This should come as no surprise given the US-headquartered architectural firm's central role in masterplanning the Burj Dubai development across its many components and intricacies.

RNL Design is now seeking a wider regional presence, firm in the belief that it is well-placed to make full use of a return to normalcy in the real estate markets, as and when it comes. The firm is pushing its innovative yet realistic and sustainable designs to developers who prefer substance over flashy but vacuous architectural styles.

Property had a chat with RNL Design's principal for the region, Patrick McKelvey, on the challenges and opportunities the market offers a relatively new entrant.


RNL Design is doing a lot of work in the Far East as well, so how come you decided to open the first office outside the US in Abu Dhabi?
Actually, our Asia work brought us to this region. The masterplan of the Burj Dubai development and the concept design for Old Town residential was a direct result of work we had done in South East Asia, primarily Kuala Lumpur, where we did the masterplan for the city centre. One of the claims to fame we have is that we have done masterplans for two of world's tallest towers, Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers and Burj Dubai.

We always tell our clients that a masterplan is a living, breathing document. It moulds responding to the financial and market implications, such as changes in the density percentage of commercial and residential due to market conditions.

The current plan for Burj Dubai is very close to the original. But some things have changed, it was adjusted to accept the Burj Dubai's particular footprint, a bigger footprint for Dubai Mall and hotels were added and moved around. As I said, a good masterplan is one that is flexible and able to adapt.


This is a very prestigious project in Dubai, but you decided to set up your office in Abu Dhabi. Was it a strategic decision, or did it have more to do with luck?

Not sure whether it was just fortunate or up to good planning! We can always try to say it is the latter, but sometimes you are just lucky.

The set up in Abu Dhabi will be a regional practice looking at the whole of the Middle East, North Africa and India. We are very diversified, looking at masterplanning in Abu Dhabi with public and private sector clients, as well as architectural, landscape architecture and interior design projects in the region. In Cairo, we are doing some landscape designs and masterplanning, and in Oman and Djibouti we did concept designs for hotels.


Do you prefer to work with private or government clients?

We have always liked to work with both. Government entities are good to work with from a planning standpoint, as you can look at the bigger picture. Private developers are fun to work with because they are actually putting something on the ground. However, compared to the US, you have many developers here that are a blend of the two: quasi-governmental entities.


Your focus will be on the MENA territory, what of the African continent in general?

South Africa and Uganda are also on the radar. The continent has so much to offer, I have a strong desire to work in Africa, it is going to be the next geographic area of development.

Is your preference designing buildings or urban planning?

I am an architect at heart, but trying to shape an entire community, not just an individual building, is also exciting and fun. In addition to our masterplanning our practice has designed a hotel extension to the existing Al Raha Beach Hotel, which is out for tender right now, and we have done an interior design for a 300-room hotel in Sharjah. It can all be great fun.


Is everything that you have masterplanned going ahead? Most developments are now on hold or in a slowdown process. However, Al Ghadeer (by Sorouh Real Estate in Abu Dhabi) is moving forward pretty much as masterplanned. The concept masterplan changed only slightly. Sorouh may change the density to more or less apartments, or more or less commercial. The thought process was very much to create a sustainable community that people would want to live in, to create an environment where not every person needs to go shopping or to school by car, you can walk or bicycle. There will be schools, community facilities and parks for each phase and neighbourhood.


Are there going to be more exciting projects on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border?

Yes, for the Private Office of Shaikh Saeed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, we masterplanned the Forest of Seih Sdeirah project. We took the fabric of the existing forest and wove it into the development and enhanced it with active and passive recreational spaces.

It is set up in five distinct communities with a balance of residential components, retail, offices, schools and community facilities in each of them. They can each stand alone, so they can develop any one of those when the time is right. You do not have to put infrastructure for the whole project in all at once to make that work. For example, one has a more regional retail focus, the other a business focus with office and hotel components.


What of the Ghantoot redevelopment?

We are working with International Capital Trading (ICT) on this project, which is a community for 100,000 people. The ultimate plan is to create neighbourhoods, a town centre, residential areas, community facilities, hotels and offices in a manner that they can be phased in over time and stand alone as individual neighbourhoods. Again, we are integrating the existing fabric of the tree nurseries into the plan with open spaces for recreation. The detailed masterplan is at the UPC for approvals and ICT have started with the infrastructure design.


Isn't there another project you are doing with ICT in Al Raha Beach?

ICT owns the property right in the middle of the Al Raha Beach development. The plan will allow for a continuation of the Al Raha boulevard. The boulevard incorporates mass transit with light rail connection to the airport, the Capital District and into Downtown. It will be a mixed-use development with a retail centre and a Marina district housing offices, apartments, townhouses and villas. The land is being reclaimed right now and we have been asked to integrate Aldar and UPC comments into the masterplan.


In Dubai, when the correction came around, such large-scale projects proved to be a case of too many all at once. Is Abu Dhabi heading in the same direction?

Abu Dhabi has grand plans, from the Saadiyat and Reem Island developments to Al Raha, Yas Island, and the Capital District. However, Abu Dhabi has been much more deliberate in the way projects have been brought onto the market. It was not a ‘developers, go and do what you want to do' attitude, but rather there was oversight coming from a very high level. Also, not all projects are in the crash programme mindset, by that I mean the pressure to deliver the project by a completely unrealistic deadline. Not to say that there are not any such projects, Yas Island's F1 was very much a deadline-driven response.


The latter seems to have caused delays at Al Raha Beach. Delays are normal, but here the norm seems to be years rather than months. Is this stemming from a design failure?

There is a lot of pressure on the development design teams to deliver in a very short period of time. I have seen people not wanting to say that it cannot be done. They plough ahead to that unrealistic deadline, knowing that it cannot be achieved. You can try different delivery methods to try and shorten timeframes to a certain extent, but then the concrete still has to cure to its ultimate strength, that is a given.

Some clients try to shorten the time of the design and planning process. But what tends to happen is that you then have to solve previously overlooked issues when you are in construction. In general if you change things later in construction it is more costly, complicated and time-consuming.


In the present market situation, are unrealistic deadlines a thing of the past?

Clients now have time to stop, reconsider and think through projects. But deadline pressures are here and will be when things turn back around.

The longer a project takes, the more it costs. We have similar deadline pressures in the US, especially in the private sector because of the financial pressures they are under. Developers need to be more focused and realistic. There is going to be a lot more scrutiny from the financial investor and in the market place. The market is now much more end-user focused.


Do you think it is better for a developer to downsize projects and redesign the whole masterplan or scrap it all together and start anew?

That depends on how they were planned in the first place. If you phase and plan each neighbourhood as a stand alone community with all the amenities required from the beginning, you can build a piece at a time and still be a good, liveable, community for the people. A developer can move forward at a slower pace that is responsive to the market. Many proposed developments are very much ‘build it all at once or nothing' and those are problematic. In some developments in Dubai they have not even put in schools, community centres, and retail facilities for the residents. The planning has not been thought through in enough detail. If you live in one of the Palm frond villas, for example, if more than one neighbour has a little party the place could end up gridlocked. Sometimes a design idea seems to be driven more by the ego than practicality.


Phasing one huge development is easier when you only have one developer, but with sub-developers owning plots in different phases, it is not that simple. Would you recommend scrapping phases and reallocating land?

That is definitely a route to consider, but what it takes is really a more region-wide — or city — strategy. It has to come from a high level, stating that this is our regional plan and this is what we shall do as a group (of developers) moving forward and then allow them to do things within that overall framework plan.


On the subject of scrapping, have you had any payment issues here because of the recent lack of liquidity?

Of course, let us be realistic. The crisis and general attitude has been a challenge in some cases. We have had to educate clients in terms of the need for payment as services are rendered, rather than waiting to the end of the services. When the crisis hit, it just made it worse. Clients are paying for professional services, for our creativity, planning and design expertise, and we should be paid as the process goes along, not years later.


Has your experience therefore changed the way you deal with clients?

Not really. Our corporate policy has always required an advance payment for a portion of the fee, and interim payments throughout the process until we finish the concept and masterplan. The upfront payment is an amount based on the relationship with the client.

What has changed is that we are more diligent. We have hundreds of employees whose families need to eat and pay their mortgages, cashflow is important.

This downturn has actually been healthy in a lot of ways for the development industry as a whole. Certainly, it has been very painful for developers, architects, engineers and contractors, but the ‘build it and they will come' attitude was not sustainable.


Your firm's environmental consciousness comes under the banner of ‘Design for one Earth'. How do you rate the sustainability ambitions here?

Sustainability is a key component of our design process, whether planning a community, designing a building or landscaping a neighbourhood. We just think it's the right thing to do. Over 65 per cent of our employees are LEED-accredited professionals. Each region has different standards or metrics, Dubai has its own system, while Abu Dhabi's ‘Estidama' approach is more holistic, looking at the entire development process. As a planner or designer, one can adapt, you just have to be familiar with the codes and standards in each area.


Some developers seem to have been slow on the uptake in ‘green' matters. Do you see this changing?

It will definitely change. Many developers in the US were reticent to invest more in the construction cost when the process was new, not seeing the gain. As sustainability grew momentum, it became a ‘need' not a ‘want'.


There are those who doubt that LEED Platinum is achievable in a desert environment or on reclaimed land. Are they right?

It is achievable in a desert environment, but LEED derives out of a focus on how individual buildings perform. Therefore, the classification system poses challenges. We need to look at other more holistic systems.