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Leading the world

Intensive development in the Gulf is driving innovation in the use of building design systems. Bernadette Ballantyne reports.

There is a multitude of factors that make the Middle East one of the most exciting places in the world to be a civil engineer or an architect. The acknowledgement that infrastructure investment is at the heart of economic growth is the key driver behind the fast track nature of projects and the desire for bigger and better buildings, transport, power plants and water networks.

In meeting demand for new infrastructure, designers have been creating world leading solutions. Despite a cooling of demand culling some real estate ambitions, innovation is not slowing down. Engineers in Doha, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Jeddah are designing metro systems in challenging ground conditions.

Nano technology

Hydraulic specialists in Saudi Arabia are using nano-technology to make reverse osmosis membranes increasingly efficient. At the same time they are planning to fuel desalination with solar power.

Water engineers are developing water treatment processes to ensure that treated sewage effluent can be reused in district cooling systems and landscaping. Structural specialists are introducing new structural forms to create taller buildings and longer open spans in Kuwait and Dubai.

Against this backdrop, clients particularly government bodies, are now embracing the need for sustainable development. Consultants in the region report that criteria such as LEED and locally established green building regulations like Abu Dhabi’s Estidama system, are increasingly finding their way into contract specifications.

Another development that is finding its way into contract specifications is the use of building information modelling (BIM). Local consultants tell NCE that this is one of the key challenges for the regional industry over the coming decade.

“The most challenging development is going to be the introduction of BIM into the industry. That is really the wave of the future and we feel it will be a quantum leap in how designers produce their design and contribute to the project life cycle,” says George Abi-Hanna, chief executive officer of leading Kuwait based consultant SSH International.

“The most challenging development is going to be the introduction of BIM into the industry”

George Abi-Hanna SSH International


BIM uses data collected throughout the evolution of the project to generate 3D project models accessible to all on the scheme.

“It actually helps everybody manage the job a lot better as most of the work is done up front,” explains John Spitz, senior vice president for Saudi Arabia at project management specialist Hill International.

“You can look at it from four or five angles and see where all trouble might happen. You can fix those problems early on and not wait for shop drawings where two to three weeks is spent going over them. You can look at it all from top, bottom and sides.”

Client driven

The expectation is that following the design stage, the models will be taken over by the contractor and ultimately be used to feed into the facilities management of the structures. But all of this must be driven by the client and it requires new skills from the project team.

“It is still early, we only know of a few that have been fully designed in BIM and given to contractors to use for construction,” says Abi-Hanna. “It changes skills of design teams, draftsmen are not needed as high level designers will do all the design. It will affect company structure and costs.”

Spitz agrees that the system is industry changing and says it is an international challenge, not just a local one. “It is still a concept that is new really for everybody. It has been used more frequently in the United States but it is a new concept. If it is done properly it saves the client a tremendous amount of time and money.”

“I think there are a lot of overly complicated buildings which to me don’t have very clear ideas”

William Baker, Burj Khalifa


Abi-Hanna says his company is currently working on some pilot projects using Autodesk’s Revit system. “We have a couple of pilot projects that we are working on in order to weed out the technical issues,” he says.

Such developments raise another major challenge for the region - training.

“Training our people is a very big issue in architectural and building industry. It is not always easy to get the right courses available in the markets in which we operate,” says Abi-Hanna. “We find it very difficult to get well trained people and we have to import them most of the time. A lot of access to standards is done remotely. We are seeing improvements but having specialists available in the region is an area where we find we are not always getting what we need.”

Training local professionals

For client organisations, one way around this is to make training local professionals in new technologies part of the contract. Spitz says this is a growing trend in Saudi Arabia and on some schemes a client’s staff will shadow Hill personnel.

“A key goal in Saudi is the tremendous need for knowledge transfer and we embrace that involvement with the client. We are very much into taking the client’s staff and showing them how to utilise the tools that are out there to help them manage projects better. They just didn’t have these tools before. We are talking about Primavera 6 or Contracts Manager.”

Sharing knowledge has also been a philosophy of US architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Its innovative designs for the 828m tall Burj Khalifa have been made widely available and experience from this Dubai-based project are providing lessons for structural experts worldwide. This could be useful for the tall towers planned in Kuwait and Jeddah. However chief structural engineer on the Burj Khalifa, William Baker, says that the unique buttress core design is not a one size fits all solution.

Scale is important

“The issue of scale is hugely important. In a 100m tower this system would be wrong as it is too short, even at 300m. At 600m it is a good idea, but when you get to 1km you might start looking at other ideas. It has to be used at the appropriate scale,” he says.

Baker also urges designers not to over-complicate their designs, a characteristic that has been regularly observed in the Gulf. He also warns against relying too heavily on computer modelling. “I think there are a lot of overly complicated buildings which to me don’t have very clear ideas.

‘One of my goals is to be able to describe what I have done in two words. If you cannot describe your structural system then you have a problem. If you can do it in two words you probably have control,” he says. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand the tall building problem and so they try and use the computer to figure it out and end up with a hotchpotch,” he warns.

The valuable experience learned from projects such as the Burj Khalifa demonstrate that engineering design carried out in the Middle East is leading the rest of the world and with some of the most challenging projects to date still on the horizon, the best could be yet to come.

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