Designing and planning a building or a community in a foreign country poses many challenges and rewards, and for the architect who has an open mind and an adventurous spirit, it is fascinating work. Patrick McKelvey of RNL in Los Angeles, California is a perfect example, and he was kind enough to take the time to speak with us about his latest project in Abu Dhabi.
McKelvey explains, "We're a fifty-one year old company with offices in Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. About 8-10 years ago we decided that that we needed to be in the international market, an international design firm, so we started looking for opportunities. In 2000, we did a strategic acquisition of a firm in Southern California. They did a lot of work in the international arena, primarily in Southeast Asia. That launched us into the international practice and since then we've been growing that part of our business primarily in Asia and the Middle East."
"I've been in charge of the Middle East portion of RNL's international practice, and been primarily focused in the UAE and specifically, of late, in Abu Dhabi. We have been there for over five years now and we do primarily large scale master planning of developments and design of buildings." Some of the key projects McKelvey has worked on include Shams Abu Dhabi, Najmat Abu Dhabi, Al Ghadeer, Movenpick Laguna Tower, and several confidential projects in the Middle East, including a forty-story hotel, twin forty-story mixed-use towers and waterfront developments.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was established in 1971 and is a federation of seven states situated in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula and in southwest Asia on the Persian Gulf. The seven states, or emirates, are: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate by area and second-largest by population.
"We are currently working on a large master plan community for one-hundred-thousand people that will be a business center, marina, resort hotel and an overall sustainable community in Abu Dhabi. RNL is planning other communities for twenty-thousand people and another one for fifty-thousand people, plus other projects. So it's a pretty amazing scale of projects and pretty interesting work. They are very excited about highly sustainable developments, sustainable from both a community standpoint, but also energy efficient zero carbon footprint development, which is kind of new to that region."
"We as a firm are not going to be involved in any project that isn't sustainable, so we look for those opportunities and that's somewhat difficult in that region. It wasn't something that clients really focused on until the last couple of years, but since then we have been taking a lead in all of our master plans to be sustainable from several factors. One is to be sustainable from a community perspective, and by that I mean it's not just a residential development, or it's not just a commercial office or retail development. It has all components within an overall project so it's a balanced live-work-play environment. Theoretically a person could live there but they could also shop there and work there and not have to be driving all over the UAE, which is unfortunately what happens now in many cases. It's also sustainable from the standpoint of transit. We're very much focused on providing mass transit opportunities. Maybe it's not built into the project on day one, but it's planned for and then it can be easily added. We definitely look at sustainability in terms of energy conservation, water conservation and waste recycling. When we develop design guidelines, we require all of those factors, recycled materials, the whole gamut to try to reduce the footprint on the environment."
Many factors have to be taken into consideration when designing for an international community. "We do work across the globe in different cultures and the first thing you need to do is your research on that culture and find out what's important in that culture, such as customs, religion, and so on. The first thing would be to better understand that particular culture and then to incorporate as much of that understanding into your planning and your design. If you were to talk specifically about Arabic architecture, there is a very strong history of the design of streets, cities and buildings that incorporates shading from the sun, to use wind for ventilation, to provide a more pleasant environment without air conditioning. There is a long history of using screens over windows to allow you to see out but to really shade the inside of a building, and that's a really beautiful element to incorporate into designs. There are others, such as thick walls for reducing heat gain. We encourage the use of natural materials that are indigenous to the area, such as marbles and granites from around the Middle East, which also provide a feeling of luxury and importance. So understand and incorporate the culture, the history, the environment, and then look specifically at where you're working. For instance, Dubai or Abu Dhabi are multi-cultural areas now, so understanding that and how different cultures are going to relate to your plans, your designs, is important."
The UAE has one of the most diverse populations in the Middle East. Only nineteen percent of the population is Emirati, and twenty-three percent is other Arabs and Iranians. It has been estimated that nearly seventy-four percent of the population is comprised of non-citizens, one of the world's highest percentages of foreign-born in any nation.
"There is a wide range of architectural styles, we definitely don't try to design or plan for one style in a community. You need variety, so it's everything from very modern designs to something that's more traditional, but a modern interpretation of that."
McKelvey flies to the region once a month. "Fortunately English is pretty well used throughout the region as the language of business, so language barrier is not usually an issue. It's helpful to have someone with you who speaks Arabic for some of the nuances of the conversation. I just think understanding the culture and understanding the way that different people make decisions is important to be successful."
One of McKelvey's latest projects is in a region called Ghantoot in Abu Dhabi, near the border of Dubai. "It's an area that's anticipated to be growing quickly as Dubai and Abu Dhabi develop closer to each other. This project will be a community of one-hundred-thousand people, and we're creating a community that's self-sustainable with residential, commercial office, retail, entertainment, and all the supporting amenities including schools, mosques, cultural and civic areas, and an extensive network of open space and parks. We are creating a community that's self-sustained so people can live there, work there, play there and grow up there. It's a pretty exciting development. We've been through the master planning process and now the project is in design of the infrastructure, the roads and utilities, etc. We'll be starting construction in 2009."
"The existing site was a pretty interesting piece of history. This area was a tree nursery created by the late Sheikh Zayed, who raised trees to do what he called a "greening of the desert" in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is pretty famous for date palms, but they have a wide range of different kinds of trees. Sheikh Zayed foresaw lining all the major highways and streets with trees, which he did. This site was one of those locations where the nursery was first developed, so there are strips of nursery throughout the land. We're building upon that overall fabric through the entire development and making the infrastructure requirements sensitive to that."
"There was an existing canal on the site that came in to the land about eight kilometers from the shoreline. We're lining this development along the waterfront as much as possible to take advantage of the water. There is a strong cultural and historical tie between the Emiratis and the water from a shipping/water activities standpoint."
"We will be creating a full range of housing from individual town homes or villas, to apartments or condominiums, which will provide housing options not only for people who live there, but also affordable housing for the service workers who work in the hotels and restaurants. So we're not just providing luxury villas. We're providing a sustainable community where everyone can live. There's a network of open spaces between neighborhoods where there will be community activities, community centers, schools, playgrounds, all focused around a central business district around a marina. The marina will be activity zoned for restaurants and retail, flanked with residential and commercial office. A full strata of options. We've master planned three large area master plans in that region of Abu Dhabi, it's an up-and-coming area."
When asked about the challenges of designing in that particular area of the world, McKelvey explains, "In that particular area you would need to look carefully at the orientation of the building because there is very intense sun. From a standpoint of wind, you want to be careful about the orientation of the building and how it's protected because they get sandstorms. Providing ways of cleaning the buildings is important because they get covered with a sand film very quickly because of the sandstorms that are a fairly common occurrence. Being sensitive to building orientation, wind, how you clean buildings, how you shade buildings, is pretty important."
"The interesting thing for me is to understand the culture, to be open-minded when you go into a new area, to understand what they're about and to understand what's important to that culture, and specifically to that client. From these we bring our expertise in planning, design and sustainability into that area to build upon what they have and make it a better environment."