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It is hard to believe that in the 1950s Dubai had no airport, electricity grid and telephone services to speak of. It was an outpost at the edge of a desert whose small economy was more or less built upon pearl trade and not much else. It was anything but a tourist destination, and its very first hotels, Ambassador and Carlton, were only built in 1968, shortly after oil was discovered off the coast.
Then it took off and over a few decades Dubai grew to a significant world destination, with a tenfold population growth from the late 1960s to more than two million people today. Present day Dubai has transformed into a global city of superlatives, with a unique skyline and many of the world's most thrilling buildings. It has become a quintessential skyscraper city, easily comparable to Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, Chicago and Shanghai.
Currently, the city is home to more than 900 high rises, standardised by real estate research firm Emporis as multistorey structures up to 150m tall, and 465 skyscrapers with a height of more than 150m. The city also boasts 19 supertall buildings — structures taller than 300m as per Emporis. Apart from the Burj Khalifa at 828m, Dubai's tallest structures are the 414m Princess Tower, also the world's tallest residential building, and the emirate's third tallest — and second tallest residential building globally — 23 Marina, a 393m futuristic tower with 57 swimming pools and all duplex units equipped with private elevators. The fourth and fifth tallest are Elite Residences (380m) and Almas Tower (360m), the city's tallest office building.
These are followed by the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai Hotel, at 355m now the world's tallest building fully used as a hotel.
Size equals status
Due to its much smaller population size, Dubai is only 22nd in a ranking of world cities by the sheer number of high-rises. Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York City currently lead the list. However, Dubai is the clear leader among global cities with the most supertall buildings. The emirate has ten of the world's 50 supertall structures, more than any other city in the world. By 2020, not many other cities are expected to have more than ten supertall buildings, although the list could include New York, Mumbai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Moscow, Dalian and Chicago.
But what are the driving factors behind efforts to make Dubai home to many of the highest skyscrapers in the world?
''I think it's a combination of factors,'' Mark Lavery, Associate Director of Tall Buildings at the Dubai office of UK construction consultancy BuroHappold Engineering, tells Property Weekly. ''Dubai is mainly driving this boom in tall buildings in the UAE, and that is principally related to the dwindling natural resources it has left and the subsequent determined drive to diversify the economy.''
''The diversification is principally towards cementing Dubai as a financial hub for the region and increasing tourism as a means of generating the income required to fill the oil shortfall,'' says Lavery. ''Tall buildings are playing a big part in that. If you look at the world's financial centres such as New York, London, Tokyo or Singapore, they're all significant tall building centres, particularly around the financial districts where all the financial services want to be in close proximity to one another and people want to live close by. That drives the development of tall building hubs, and Dubai has followed suit.''
For Scott Coombes, Managing Partner of Alabbar Energy and Sustainability Group (AESG), a sustainability and energy consultancy for construction and development projects based in Dubai, another reason to build big is to generate returns as high as possible.
''The objective of a developer is typically to maximize the financial return on the land,'' he says. ''The higher a developer builds, the more sellable or lettable area is created, which will increase the return on investment per square foot of land at ground level. Dubai's skyscrapers are predominately in areas where land costs are at a premium. This would be along the city's backbone — Shaikh Zayed Road — as well as along the creek or in Dubai Marina. When the land costs are high, building upwards is the most feasible way to generate a return.
''And as a final factor: For the UAE to position itself as a global hub, it is important to have a skyline that represents the strength and prosperity of its key cities.''
Reaching for the stars
The race is indeed on. A number of new supertall structures are in the pipeline for Dubai, either proposed or under construction, with the 660m Burj 2020 currently the tallest concept. The Dubai Twin Towers at Dubai Creek Harbour at The Lagoons development are set to be the tallest twin towers in the world. There is also the 520m Entisar Tower, while RP Global announced plans to build the second-tallest tower in Dubai to be located in Business Bay, although full details, including its height, will be announced later this year. Other buildings with more than 100 floors include the DIFC Tower, the 106 Tower, Marina 101 and the 516m Pentominium.
At the second Annual Smart Skyscrapers Summit held in May in Dubai, a road map for skyscraper development in the city was presented. According to Abdullah Al Rafia, Assistant Director-General of the Engineering and Planning Department at Dubai Municipality, the emirate will ''continue to implement the highest landmarks in the world as attractions for tourists and residents alike,'' including the Dubai Frame, a 150m structure with an observation platform meant as a tourist attraction in the shape of a picture frame. It will be located in Zabeel Park and completed in the second half of this year.
The summit also dealt with the challenges of building tall and supertall, including safety and quality standards, intelligent transit and traffic flows in modern high-rises with thousands of residents, use of structural steel in tall buildings, sustainability and energy efficiency related to air conditioning, glass façades, solar glass, smart paints and structural glazing. The summit also tackled the sociocultural roles and functions of tall buildings in urban environments and community planning, which are issues frequently disregarded when building these structures.
Height of efficiency
High-rises and supertall buildings have many important functions for a city, but despite being modern and innovatively designed, most are not necessarily good examples of efficiency.
Moreover, there have been cases where real estate agents have trouble renting out or selling units in supertall buildings such as in Dubai Marina, for the simple reason that they don't deliver one of the most unique selling propositions of a tall building: a great view.
''Many high-rises in Dubai Marina are built very close together so that owners or tenants would only see the wall of the neighbouring tower,'' one agent says. ''It's hard to sell a high-rise without a view for a premium.''
Building over barriers
Lavery says the success of tall buildings has spurred on individual investors to make the most of their small land plots and maximise return by building tall. While there are no real technological barriers to building tall, Lavery says ''the only barrier is potentially ourselves and how high we want to live and if we want to live in tall buildings at all. That's the biggest challenge and something we need to address.''
Lavery adds that ''too often tall buildings think too little of their interaction with the rest of the city, with communities, gardens, parks and other facilities and concentrate principally on the segregated spaces that are the offices or apartments within.''
He believes that the issue of linking tall building hubs is a particular challenge for Dubai where the city is currently made up of distinct hubs that are not that well connected.
''This will become an important focus over the next few years for all involved,'' he says. ''Supertall buildings should have the principal aims of any tall building: reduce energy use, be people centred and integrate with its surroundings.''
This also makes sense from a return on investment (ROI) standpoint. Architects and engineers engaged with tall buildings in Dubai, such as Michael Fowler, Middle East Managing Director for UK-based construction firm Aedas, and Steve Harrison, Design Director for Structural Engineering at British engineering and design consultancy Atkins, emphasise that there are no big technical limits to build higher than 1,000m; it is a question of whether the achievable ROI on such projects justifies the investment.
''Returns are definitely reduced the taller you go, but once you reach a certain height, they can come from elsewhere if [the building is] part of a wider master plan,'' says Lavery. ''The Burj Khalifa is one such example, where the impact on surrounding property and land prices has to be considered as an indirect return for the iconic central focus.''
Coombes agrees, saying that while a 2km skyscraper is technically viable, it is far less financially viable.
''The real limiting factor is cost. As a building gets taller, you need a bigger core with more elevators to get people up,'' explains Coombes. ''As the core size increases, the useable area per floor will decrease. This reduces the economic viability of going higher. In addition, there's the expense of pumping concrete over a kilometre in the sky, as well as the operational aspects of continually lifting passengers up and down the building and maintaining pumping water throughout the building's lifespan.''
Get an insight on the strict codes for tall buildings in the UAE
Source: Arno Maierbrugger, Special to Property Weekly