The past 25 years has witnessed a tremendous amount of change in the UAE. Economically, socially, technologically, you would hardly recognise Dubai or Abu Dhabi from the not-too-distant past.
This incredible pace of change has provided millions of people from around the world with the opportunity to come to the UAE to work and live. I am now one of over nine million people living in the UAE, trying to make a living and raise a family. Indeed, since 2000 the population of the UAE has increased by six million. That’s a population growth of approximately 200 per cent, which few other countries in the world have experienced, let alone successfully accommodated.
For those of us working in the architecture industry, the UAE has presented a fantastic opportunity to create some of the most diverse and spectacular buildings in the world.
The effects of such a massive relocation are beginning to become apparent now. The need for schools, hospitals, leisure facilities and accommodation has been high. For those of us working in the architecture industry, the UAE has presented a fantastic opportunity to create some of the most diverse and spectacular buildings in the world. One look at the Dubai skyline will tell you all you need to know about the unique opportunities this region has provided architects. It is a source of great pride to think that I have personally grown along with the skyline, especially knowing that I have played a part in such a phenomenal global success story. However, while the briefs for high-rise luxury towers, five-star hotels and major master-planning projects are always exciting, those briefs are now increasingly being joined by briefs requiring more modest, sustainable housing.
For the people who have come to the UAE to work, been here for a few years, and have begun to lay down some roots, they are finding themselves falling between two stools in the property market. There is a growing segment of the population that is becoming more affluent and they have been able to capitalise on the opportunities the UAE has afforded them. With this new economic success, while they cannot afford the lavish high-end apartments, they do have enough income to look beyond the lower scale of the market.
This new segment of society within the UAE, typically people who fall into the middle 40-60 per cent of the household earning bracket, are finding that their accommodation options are limited. Equally, other expats who have been here for a few years and are looking to buy a property to live in for three to five years before repatriating, find there is a lack of reasonably priced properties for them to invest in.
We are currently witnessing a capacity crunch in the market where the social mobility developing in the UAE is occurring at a pace that is faster than developers can create new accommodation to keep up with the demand. As part of the next chapter in the development of the UAE, we expect to see a rapid increase in the demand and creation of sustainable and affordable housing projects.
While social issues like this may be seen as a major headache in other parts of the world, one of the many reasons why this region is such an exciting market to work in is the freedom architects are given to approach this kind of a challenge. The way sustainable housing is developed in other parts of the world may not work here. Rather, to overcome this obstacle, developers and government agencies are going to have to find a partner that can blend the best of global techniques with local market expertise.
The diversity of the population in the UAE, the environmental implications, and simply understanding the culture should all be going into the melting pot for future affordable housing designs. A great example of how this challenge is being met is the Shams Meera twin tower residential development, currently being built by Aldar on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi. The development was carefully designed to utilise space efficiently and has brought to the market a more efficient, desirable property that provides prospective purchasers with a commercially competitive option. This approach has resulted in what could become an exemplar for the mid-market, which may be replicated across the UAE.
The need for such developments will only become more acute as the UAE economy continues to diversify. Housing should absolutely be at the heart of the strategies and plans for the future development of the country. We believe the pace of the demand for mid-market housing is only going to become more rapid. Recognising this fact and dealing with it now will ensure that the UAE success story continues for many more chapters.
Richard Fenne is principal and studio chair of global architectural and consultancy practice Woods Bagot. He has led some significant and notable projects in the region, including the award-winning Irena HQ and a ground-breaking residential development at Masdar City. The views expressed here are his own.
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