By Derek Baldwin, Business Features Editor www.gulfnews.com
In less than a year, the United Arab Emirates has topped off some of the curviest and tallest structures on the planet.
But are they practical for businesses wanting functional office space?
The successful completion of a phalanx of architectural wonders has silenced critics who have for years ridiculed from afar that such exaggerated over-the-top designs would never make it past the drafting table.
In January, for example, Emaar flipped the switch at the gala opening of Burj Khalifa to reveal the final height at 828 metres, making it the highest freestanding structure in the world as recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.
In June, Abu Dhabi’s new Capital Gate Tower was also recognized by Guinness as the world’s furthest-leaning tower with an 18-degree slant compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa at four degrees.
Records aside, the architectural landscapes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been radically altered with designs in which architects not only thought outside the box, but also built outside the box as well.
Take the new circular Aldar headquarters in Abu Dhabi, rising up from the flat coastal desert plain like a mammoth glass-encrusted cookie with a 124-metre diameter measuring 36 metres at its midpoint and only 24 metres on its outer edges.
And then there is Dubai’s burgeoning Business Bay, where architectural expression has blossomed to new extremes with the topping out of the eye-shaped Iris Bay tower in December 2009 and one month later, the handing over of O-14 tower, the black-and-white concrete-cladded structure some say resembles a giant block of Swiss cheese.
While industry captains may be champing at the bit to locate their corporate offices in prestigious iconic structures, architects and property managers say melding the exotic forms of new buildings to everyday business function can be difficult but certainly not impossible.
Romi Sebastian, Project Architect with Aecom in Qatar’s capital city Doha, said prospective business tenants may not be aware that dramatically curved or angled anterior walls within exotic building shells can hike the cost of fitting out an office by 15-20 per cent.
While larger multinationals may not fret over additional capital expenditures to create new office space, smaller businesses can certainly feel the pinch, he said.
“It can affect smaller businesses that want to grow. These are the ones who suffer,” said Sebastian in an interview. “They can’t afford an extra 20 per cent.”
The costs come in the form of erecting interior walls, or closing off gaps between the inner skeleton of a building from the exterior glass shell, he said.
“You can have gaps between concrete and glass where you have to spend extra money to seal each floor,” Sebastian said.
There are other expenditures to improve privacy for office space or boardrooms, acoustics as well as fireproofing.
Venice-based architect Antonio Girardi of the architectural firm Studiomobile suggested that some larger green-minded firms are keeping energy conservation in mind when selecting a new home office.
“I think that in the near future big firms will look for buildings that symbolise a value and an idea representative of the company mission. For example, the exponential development of green business produces a great demand for self-sufficient energy towers,” Girardi told Gulf News. “They are an excellent seat for green-oriented companies. I think that many firms should be aware that, at present, office buildings cooled by seawater, or whose skin captures sun energy and transforms it to electricity, are much more attractive for potential clients than just dramatically designed office towers.”
But as a city horizon becomes dotted with more and more individual and creative designs, the corporate message of living in a particular building can get lost in the clutter, he said.
“Big firms invest a relevant amount of their income to cultivate their image, and their offices should be in a representative building. It’s always been like that: during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe merchants used to compete among themselves on the height, beauty and prestige of their buildings. On the subject, Florence of the 15th century is not so different from a contemporary metropolis,” Girardi said. “However, in modern cities, buildings are so huge that it is unlikely that a company can use it in an exclusive manner, so building design is often impressive but not specially designed to express the company image.”
There are always exceptions, buildings that are so different, so unique, that few other structures can rival the prestige and allure of a world-celebrated address, he said.
A winning strategy
“When located in amazing landmarks such as Burj Khalifa, it is undoubtedly a winning strategy. Burj Khalifa is a milestone for advanced engineering design and is a sort of lighthouse in the city. It is not only representative of a particular place, but also of an idea, the idea that Dubai will be one of the world capitals of finance and tourism.
Other towers are not designed to spread big ideas; they just try to distinguish themselves with amusing facade design or gadgets, maybe to the detriment of quality of interior spaces. However, when many buildings of this kind are built in a city, their capacity to amaze declines considerably and so does the authority of the companies.”
George Katodrytis, Associate Professor of Architecture at the American University of Sharjah, said Burj Khalifa-type landmark buildings can inspire market-client confidence in tenants.
“Like other aspects of the Gulf but also of global business practices, branding comes before content. As such, a prestigious business address in an iconic building signifies a certain client assurance and company confidence,” Katodrytis told Gulf News. “The visual impact of the iconic architecture has equal impact on the image of the business that occupies it. This trend started in early 20th century New York and Chicago corporations housed in skyscrapers aiming for height as an expression of power and global domination.”
Yet, the higher the office, the greater the difficulties that can arise for tenants in angled buildings, he said.
“Office space needs to be horizontal to plan for workspaces, circulation, communication and interaction. Vertical buildings have to stack office floors which usually are small in area because of vertical services and shafts. As such the contemporary office space needs to be designed for a specific image as well as use. Most of this design is cosy and user-friendly to counterbalance verticality.”
Andrew Elliot, Senior Commercial Sales and Leasing Consultant for Dubai-based Better Homes, said businesses want to be in notable officer towers because “clients feel they’re dealing with the best when you have an address in say Emirates Towers or Burj Khalifa.”
But Elliot said new business tenants can find themselves frustrated in structures that push the design envelope.
“The main objections we get within office space are curved windows, sharp corners and large pillars because you end up with redundant space during fit-out,” he said. “I believe architects were given free reign during ‘the boom’ to design buildings throughout Dubai; every developer wanted to have a special design and the most desirable location. I expect we will soon see a return to developers building with functionality and practicality as opposed to pure design aesthetic.”
Location, meanwhile, is about more than just businesses making a good first impression for clients – firms want to capitalise on areas of the city that boast a wealth of amenities that can boost quality of life and the work day.
“We’ve witnessed a definite trend whereby certain business types choose to be located in specific areas of Dubai. Law firms are currently moving to the top of Shaikh Zayed Road and within walking distance to a Metro station to allow for ease of staff travel and client access,” Elliot said. “Another common, current request is office space to be located within walking distance of food outlets for staff convenience. Locations without such facilities are often discounted.”
While iconic buildings add to the distinctive skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they can also impact the companies who work inside them
Sometimes older is better
Some of the bigger costs associated with fitting out office space are also long-term because of the incorporation of glass panels by designers, Romi Sebastian said.
“I’m completely against the idea of using glass in the Middle East. The glass allows heat to move in only one direction [into the building]. Glass is used in colder temperatures because it traps heat. Here, we’re supposed to do the opposite,” Sebastian said, adding that governments in the region could consider new bylaws to minimise the use of glass for energy conservation purposes.
But glass towers are often preferred in this region as symbols of progress, he said, rather than much more efficient building methods of the Arabian past.
Ancient Arab windtowers, for example, markedly cooled homes centuries before the advent of modern-day conveniences such as electric air-conditioning.
“Some think the ideas of progress are always imported from other countries; some think traditional architecture is backward,” Sebastian said. “We should go back to our roots, stick to our principles of how we used to build in this area.”
Using thicker stone and concrete walls, for example, and less glass can reduce the thermal signature during the day of a structure, lessening the chiller costs of business tenants in both the short and long terms.