Interviews

Master-planning a megaproject: ARADA’s Aljada development in Sharjah

Middle East Consultant talks to ARADA’s Ibrahim Al Nemeh about the design, inspiration and intent of the Aljada master-planned community in Sharjah

Ibrahim Al Nemeh

Announced on September 6 and highlighted at Cityscape Global Dubai, Aljada is a new $6.5bn mega project taking shape in the heart of Sharjah. The mixed-use, master-planned urban district was unveiled by Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, and is the second Sharjah-based project unveiled by developer ARADA.

ARADA is a relatively new entity in the UAE, founded at the start of 2017 by the Basma Group and KBW Investments. In March, the developer launched its first project in Sharjah in the form of Nasma Residences, which is expected to be completed by 2025.

Construction on Aljada is expected to begin in 2018 and, like Nasma Residences, it has a projected completion date of 2025. However, while the two developments share the same year of completion, Aljada is a far larger project – it will spread over 2.2sqkm and house as many as 70,000 residents. At present, the project boasts residential buildings and villas and a business park, along with significant retail, leisure and green spaces.

Aljada means ‘avenue’, and ARADA says it will be investing approximately $1.4bn into the project. The remaining funds are expected to come from syndicated loans, as well as the proceeds from off-plan sales. With its latest project, the Sharjah-based developer says it was keen on establishing an urban development that would set the standards for future developments in the emirate.

“The idea was to create a self-sufficient, all-inclusive community where people can live, work and entertain themselves. In terms of our design approach, what we tried to do was create an environment that would encourage walkability and outdoor activities, with the aim of empowering and improving the well-being of residents. In addition, we tried to reintroduce traditional urban topologies that were found in traditional Emirati neighbourhoods but in a contemporary and modern way,” explains Ibrahim Al Nemeh, design director at ARADA.

Nemeh joined ARADA in June 2017 and is the design leader on Aljada. Prior to joining the developer, he worked for Woods Bagot as an associate, where he first worked on the master-plan for Aljada. He is also known for his work on the Dubai Design District master-plan. A native of Jordan, Nemeh graduated with distinction from the Cities, Design and Urban Cultures masters programme at London Metropolitan University, and from the Advanced Design and Digital Architecture masters programme in Barcelona.

Designing Aljada

With Aljada, Nemeh says he had a blank canvas, which proved to be both a benefit and a challenge. “With this project, the land was completely empty and we had a blank slate, which gave us endless design possibilities. As you know, people have different tastes and preferences, so we needed to rationalise our approach since we wanted to attract residents and investors. The way we did it was to try and create something that at one point addresses major issues in cities, and at the same time gives value and touches on traditional topologies in Sharjah and the UAE.”

He elaborates: “One of the typical layouts you’d find in traditional Emirati topologies is the courtyard and the sikkas [alleyways]. In the past, people didn’t have air conditioners and the other technologies that we have today, yet they managed to establish environments that were comfortable. They could do this because they knew how to work within context – they laid out their buildings and courtyards and created neighbourhoods in a specific way, which helped improve the outdoor urban comfort and create a well-integrated community. In short, the Aljada urban environment was influenced by typical Emirati topologies, while the building footprints and facades were based on the latest trends and the most efficient layouts. We thought both elements complemented each other very well.”

ARADA wanted to address common issues found in most modern mixed-use developments, and worked closely with government bodies in the emirate, including the Sharjah Urban Planning Council.

“We wanted to avoid issues found in most growing cities in the 21st century, such as accessibility and traffic flow. In terms of the layout of the buildings, we designed this based on the most efficient layout. Basically, we relied on reverse engineering. For example, we looked at what is the most efficient grid for basement parking and, based on that, we defined our sub-division. That again reflected on the layout of our buildings. So what is the most efficient between 18m to 21m in terms of building depth – everything was rationalised, even the distances between buildings. We ensured that the minimum distance between buildings is 15m, to allow for privacy, wind channeling and better solar exposure.”

Nemeh keenly points out that Aljada was designed in relation to nearby developments. “We look at the whole thing as one big community ¬– to the south there is the Mamsha Community, and to the east there is the University City expansion project. So although these projects are all being developed separately by different developers, they come together to create a large, integrated community. Even with our roads and access points, everything is based on understanding what the other projects offer and how we can benefit from them, while also adding value to them.”

Encouraging Active Lifestyles

ARADA wanted to encourage active, healthy lifestyles within the confines of the development. To achieve that goal, Nemeh drew inspiration from his experiences living in Europe.

“I lived for a long time in Europe, and most European cities encourage you to walk and be active. When I came to the UAE and looked at projects in cities such as Dubai, they had the best buildings and advanced urban technologies but didn’t really cater towards walkability. There could be any number of reasons for this, but as a design lead I thought I could introduce new ideas that would encourage active lifestyles.”

The Aljada master-plan features an extensive cycle network, running paths and numerous green areas, including parks. With the parks in particular, the project set a new benchmark in the UAE according to Nemeh, as it features two 2.2km linear parks that stretch across the length of the development.

“The linear park proposal was to introduce a new concept that would add value to all the properties in the development. Normally, if you have a central park this adds value to the properties that are around it, but the further away you get from the park, the less value there is for those other properties. But when you introduce a linear park, all the properties can enjoy immediate access. So at one point you increase value and also give residents a better view that will positively reflect on their well-being. In addition, it creates a safe environment that is walking-friendly and encourages outdoor activities.”

Beyond encouraging active lifestyles within the development, Aljada was also master-planned to international standards and best practices.

“We considered all the details carefully and asked questions about how to give residents good access to the rest of the community facilities, how to have retail components within walking distance, and what is the right walking distance, taking into consideration the climate. We also looked at parking standards and traffic since, as we know, traffic is a major issue in Sharjah. Here we reflected on traffic flow and the roads and how they function. Even in terms of energy and consumption, we studied facade treatments and plot control regulations. Basically, we looked at the best international practices in all of the aspects of the master-planning.”

Sustainability Focus

Sustainability and energy conservation are hot topics in the Middle East and significant to ARADA.

“The way we oriented our buildings, the ratio between the building height and the courtyard depth, the distances between buildings – all of these factors were examined. By adjusting the ratio of building height in relation to the courtyard and by aligning the buildings in relation to east/west, we maximised self-shading. In addition, when you allow for sufficient setbacks between buildings and combine it with the right angle, you maximise wind channelling. When you balance self-shading and wind channelling, you optimise overall thermal comfort.

“In addition, when you start utilising materials that are not heat-absorbent, i.e. they are either reflective or of a lighter colour and include more vegetation in the project, all this helps to create the optimum thermal comfort, which has a positive impact on energy consumption as it means less dependence on cooling.”

At the same time, the project’s focus on sustainability also posed challenges, particularly with regard to the development’s many green areas and linear parks.

“We were pushing boundaries, and when you push boundaries, you’re pushing people out of their comfort zone. With this project, we proposed a number of things that are not common and getting approvals required a lot of people to believe and support the vision. Thankfully, once people started visualising it and saw the impact it could have on the community, it got the support it needed and things moved forward smoothly.”

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