Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

Construction Week Editorials

Will David Fisher have the last laugh and build his rotating tower?

Rob WagnerJanuary 15th, 2009

A couple of events have occurred this past week that demonstrate the crazy and very interesting characteristics of the construction industry in the Gulf region.

One complaint that has surfaced in recent weeks illustrates the scepticism many industry observers have towards new technology to the region. Maybe scepticism is the wrong word and perhaps this is more of an example of how technology must prove itself first before it is accepted.

The folks who built the Bahrain World Trade Center are struggling to convince the public that its wind turbines are indeed working and providing power as it is designed to do.

Why the complaints? Well, it seems the turbines are not always turning, so therefore they must be broken. That’s hardly the case since turbines only operate when it is necessary. And if a turbine-powered building is only at 5% capacity then it stands to reason that the device will not be operating at 100%.

There’s a stretch of highway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California, that has hundreds of massive wind turbines operating. This part of the desert, not unlike the landscape on the Arabian Peninsula, has provided the backdrop to many movies over the years so Construction Week readers may be familiar with what I am talking about.

But inevitably the talk of those who frequently pass these turbines is why not all of them are working. The secret is this: All of them are working, but often when you are not looking.

In a different vein but about a different kind of tower is the news that the much maligned architect David Fisher is poised to launch his US $700 million 80-storey rotating tower. Can it be that Fisher might have the last laugh and actually get his outlandish scheme off the ground while everyone else is cutting back?

According to Fisher, the only reason why the Dynamic Tower hasn’t broken ground is due to some delays in getting approval for land acquisition. Not technical glitches in the tower’s technology and not due to the global financial crisis.

He doesn’t exactly say when he is ready to put shovel to earth, only that building begins in a couple of months. But from the sound of it, he seems pretty close. And to add a bit of legitimacy to his claim the folks who are bringing another rotating building — the 55° Time Dubai tower — to Dubai, say they are ready to start in about two months.

That 30-storey, $204 million project will be in Dubailand’s City of Arabia.

Yes, the Abu Dhabi-based Aldar Laing O’Rourke is eliminating 200 jobs, about 10% of its workforce. That’s the reality of the business these days, but new technology to the Middle East, such as wind turbines, and the “march forward, never look back” attitude of architects and engineers remind us that the region remains vital and healthy.

Projects’ success stories defy dark predictions

Rob Wagner, January 31st, 2009

Who says there is no silver lining to be found in the dark economic clouds hovering over the UAE?

Consider what Alastair Mitchell, senior mechanical engineer for Hyder Consulting Middle East, says about the Burj Dubai:

“With this economic downturn the chances are it (the Burj Dubai) will remain the tallest building in the world for quite a few years to come.”

It’s probably safe to say there were more than a few sweaty brows earlier this year when announcements were made far and wide that a taller, more striking, and therefore a more architecturally stunning building would rise in a place that is not the United Arab Emirates.

Those concerns seem to have washed away with this winter’s storms as the Burj is likely to remain the tallest structure for some time. But I am not jumping up and down like a school girl on Valentine’s Day because the news isn’t that the Burj will remain the tallest, but that the project demonstrates that despite the global financial crisis, construction work is getting done.

The list of projects underway at full steam is long. The Wave, Muscat, Schön Business Park, Victory Heights, the first two phases of City of Arabia and the Tiger Woods golf course all are on or nearly on schedule.

And take a look at Al Barsha 1, 2 and 3. Infrastructure works is continuing at a frenetic pace. Curbs, gutters, two new roundabouts and a multi-lane connector road linking Al Barsha 1 with Al Barsha 3 are near completion.

A mall has broken ground and the makings of a manmade lake have already started. Perhaps that is something you’d expect from the Dubai Municipality, which has put an emphasis on infrastructure.

But the surrounding residential area tells the true story of the UAE’s relative financial health. It’s less about the big developers and builders and more of the average Emirati and investor looking for income property.

Massive villas, especially in Al Barsha 3, are being built to accommodate two, if not three families. Many of the villas have been built to let, with new tenants coming in weekly to look at the accommodations. Services in the form of small grocery stores, barbershops and ladies’ stores are popping up to serve the influx of residents.

Certainly, many projects have grounded to a standstill, but many more are heading towards completion. Perhaps Al Barsha, Victory Heights and other projects tell a better and more accurate story of where the UAE is headed in the near future.

Not a laughing matter?

Rob Wagner, February 7th, 2009

For the past year there has been quite a bit of scepticism among the suits in the construction industry about the practicality of the much vaunted Masdar City. The city is supposed to be the be-all, end-all zero-carbon project that promises to revolutionise how cities are to run in an eco-friendly manner.

As Construction Week Assistant Editor Jamie Stewart asks: Is Masdar City the beacon of progress or one big petri dish on a budget pumped with steroids? Or is it in the most modest terms the projects’ publicists can conjure up: A giant leap for mankind.

I’ve been inclined to fall on the side of the sceptics because, well, the goals seem a bit too lofty and the language used to describe it a bit over-ripe.

I talked recently with Marwan Khraisheh, the provost at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Mist), as did Jamie, who also discussed the project with Khaled Awad, director of property management for Masdar City.

Let’s just say that between our discussions with Khraisheh and Awad and Jamie’s onsite visit, I am softening my view a bit about whether Masdar City can be a success. Does that mean that I believe that Masdar City will truly be a zero-carbon community? No, of course not. That’s impossible.

Let’s face it. Abu Dhabi is not the poster child for energy conservation. How can it be if it is to sustain itself in the middle of the desert and still provide services, accommodations and jobs to thousands of people? But give it credit for attempting the impossible. It may not grab the brass ring, but Abu Dhabi government officials are doing everything in their power to achieve a level of success.

And here’s why it will be a success by any definition. Mist is backed by perhaps the most prestigious research institute in North America.

It has the endorsement and support of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and all of its attendant expertise in the field of energy conservation. As essentially an auxiliary branch of MIT, Mist will use the ever-growing Masdar City, which will eventually be home to 50,000 people, as an open laboratory to develop policies and technology to focus on renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

As most of us know who have been exposed to biological or technological research even at the secondary school level, a failure ultimately means progress, if not success by a different measure.

That doesn’t mean that I expect Mist students and researchers to fail in their quest for eco-perfection, but the fact that Mist will occupy 6% of the city’s 6.5km2 area and use the city as its own hands-on lab, tells me that it is destined to achieve many if not most of its goals.

Construction industry leaders and environmentalists will follow Masdar’s progress through the project’s completion date in 2016. Over the next seven years we can expect to see huge advances in developing zero-carbon communities thanks to the visionaries who launched this project.

Our testosterone-fuelled city

Rob Wagner, October 4th, 2008

It seems that with each passing week, we discover a new project that promises to give us the biggest, brightest, tallest structure in the region. It will redefine the Middle East. It will bring foreign investors. We will be viewed worldwide as the “new Paris,” the “new New York,” the new whatever.

Donald Trump comes in and makes a noise about building a skyscraper that will exceed the Burj Dubai. Saudi Prince Al Walid bin Talal is planning his Mile-High Tower in Jeddah. In Bahrain, the Al Moayyed Towers is set to take shape in the Seef District.

Nakheel’s Tall Tower between Jumeirah Lake Towers and Ibn Battuta Mall on Sheikh Zayed Road will be taller than the Burj Dubai at 1400m.

In this week’s issue of Construction Week, features editor Shikha Mishra reports on the Marina Pinnacle Tower in the Dubai Marina. The tower will reach 71 floors. Everyone associated with the project is bursting with pride that it will be among the tallest structures in the Marina.

And now this: A new tall tower that will exceed all skyscrapers reportedly will be built in the middle of the planned Jumeirah Garden City. This latest piece of news falls somewhere between knowledgeable contractors leaking the news and a bit of speculation. But if experience tells us anything about Dubai, where there is smoke there is fire. As far as the construction community is concerned, the proposed tower is a reality.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I must again wonder where all of this is going and for what purpose. While it’s exciting to see visionaries execute the boldest plans ever conceived on a global scale in commercial and residential development, there is an aspect of machismo here that borders on the silly.

Given this, it can be interpreted not as visionary thinking, but simply part of the testosterone-fuelled developers and architects who appear to have something to prove to themselves and to their colleagues.

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction Week.

Qatar’s eye to the future

Rob Wagner, February 21st, 2009

Qatar has always been somewhat of an anomaly, politically and economically, among the GCC countries, marching to the beat of a different drummer.

We are now in an uncertain economic climate that only promises, shall we say optimistically, to get more interesting in the months to come.

The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and even the mighty Saudi Arabia are scaling back and hunkering down for the long haul. But in the midst of all the boardroom shuffling, rejigged timelines and promises to remain “committed” to projects and what-not there is Qatar moving along at a steady clip without so much as working up a sweat.

Qatar at the moment is the only GCC country that is maintaining a strong economic performance, as assistant editor Jamie Stewart reports this week. It helps that it sits on a hefty chunk of the world’s natural gas fields and that it manages a strong and consistent fiscal policy.

Yes, there are the inevitable delays in getting projects off the ground and completed. The W Hotel has suffered numerous delays since 2007.  Yet all the major developers and contractors say that not a single project has been suspended.

This rather modest success story is due in part to the conservative nature of Qatar in terms of growth and building. Qatar does not promise the sky and the moon to developers and wants to ensure the scale of projects are proportionate to the environment.

Doha also has quickly gained a reputation as a cultural and political centre in the GCC. Qatar authorities insist that building be kept at a moderate but steady pace and that architecture include a healthy mix of modern and traditional Arabic features.

Couple this with the fact that Doha is a magnet for neighbouring Middle East countries to settle squabbles or long-simmering disputes. Doha is merging as a global city that offers a venue to forge solutions to worldwide crises and Qatar leaders are determined that Doha lives up to the role.

What makes the Qatar story so dramatic is that it is a country of less than 1.5 million people, just a tiny fraction of the world’s population, yet it has a sound banking system and a commitment at economic diversification long before it became fashionable with other Middle East countries.

Not a bad success story for a country in which its chief contribution to the region not so long ago was pearl diving. To its credit it maintains those strong bonds to the past while it forges ahead with an eye on the future.

The Elusive David Fisher

Rob Wagner, October 30th, 2008

We discover this week that architect David Fisher, the man behind the rotating residential tower, can be found and is willing to talk.

Bahrain editor Ben Millington tracks down and gets an exclusive interview with the elusive Fisher, the architect of the rotating Dynamic Towers. You’ll recall that Fisher has met with considerable criticism over whether his project is a fantasy, including some shots from this publication.

Fisher goes a long way to answering those critics. He correctly points out that the project should be judged on its merits and not on a personal basis. His CV has been questioned and his qualifications have been challenged. There is some confusion, created not only by Fisher but his publicists as well, as to whether he fibbed on his CV about his educational background. And his critics claim that being the king of pre-fabricated bathrooms does not give him license to build a complicated structure that thousands of people are expected to call home.

If anything Fisher has learned a lesson that if one is going to announce to the world a radical building project, even by Dubai standards, his credentials better be spotless. No hyperbole allowed.

I do agree with Fisher that if a rotating tower is to be constructed, it better be built on the simplest technology possible. He points out to Millington that he picked building re-fabricated bathrooms as an area of expertise because it is the most complicated part of constructing buildings. Maintenance is easier on a pre-fab section of a building because it does not affect the rest of the structure.

Fisher wants to repair and maintain a building without “using a hammer” and sees no need to tear up perfectly good portions of a building to make repairs elsewhere. He also wants buildings to have a shelf life longer than 100 years, which is ambitious for this region.

OK, I can get on board with that concept. Yet Fisher is vague on other aspects of his project. He talks about “smart technology” but gives few details. Perhaps the most important aspect of the driving mechanism to rotate each floor of the tower is its hydraulic system. But he refuses to provide details.

Perhaps the biggest red flag is the fact that he has backtracked on guaranteeing wind turbines as a power source for surrounding buildings. That was a huge selling point of the project in the first place, but now it appears it has fallen on the list of his priorities. He expects to break ground in two to three months, but he is still in the process of developing the wind turbines.

Well, good luck with that.

Rob Wagner is the Editor of Construction Week

The usual urban planning rules don’t apply to Jeddah

Rob Wagner, December 20th, 2008

One of the beneficiaries of the massive construction boom in Saudi Arabia – a boom that at the moment shows no signs of abating despite what is happening elsewhere in the world – is the redevelopment of Jeddah’s Corniche.

The corniche, a 101km stretch of beachfront on the Red Sea, has never quite lived up to its reputation as one of the crown jewels of the cosmopolitan Jeddah. At least that was my impression when I first arrived in the city in 2004.

Jeddah was my home for three years, but the corniche doesn’t offer much beyond some rather exceptional restaurants with remarkable seafood on the menu and the five-star hotels that dot the northern stretch of coastline.

The area is often strewn with trash. Teenagers race about on ATVs on sidewalks narrowly missing young children walking with their parents. And the abundance of feral cats makes outdoor dining somewhat an adventure.

Yet families flock to the corniche on comfortable weekend evenings. They bring picnic dinners and mats and lounge about all evening drinking tea and watching the kids play. There just aren’t a whole lot of places for families to go to in Jeddah and the corniche is a natural gathering spot.

Keppel Al Numu, a joint venture company formed between the Singapore-based Keppel Land and the Saudi Economic Development Company (Sedco), promises to inject new blood into an area of Jeddah that desperately needs a facelift.

Among a number of projects, Keppel Al Numu is planning a US $801 million luxury residential development, which includes two residential towers with nearly 1000 luxury apartments.

The Dubai-based Damac Properties is also planning the 40-storey Al Jawharah residential tower that will be built between the Hilton and Westin hotels. Completion is expected in 2010, although I wonder just how badly the new residential skyscraper, which will tower over these two hotels, will obstruct the stunning view of the Red Sea.

There also is a heavy push to lure tourists to the corniche with proposed parks, recreation centers, sports facilities, retail centers and even more restaurants. Also slated for the area is a much-needed museum. The current museum, located in a historic residential home in the center of Old Jeddah, is woefully inadequate by any standard.

Perhaps the most ambitious project is the proposed “Jeddah Eye,” which mimics the London Eye in almost every detail.
This is all well and good for Jeddah. It will infuse the city with tourist cash and bring a heightened sense of vibrancy to an already vibrant city, akin to Cairo in the 1940s, Beirut in the ‘70s and Dubai today.

But Jeddah is not Dubai. Already questions are being raised in the Kingdom’s segregated society about what kind of recreational facilities will be provided for women. And perhaps even more important, what will bachelors – long barred from most recreational areas designed specifically for families – do for recreation. Will foreign tourists and Saudis have equal access to all that a modernised Jeddah have to offer?

And once the projects are completed will the Jeddah Municipality, which is not particularly known for its high regard to maintenance, rubbish pickup and attention to infrastructure, commit the financial resources to ensure a high standard that will indeed guarantee that the corniche will remain the crown jewel of the city, if not the region?

Saudi Arabia is a country of special needs in which the usual urban planning rules don’t apply due to its cultural and religious roots. If the Jeddah authorities can manage to negotiate a middle ground with builders using foreign money, then Jeddah, especially the corniche, will live up to its reputation.

The balancing act of Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Rob Wagner, November 9th, 2008

As recently as the late 1970s, Dubai’s population hovered around the quarter of a million mark, with Abu Dhabi home at the time to a similar number.

Fast forward three decades, and we have two cities playing host to 1.5 million people, not to mention the millions of tourists who have visited and will be visiting over the coming years.

The growth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in terms of size, population and economy is all the more remarkable when you consider that here lie two cities separated by only 120 kms – a small footstep in GCC terms.

There is no doubt that oil wealth has played its part in the remarkable transformation of both cities, but there is another factor that has without a doubt contributed in a big way. The concept of friendly competition, and, perhaps more importantly, how competition has been managed.

In this respect, the UAE’s two principle cities have excelled. Tourism is going to play a vital role in the future of both cities’ economic prosperity. But rather than lock horns in pursuit of the exact same tourist dollar, each city presents itself to a very different audience.

Dubai is the family-friendly, fun in the sun, luxury destination. Abu Dhabi, as national capital, adopts the “big-brother” approach, seeking to cater to a more cultured and refined audience.

The construction boom that is driving both cities is itself driven by a need for each to diversify its economy away from an over reliance on oil. The key to success lies not in how you build, where you build, or how fast you build – though try telling that to both cities – it lies in what you build.

In that respect, and with the world looking on in turbulent times, Dubai and Abu Dhabi stand as proof that competition, when managed correctly, is always good.

Certainly, many expats and citizens believe that Dubai is guilty of excess from time to time. But at the end of the day the key to longevity, prosperity and even relevance in the international community comes down to reinvention. And both cities, recognising that the region’s natural resources can only go so far, see reinvention as a positive step in becoming a thriving community, whether it’s to be a tourist destination or the cultural center of the region.

And we can’t ignore the fact that the perceptions of foreigners, who flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and spend their tourist dollars, are also important to successful reinvention.

As Rashid Galadari, chairman of GIO Developments, told Construction Week assistant editor Jamie Stewart, “I don’t want to sound like a politician, but Dubai has created a very good mix. It has shown the world that we are not all extremists, we are not all psychopathic. The truth is it has shown that there can be a balance.”

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction week

Saudi Arabia may be the next best thing to a sure bet

Rob Wagner, December 6th, 2008

Looking for a silver lining in this mess we euphemistically call an economic slowdown?

Try Saudi Arabia. If there ever was a country that can survive the global crisis without so much as a bruise or paper cut, the Land of the Two Holy Mosques can pull it off.

A couple of weeks ago the real estate investment and advisory firm Jones Lang LaSalle came out with a report that is hardly surprising to anyone in the construction industry.

In its report, “The Gulf’s Powerhouse – Saudi Arabia’s Real Estate Market,” Saudi Arabia was identified as perhaps the best country in the  Middle East for investors to plant money in hotels, commercial space and residential projects.

Describing the Kingdom as a “powerhouse” in times of a weakening global economy, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself to become the primary driver in the region.

Part of the reason is demographics. An estimated 45% of the Saudi population is under the age of 20 with an increasing desire to live in an urban environment. The late 1970s witnessed a tremendous migration of people from the rural areas to Jeddah, Dammam and Riyadh. The surge of young people seeking an urban lifestyle has rivalled the previous generation’s migration if not exceeding it. Now, more than ever, there is a demand for quality infrastructure and housing.

The other, and equally important, aspect of Saudi Arabia’s stature in the region (other than oil revenues) is King Abdullah’s desire to leave a legacy that firmly plants the Kingdom as a major international player, not only in developing the region, but also in science and technology.

There were some early predictions that the current financial crisis would threaten the Saudi government’s six planned economic cities and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology campus.

Contrary to those early gloomy reports, Saudi Arabia is moving along on schedule. For the first time in its existence, the country is committing major financial resources to infrastructure, which has long been its major failing in the urban areas.

A few years ago, Saudi Arabia made tentative steps to develop a tourism industry, but focused its energies on drawing Muslims worldwide and creating a domestic tourism programme to encourage Saudis to travel in their own country. But in the past year, the Saudi government recognised the wisdom that foreign tourism dollars in the regions of Asir, Makkah, Riaydh, Jizan and Najran – not typically tourist destinations – could build local economies without being dependent on oil revenues. And much of that tourism cash will come from non-Muslim Europeans and Americans. Just last week, nearly 40 American tourists visited Jeddah on tourist visas, travel documents which were unavailable to most of the world’s population just a year ago.

The country’s leaders are ready, and certainly financially able, to rid the shackles of its perceived Third World status. Given the fact that investors still have money to invest it might be that Saudi Arabia is the country that will keep the region afloat during these difficult times.

There is no such thing as a sure thing. But Saudi Arabia may be the closet thing to it.

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction Week

KSA’s construction challenges

Rob Wagner, May 24th, 2008

While living in Saudi Arabia, I often took the short walk to work before the sun got too high in the morning.

Along the way, I observed daily a cluster of new villas under construction.

Even as a casual observer, one couldn’t help notice the rickety scaffolding, lack of safety equipment for workers and the excessive fill and patch when things didn’t fit right.

When completed, these villas looked stunning, but I wondered what kind of damage a small earthquake or one of Jeddah’s heavy January rains would do to these structures.

I considered this the other day when Corp Executive Hotels announced plans to build five luxury hotels in Riyadh, Al Khobar, Jeddah, Dammam and Al Hasa. The company is anticipating the demand for these hotels as Saudi Arabia begins a campaign to attract tourists to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is attempting to wean itself off oil revenue by diversifying its economy. Saudis are building six economic cities and the ambitious King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

They want to attract more business investors and are developing plans to allow non-Muslim tourists to visit historic sites. The government applied for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage status for Jeddah as the city’s historic sites are being renovated.

While these large-scale projects might make Saudi Arabia an international tourist destination, the country faces huge obstacles in adhering to construction quality standards and building safety.

Saudis have signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Code Council to use International Codes (I-Codes) as the basis for a new Saudi building code.

But signing an MOU and actually following established standards are two different things. Contractors and onsite project managers ruthlessly cut corners to ensure that projects are completed on time and within budget.

If that means skimping on worker safety or building structures using cheaper materials, well, so be it.

Consider a study commissioned for the Ali A Tamani Company on construction safety in Saudi Arabia. The study found that one-quarter of all contractors did not provide workers with safety orientation, protective equipment or first aid kits on construction sites.

And in 2005, 493 workers were killed and more than 100,000 injured on Saudi construction sites. In contrast, only 28 deaths and 3,760 injuries were recorded in the United Kingdom during the same year.

Also consider Jeddah’s notoriously poor infrastructure of exposed electrical wiring, dilapidated pedestrian bridges and crumbling sidewalks. Heavy rains during the winter make the city a virtual swampland.

Saudi Arabia is poised to do great things and its eagerness to invite tourists from non-Muslim countries is an indication that it’s ready to open Saudi society to the West. Building five-star hotels and the economic cities and new universities are bold moves.

But with this new vision comes a responsibility to provide quality structures that stand the test of time and a safe environment for its expatriate workers.

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction Week.

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