In profile: Dubai architecture and design firm U+A

Middle East Consultant talks to Martin Dufresne and Pedram Rad about their pipeline of projects in the region

Martin Dufresne (left) and Pedram Rad

For most ambitious design professionals, the dream is to not only create architectural wonders across the globe, but to someday build a business that will leave behind a legacy. It is this drive and common goal that brought together Pedram Rad and Martin Dufresne, two highly motivated construction professionals, to form architecture and design firm U+A in Dubai.

Coming from different schools of knowledge, Rad and Dufresne have brought together the best of architecture, design and business expertise. A chartered architect by training, Rad combines 10 years of experience in the field in the GCC with a sound knowledge of business development, while Dufresne boasts a wealth of knowledge in design, having spent over 20 years working with large multinationals and boutique design firms in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Dubai.

Middle East Consultant caught up with Rad and Dufresne to learn more about their plans for U+A in the region and the projects they’re working on.

“There’s quite a bit of a history behind this firm,” begins Dufresne. “We both had our own initial ambitions in terms of starting a business and then almost 10 years ago, while we were working at the same office, we got together and decided to start something of our own.”

“The synergy between the two of us has always been quite good. Pedram provides extensive knowledge on the business side of things and I provide expertise on the design side of things for U+A, and that works quite well together. Since then, it’s been quite a roller coaster ride but we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved.”

As a decade-old firm in the UAE that offers services in architecture, interior design, master planning and engineering, Dufresne says their philosophy is to make clients feel special by giving importance to quality and paying attention to detail, which ensures that every project is one of a kind.

So what kind of projects do they focus on?

“From my point of view, whenever a project or development comes to us as a company, it comes with its own uniqueness and has certain characteristics that excites us,” says Rad. “We tend to lean towards commercial projects like hotels, shopping malls and even residential projects for end users. While I know that all of these areas are our strengths, we also look for opportunities that you would otherwise not approach in a normal way.”

Dufresne says that the most important factor for him is having the right client and establishing a good rapport and relationship.

“If I meet a client that I’m comfortable with, that really gets me excited about the project and the work too. I’ve worked on many different scales, from large developments like airports all the way down to private villas. But no matter what kind of development it is or the size of it, it all really goes back to the kind of people we deal with.”

In terms of their portfolio of work, U+A is involved in a large number of projects across the Middle East, including developments such as an experience centre for Wasl Asset Management and Deyaar Development’s Midtown development. They’re developing a number of projects with Emaar and the Zayed Advisory Group, and with Damac they’re working on its headquarters and a large residential development.

While all these developments are important in their own right, one project that particularly stands out is the Marasi Business Bay project, a master-planned 12km waterside development on the upcoming Dubai Canal project.

Marasi Business Bay

Marasi Business Bay

Dufresne says that when the client, Dubai Properties, approached them, they wanted U+A to have a look at the previous proposal for the project, which was done a couple of years ago. The client also specified that he wanted something more feasible, because the initial proposal was too elaborate.

“It was a commission that left us with a lot of leeway in terms of ideas. We had many discussions with Dubai Properties and their head of architecture, who also threw in some ideas and exchanged thoughts on what we could do. The design that then developed was just an evolution of all of these workshops.

“We wanted to make it unlike any other developments in Dubai like JBR, City Walk and The Beach, so we thought of mixing parks with retail and then taking advantage of the water. That’s when we thought of having these floating elements on the water. Dubai Properties really liked the idea too, and we think this will bring something very unique to Dubai and will be quite popular.”

Designed to be the region’s first yachting destination, Marasi Business Bay is divided into three themed areas – The Yacht Club, The Park and The Pier. It will feature floating restaurants and cafés, onshore boutique shopping centres and a range of leisure and entertainment facilities. The waterfront will host five palm tree-lined marinas with 1,250 berths, while residential units with boat access will be built on the water.

The Marasi Business Bay project is also an indicator of the growing popularity of low-rise developments in the UAE. Rad points out that while the whole attitude towards outdoor activity during the summer months may seem like a recent phenomenon among residents, it actually dates back many years.

“In the old days, people had the various souks and everyone would head to these places. This was almost equivalent to going to a shopping mall today. People would walk along the street, shop, be entertained on the side and have their F&B needs taken care of. So technically, this element of human nature in them hasn’t changed.

“Dubai is currently focused on showcasing its strength and power, and this can be seen in the form of its tall and mega-tall towers that decorate the city. But I believe that it’s the upcoming smaller developments that will add character to the city. When you look at Business Bay, all you see are large concrete buildings, but the Marasi Business Bay project will add a lot of flavour and soul to the location.”

The Jeddah Corniche Towers in Saudi Arabia is another U+A project. With a gross floor area of 261,700sqm, the high-end residential development consists of two 56-storey towers and a retail podium on the seafront.

Jeddah Corniche Towers in Saudi Arabia

Jeddah Corniche Towers in Saudi Arabia

Explaining that this project has a bit of a history as well, Dufresne says that when U+A was approached by a private Saudi developer, this project had been previously designed. However, seeing the client was unhappy with the original design, they decided to tweak the design to encourage a more community feel.

“The client wanted our design expertise to bring this project to a more exciting level, and I think we have definitely succeeded in doing that. It’s been a long journey, but we’re quite pleased with where we are at the moment.

“The original design included three towers, but it made the entire development look too dense and inappropriate for the site. We then reduced it to two towers and gave it more space for an outdoor element on top of the podium for family activities. We’ve actually completed the design development stage and are now going through the tender stage, so we will hopefully be on-site very soon.”

Another interesting project is the Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai (SISD), the Middle East’s first low-energy building in the education sector. The building, which has earned the Swiss MINERGIE certification, consumes one third the energy of standard buildings. Phase one of the school, the primary section, opened in 2015. Phase two has been finished as well, and phase three, the middle-high school, boarding house and sports facilities, is being worked on.

The Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai

The Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai

“What’s exciting about this project is that we’ve tried to change the language of the school and break away from the traditional school design. We’re introducing elements like atriums for students, teachers and guests to interact in, and we’ve made the school’s design quite flexible as well,” says Rad.

“It also has some interesting teachers’ lounges, an auditorium, canteen and sports facilities, plus the building is being built to meet MINERGIE requirements. I believe SISD will be a benchmark and other schools will soon follow this pattern where they ensure that future educational institutions save energy as well.

“It’s quite exciting being part of a project like this. The design and build system has sped things up, and we’re expecting the middle-high school to be completed by September next year.”

Again, Dufresne points out that the enthusiasm and interest of the client played a key role here. While most schools in Dubai run as just a business, the client in this case showed genuine interest in how the children study and live in the building, and how they interact with their surroundings.

“We came in with a passion for developing a product where the children would feel emancipated. We studied how children would move from one class to another, and how they would use break areas and other facilities to really make sure that we’re providing something fantastic.

“We also made sure to allow as much natural daylight in as possible without heating the building. Attention was paid to the outside areas as well, in terms of the courtyards and other elements.”

Talking about the sectors that interest them the most, the duo say healthcare is a space they are quite keen on venturing into, and they’re also keen to work on convention centres, airports and institutional buildings as well. This is because they believe the next five years will see Dubai lean towards infrastructure development and the construction of public buildings, rather than just hotels and residential.

In terms of the markets that interest them, Rad says they are closely monitoring Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar for opportunities. In fact, in Iran, U+A is working on projects like shopping malls and resorts. With Iran slowly opening up, the vast variety of needs will present exciting prospects, they believe.

U+A also has a presence in Saudi Arabia and Iran in the form of representative offices that oversee ongoing projects there. They even have affiliates in South Africa and India as well, who occasionally share resources with them when necessary. With a tough macro-economic environment globally, there are difficulties as well, and one such challenge they face as a company is keeping their niche in the market.

“Every year there is new competition that’s entering the market, and everyone is eager to be part of the exciting projects going on here. We sense a bit of an influx of international companies coming into Dubai in particular, only due to the fact that other markets are struggling and so everyone is going to where the work is,” Dufresne explains.

“Our hard work and reputation has ensured that we have a bank of clients and potential clients that are very keen to work specifically with us. However, there are other aspects to what we do on the more commercial side of things that tends to be a little more cut-throat, and that’s where competition becomes a little bit more challenging.”

Reflecting on the year gone by and looking forward, Rad says that while 2016 started on a low point due to the drop in oil prices, U+A has managed to beat the odds and successfully expand its business and 100-member staff.

“We’re opening an independent interior design section next door and we’ve increased our staff by 30% because of requirements on-site or in sections where we believe that we need to add people. Cities like Dubai have a very defined vision, and this would require all of us to work towards bringing that vision to fruition. I think no matter the global situation, there will always be work in the Middle East. It may be challenging, but definitely always achievable.”

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