Smaller Projects Are The New Reality For Architects In The UAE

In a recent interview with Construction Week Magazine, Managing Director and Design Principal P. Martin Dufresne expresses how designing a small socially focused government project in the UAE can become just as exciting, if not more rewarding than the larger commercial projects.

“It (DFWC Clinic) is fascinating project because it is about how it functions. It is not a hospital, it is not a doctor’s clinic; it has a very specific function. The challenge is that it has both administration and a public side to the building, and bringing these together in the adjacencies with the different spaces was quite challenging.”

The refreshed and augmented facility will also deliver further family rooms, an airy exterior pantry and twice the previous number of administrative offices. However, key to the overall aesthetic is the centrally placed surround-glazed meeting room, which will overlook a shaded internal courtyard and landscaped garden and serve to channel natural light through to the rest of the building.

“We wanted to bring something that has a very outdoor-indoor feel to it, so that you really do not feel like you are inside a clinic with artificial lighting. We wanted to maximize the natural daylight as much as possible” says Dufresne. “It was important for us to take that concept of institution and turn it into something more welcoming. Recognizing what the facility is being used for, it is really bringing a sense of relaxation, a sense of comfort to a lot of its guests.”

The redevelopment has been designed to preserve as much of the original structure as possible; 90% of the façade and roof walls will be left unaltered, and 50% of the internal walls remain intact. An effort was also made to further economize by utilizing the existing MEP, but some of the units in the decades-old building did ultimately have to be replaced for efficiency purposes.

“We had the intention to preserve the building, but in the absence of any legislation for heritage, it was up to us. At the end of the day if we hadn’t wanted to do that, we would have torn down the existing building, but it is quite important for the guests who come here to feel they are visiting one and the same compound,” says Dufresne.

Also, because the facility is for a non-profit organization, U+A Consultants have tried not only to keep the cost down, but to make sure that the materials are specified as far as is feasibly possible to be sourced from within the region, and that manufacturing is also outsourced locally.
“We are trying to stimulate the local economy by supplying as many materials locally as possible. For example, our external sandstone façade cladding is provided from quarries in the Middle East, and all internal stone finishes are UAE-supplied,” says Rob Abi, project Director at U+A.

A minimalistic style was settled on for the architecture, in keeping with both the therapeutic aims of the facility, and in order to neutralize the institutional feel previously attributed to the building.

“One of the things we are starting to face here is that we have created details that are not necessarily conventional details, and one of the challenges we are facing is communicating that to any contractor that is used to doing things one way”, says Abi. “They might say, ‘That is not a standard details’ or ‘This is not what we do here’, and the challenge is convincing the contractor that it is what we want, that we know it is not how they normally do it, but this is how you can do it.” One feature that did not immediately sit well with the contractor was flush skirting that does not protrude beyond the wall but is recessed back. Another was leaving the circular columns in the meeting room with only a minimal fair-faced concrete treatment, where a contractor might more typically expect to apply a cladding.

“If we are using wood, the contractor is recommending materials that look like wood, and we are trying to explain that this building is about adhering to the true nature of the materials, so if it is wood, it is not a fake wood, and that poses a bit of a challenge for us a well,” says Dufresne.

Although the timber is being sourced from outside of the UAE, all of the millwork, joinery and doors are going to be manufactured locally. Al Sahel has its own millwork and interior design division, and has been appointed to oversee this aspect of the work. “It is nice to see that everyone, from the suppliers to the architects to the contractors, is getting in on the environment aspect of the whole thing,” says Dufresne.

“As architects, one of the things that we are trained to do is to build facilities for users, so for us this becomes a more personal project. We have developed such personal relationship with the client that it asked us to look at the entire facility, and it wants us to apply the same strategy and the same sort of thinking to the rest of the buildings,” says Dufresne.

Working on Capital gate, I did the original concept, and it was a big idea, but when it came to the detailing, it is an engineered building which has to be supervised by an architect to guide them in the right direction for the structure, because it is all just structure, it is an exoskeletal building, so it is just how you do the joint details, “says Dufresne.

“I think we have successfully captured what the client really wanted on this project,” concludes Abi, and it seems that in this instance, and for these architects, who have now been working on the Middle East for ten years, one of their most rewarding projects to date will have been one that serves the community – not a high-rise tower, for example, but a piece of social infrastructure.