Project profile: The Sustainable City, Dubai

The Diamond Developers mixed-use residential project shows the way towards a greener future

In the last two or three years, Dubai has whole-heartedly embraced the concept of sustainability and green building, with the municipality putting in place standards that govern the way buildings and structures are built and developed, keeping in mind the efficiency and performance of systems and materials installed.

This shift in mindset has led to a number of projects cropping up in the emirate, all espousing the green mentality that the leadership of Dubai has called for. While these projects are certainly commendable, they have either been individual buildings or relatively small-scale developments that aim to be pilot projects for the country and the construction industry.

However, one developer decided to take on board the sustainability concept and elevate it to a whole new level, launching what is regarded as Dubai’s first ever sustainable megaproject. Known as The Sustainable City, the Diamond Developers-backed project is a hugely ambitious mixed-use residential community that aims to show that large-scale development can be done while embracing the core concepts of sustainability.

Spread across 46 hectares (464,515sqm), the project is in the Dubailand area, on Al Qudra Road. It consists of two phases, the first of which was recently completed in Q4 2016. With work on Phase Two now in the development phase, Big Project ME met with Karim El-Jisr, the director of the Diamond Innovation Centre – set to be the hub of The Sustainable City when complete – to find out just why this project is so important to the future of development, not just in Dubai but across the GCC.

“Construction actually started in January 2014, and within two years the first people moved in and the first villas were handed over. Currently, we’re at 60% occupancy, plus we have 70% occupancy in the mixed-use area,” says El-Jisr. “The mixed-use area has 15,000sqm of rental space, 40% of which are apartments. We have 89 apartments – studios, one- and two-bedrooms. 70% of those have been rented out. They are smaller units and more affordable.”

Phase One also consists of five clusters of 100 villas, a total of 500 residences that connect to a central green spine that runs the length of the city. Each cluster comprises of 90 Courtyard villas, eight Garden villas and two Signature villas. The L-shaped two-storey villas have been designed to meet the highest environmental performance standards, the developer says, with solar panels on every home.

The clusters have also been designed to be car-free zones, with narrow, shaded streets reminiscent of the traditional sikkas found in older Arabian neighbourhoods. Each cluster will also have four amenity plazas, with one central plaza that contains a cooling tower, along with shaded communal gardens and playgrounds.

Also part of Phase One is The Square, a community mall near the entrance of the city which has five low-rise (ground plus three floors) blocks which contain retail and hospitality outlets, along with the aforementioned apartments. Furthermore, a mosque that will house 700 worshippers has also been built to green building standards, with technologies in place to minimise energy and water consumption.

The final part of Phase One will be the Equestrian Centre, which is being designed to cater to residents and students from schools in Dubai, while also offering a host of other equestrian recreational activities.

“We consider to have completed Phase One when we inaugurated the Equestrian Centre. It is now ready, and we’re waiting for some paperwork. So with that, it’ll be the final infrastructure investment in terms of Phase One,” El-Jisr says.

“Phase One also includes the start of construction for the ring road, and what we call the Buffer Zone. There is a 30-metre wide buffer zone around the city, which really protects it from the dust and the noise. It also provides a beautiful ecosystem.”

This buffer zone consists of 2,500 trees designed to create an ecological habitat while also helping to cut down on air and noise pollution. The trees have been organised into three layers, with some reaching up to 10 metres in height. The first layer aims to reduce the amount of noise and dust that reaches the community, while the second layer is to provide shade for the cycle track that encircles the project, with the third layer of date palms part of the city’s “productive landscape”.

As part of the project’s sustainability commitments, El-Jisr explains that the cycle track has a bioswale which collects and filters storm water run-off, thereby recharging the groundwater table, while the buffer zone itself is watered by treated effluent from the community.

Running through the centre of the project will be The Central Green Spine, a park that covers the entire length of the community and has more than three kilometres of recreation and outdoor facilities designed to encourage residents to live an active lifestyle, the developer says. These include fitness stations, sports fields and courts, as well as community swimming pools.

Furthermore, there are 11 bio-dome greenhouses installed along the length of the Spine, with total capacity of more than 3,000sqm for urban farming. As Karim El-Jisr explains, this is part of the developer’s plan to introduce the concept of zero-mileage food to the community.

“We have a food/farming vertical which aims to shorten the distance between production and consumption. It’s known as the farm-to-table approach, which is zero-mileage food. We’ve integrated farming into the city, and we believe that this should be the mode in the future.”

Like the buffer zone, the Central Green Spine and greenhouses are irrigated with 100% recycled greywater – water collected from the villas and treated in a below-ground treatment facility on-site.

Looking at the development of the project, El-Jisr explains that Diamond Developers took a very active role during the construction process, using sister companies and entities to develop Phase One, a model that will continue into Phase Two.

“When it came to solar installations, there is a company called City Solar. We wanted to have an entity that assumed full responsibility for the solar solutions provided, from A-Z. This was really a turnkey solution provided by City Solar, and they continue to monitor the performance of the panels today. Our goal was to install 10MW, which is 40,000 panels. So far, we’ve installed 25,000. It’s been a fantastic journey full of learning. It’s not been straightforward, but this is part of innovation and pushing the boundaries of sustainability,” he asserts.

“On the construction side, we had another sister company called Jeet Building Contracting. They are contractors, but they receive all the drawings, all the requirements and all the VOQs from us. We are also monitoring the procurement process, while also supervising the construction phases as well.”

This attention to detail even extends to making sure the development team behind the project is aware of the most minute details of the materials being used, El-Jisr says.

“We go all the way down to the nitty-gritty of the materials and the specifications. We have data sheets for everything, and we know exactly the U-values of the windows, the installation, the manufacturer and so on. We even know the cross-section and the profile of the precast walls and so on. All of that was decided by us and supplied by different manufacturers and vendors, while the construction itself was spearheaded by Jeet.”

With the first part of the community now underway and operational, Diamond Developers’ focus is turning to Phase Two of the project. El-Jisr points out that planning for this segment of the development has been underway for more than two years.

“In Phase Two, we have four buildings planned. These are very iconic buildings and they’re all very different, with no economies of scale. We have the Hotel Indigo, which has 143 keys; we have a Wellness Centre, for in-patients who require physiotherapy and so on, with 30 rooms. Then we have a school, the Sustainable City School, and we have the Innovation Centres.”

Housed within The Sustainable City, the Hotel Indigo will be a net zero energy building with 100% of its energy needs met through the use of solar power, El-Jisr says. Designed to be low-rise and unobtrusive, the hotel will see all waste water produced recycled, while all material waste will be sorted at source and recycled.

The school itself will be an integral part of the community, which will include sustainability (in all its forms – environmental, social and economic) into its curriculum, while also using the various facilities available to it in the community. An operator has already been chosen for the school, and the developer will work with it to co-design the curriculum, he adds.

“These buildings are at different stages of design. Some of them are at the final detailed design, or are at different stages of permitting, because we have to go through preliminary permits and final permits and so on. Within the next three months, it’s our plan to commence breaking ground on Phase Two, with at least two of these four iconic buildings,” he says, adding that he expects all of the second phase to be completed by the fourth quarter of 2018.

The jewel in the crown however, is the Diamond Innovation Centre, referred to as the brain of The Sustainable City. It is set to be the first negative lifecycle footprint building in the region, which means that over its anticipated 50-year lifespan, the building will produce 140% of its energy requirements, offsetting emissions that will occur during construction, operation and decommissioning.

As the director of the Diamond Innovation Centre, Karim El-Jisr is intimately involved in the planning and design of the building, and he explains that the Centre will be a repository of knowledge and information which will serve as a showcase for the latest advancements in sustainability.

“It was always part of the masterplan, and it was always our idea that everything we learnt from the city would be harnessed and harvested by the Innovation Centre. This is a place where we can scale it up, where we can replicate it and adapt it to different climates and zones around the world.

“As you can see on the masterplan, it is a beautiful building which has 12,000sqm of built-up space and area. The building itself will generate 140% of its operational energy requirements, which means it’s going to produce more electricity than it requires. The additional 40% will offset the energy that went into the manufacturing and construction. It means that we can export and make use of that electricity in other parts of The Sustainable City.

“It is our intent that it will also be off-grid, although the entire city is grid connected, as this is part of the procedures and master regulations that were made available to us by DEWA. But for purposes of research and development, we want to operate the building off-grid – both for water and electricity.”

The building itself is divided into two large sections, with the larger section housing a theatre for 700 people, along with conference rooms in the lower deck. The other wing of the building will house a large atrium, with offices along the sides.

A legal entity for the Innovation Centre will be set up, which will be separate from Diamond Developers, El-Jisr says. That entity will operate and manage the Innovation Centre, with three divisions being established – one for CSR research and development, a second for consultancy and advisory services related to sustainable cities, and a third division related to corporate initiatives.

“This is where we’ll be based as an entity, and we’ll have shared office space for universities and partner organisations. We were just in discussions with Herriot-Watt University, and we’ve started doing a number of activities with them. Although they’re based in Scotland, they also have a Dubai campus and they very much want to be involved in the project, so we want to provide a space that is really forward- and future-looking where we can collaborate with universities and organisations,” he outlines.

“Operationally, we very much want to engage a carefully selected group of organisations and academic institutions to be a part of this experience and this experiment. We call this city a living lab, and we continue to learn. We wish to see the performance of the villas, we wish to monitor the DEWA consumption of water and electricity, and we wish to monitor the performance of the solar panels.

“So we’ve teamed up with eight universities so far. I’ve mentioned Herriot-Watt, but there’s also the University of California, Davis; the American University of Beirut; the American University of Cairo and so on. We have various research collaborations going on with them at the moment,” El-Jisr continues.

“And then we also have non-academic partners, such as the WWF, who will be moving into the city. This will become their offices. They will implement a greenhouse gas inventory of the city. We want to measure all the emissions [in the city]. That is not only in terms of electricity and water consumption, but also in terms of mobility, farming, products and so on. We want to capture all of that data and turn it into a number. This will be the work of the WWF and they will report on these emissions. We have a third entity – Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence – who will verify these emissions.

“We really have to live up to our pledge and our promises, and if we’re not there, then we have to make adjustments accordingly,” he asserts.

Highlighting just how serious Diamond Developers is about the viability of The Sustainable City, El-Jisr reveals that it has teamed up with Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) and Dubai Carbon, and also has an ongoing collaboration with Emirates Green Building Council.

“These are all professional associations and organisations that provide a niche skillset or speciality to the market and to the built environment.”

Given the scope of the project, it’s obvious to wonder what the end result of this investment and research will be, a question El-Jisr is more than happy to answer in detail. He points out that the UAE on average emits 19 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, putting it in the top 10 emitters in the world. In comparison, he says, Western Europe lies between five and seven metric tonnes.

Looking at the state of the world, he asserts that business as usual is no longer acceptable and that the time for change is now, which is why Diamond Developers has decided to face the challenge head on.

“It’s no longer a choice, and we really have to think sustainably, design sustainably and build sustainably, by necessity,” he emphasises. “This was the premise of building The Sustainable City, which is really to bring down consumption and manage the demand for energy and water, so that we can bring down emissions gradually. That is the overarching principle.”

“First of all, goal number one is to verify and demonstrate that everything we set out to do has been achieved, and if there are any shortcomings, then we need to address them. We need full disclosure of what we’ve done and we need to verify those numbers. That’s really important for the science of it. We’re not into inflating or exaggerating anything. We have to demonstrate that we’ve achieved our goals.

“Secondly, as we continue to demonstrate that – because it’s an ongoing process – we very much would like to inspire governments, entities and other developers to follow suit. What we’ve done is deploy a unique combination of technologies and design. We’ve combined high-tech and low-tech, because we believe that The Sustainable City has to be easy and inexpensive to operate. If we go high-tech, it might become too expensive and high-maintenance, it’s very critical to maintain this balance,” he reemphasises.

“Finally, we wish to inspire and to replicate this city, in any format or in any size, because it’s scalable. We can do something smaller or we can do something bigger, either in countries with similar climates or we can export it to other climates,” he concludes, highlighting just how important this experimental city could be for the future of real estate development.


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