyerhans from Fischer & Meyerhans Architects, Martin Dufresne from U+A and Tobias Honey from VE Experts.

According to the architects, there isn’t much coastland left in Dubai to develop, which has lead the emirate to creating waterfront communities inland along the canal, for example, or by creating man-made islands. Jones noted that while there isn’t much likelihood for waterfront work along the country’s border with Saudi Arabia, the country will start to see the coastland from Abu Dhabi up to Ras Al Khaimah being developed. “It’ll be a gold coast,” he said.

Phillip Jones

“It’s interesting to note that there hasn’t been any substantial island developments in Dubai since the 2007 correction in the market, and that’s primarily because it’s a huge amount of investment to build the land out in the sea, but Ras Al Khaimah was fortunately completed in terms of land and infrastructure before the collapse, and now it’s starting to ‘happen’,” Jones said.

He added that the same reasoning can be applied as the main driver behind the development for projects like the Dubai Canal. “It’s faster and cheaper and it gets a bigger return and speed of sales,” Jones said. “I know that sounds more like a developer speaking than an architect, but we need to keep that in mind as we’re moving forward with the masterplanning of these new waterfront developments.”

Andre Meyerhans

The architects agreed that waterfront developments are largely driven by premiums, and developers often focus on sea views to get the most out of the property sales. However, Meyerhans explained that there are elements beyond direct beach access that make waterfront developments successful business ventures, as well as community hubs.

“Waterfront developments are rather cost-driven,” he said. “Developers try to differentiate themselves through direct water access, but there are other components like interior layouts, connection to public space, as well as the amenities. These components are much more efficient than just sheer waterfront access.”

Tobias Honey and Martin Dufresne

Honey noted that his firm often presents complete studies on the view from the apartments, which helps them influence the client regarding design decisions. “It’s as though we’ve illustrated that we’re coming with their mindset, and then we’re able to slide in our architecture around it.”

Dufresne and Nayal spoke of the constraints they’ve faced with waterfront design. While Nayal argued that themed architecture sometimes gets in the way of optimising a beachfront development, Dufresne said it’s been difficult to always ensure a level of privacy is offered to all end-users, especially when the projects are view- and balcony-centric.

“We’re working on a project in Saudi Arabia, and privacy is so important that it’s almost a driving force,” Dufresne said. “So when you’re working on a waterfront development and you’re trying to give everyone a view, it gets quite challenging because there can’t be any oversight. Everything has to be frontal. These factors drive the arrangement of the layout.”

Ihab Nayal

Nayal added that some waterfront projects he’s worked on are further constrained by the plot size and shape. “We’ll end up doing a building with the rooms coming out at 45 degrees so that each one has a view, but you don’t want it to look like it was built in the 1980s,” he joked. “So we then have to create a frame that negates that form. It’s the challenges of working on these projects, but our role is to come up with such solutions.”

Despite the design challenges of waterfront developments in the UAE, the properties continue to sell and they’re considered prime real estate.

Moving beyond the views and balconies, architects are pressured to create developments that merge well into their surroundings. “It’s about how the developments connect to the cities,” Meyerhans said. “As well as how people will get to work, how much traffic there will be and so on.”

The group agreed that the inclusion of social infrastructure will impact waterfront developments in the near future. As Jones put it, with land being so valuable, those hoping to purchase luxury waterfront properties are looking for added community benefits, like schools and clinics.

“We’re working on a couple of communities in Abu Dhabi and it’s actually a stipulation from the municipality that 25% of the project has to be for the community,” said Honey, “and that might mean infrastructure for cooking classes, or child entertainment, or what have you. It hasn’t been defined because it’s up to the developer.”

“It goes back to the marketability,” added Dufresne. “How are you selling this lifestyle? A lot of developers are now giving architects the role of marketing. It’s now for us to think about the lifestyle of the potential buyer, which is strange because there was always a marketing team that handled that. It’s a challenge that we take as an opportunity.”

As Nayal put it, delivering a successful project means understanding what the client wants from day one, and this will continue to change as the population and market change. According to Jones, waterfront developments across the UAE are now moving toward the northern emirates due to the pressure to accommodate the growing population.

“I think there’s still room left for us as architects,” concluded Honey. “I’m still waiting for that waterfront development that has a 12 month experience. We need to keep pushing what we’ve already got forward.”

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