Journey to the bay: How the ‘floating homes’ docked in Dubai

With the first floating homes now installed at Marasi Business Bay, Big Project ME’s Gavin Davids talks to the project team to find out how this landmark project became a reality

Early in September 2017, sharp-eyed residents and commuters living and working along the Dubai Water Canal might have been surprised by the sight of a fully-fledged double-storey home floating past them as they rushed into their offices or sipped on their morning coffee. Rather than taking the day off to have their eyes tested, these onlookers would have known that the strange sight was the final stage of a remarkable journey that started in Finland and ended at Marasi Business Bay.

Developed as a master development along the Dubai Water Canal, Marasi Business Bay is a $272.2m project by Dubai Properties and its parent company, Dubai Holding. Launched in May 2016, the project spans 12km of waterfront, and the aim is to turn it into a new landmark for Dubai.

As such, several distinctive aspects have been planned for the project, including floating restaurants and high-end retail and leisure facilities. Chief among these attractions are the homes on water, or floating homes, several of which have now been berthed along the canal. Designed as luxury destinations, the 10 floating homes currently installed are part of the first phase of the development of Marasi Business Bay.

Once complete, the project will eventually have space for up to 200 water homes spread along different parts of the canal, a marina with 1,250 berths, onshore boutiques and a range of leisure and development facilities, in addition to extensive multi-level mechanical parking.

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

Work on phase one began in Q4 2016, with completion scheduled for Q4 2017. Meanwhile, overall completion of the project is scheduled for 2023, the developer says, adding that the turnkey project will soon see the floating homes surrounded by floating restaurants.

“Dubai Properties has delivered phase one – it is a key component of the bigger vision that we have for one of our key destinations, Business Bay,” says a spokesman from Dubai Properties, who declined to be named for the interview.

“With the water homes, we have anchored the Marasi brand as part of a mixed-use development that will revive the district at the heart of the city and activate one of the latest landmarks – the Dubai Water Canal, which is now home to the region’s first floating real estate. This development marks Dubai Properties’ next milestone achievement in transforming the bustling commercial hub of Business Bay into a truly urban lifestyle destination. This is what we’re trying to do,” he asserts.

The components of phase one will include the Marina, which will eventually comprise 800 berths adjacent to the water homes, which come with pools; the Park; and the Pier, all of which will stretch along the canal, making it the first purpose-built yachting club at the heart of the city.

“As part of phase one, we will see 10 water homes, ranging from two, three and four bedrooms, a floating yacht club and two floating restaurants. In addition, there are onshore facilities, including the building we’re sitting in today, that will serve as a reception centre for the water homes and restaurants. A similar one will be there on the opposite side to serve as the Marina’s operations centre. These are the main components of phase one of the development.

“Next, we will introduce other hubs scattered along Business Bay, all linked to the main spine – which is Dubai Canal. This is the overall idea of the project.”

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

The floating homes, restaurants and yacht club will be built exclusively by Admares at its purpose-built facilities in Rauma, Finland. From there the homes make a month-long journey in the holds or on the decks of tankers, travelling to Port Rashid in Dubai for some final works and installations, before making their way up the canal and to their berths.

“What we’ve done here is a first for Dubai, and the quality and standard that these villas have been delivered too is also a world first. Floating real estate as a concept is nothing new – you have a lot of companies and architects coming up with all sorts of very fancy concepts, but the issue has been that there hasn’t really been a company that can really deliver on those ideas and concepts,” says Mikko Lahtonen, executive vice president, Middle East and Africa for Admares.

A Finnish company with a strong heritage in cruise ship building, Admares has established itself in the development of alternative real estate through the use of construction methods that combine marine, land and modular construction techniques.

“We have the engineering and technical know-how, and the facilities to build quality products that can be certified by the classification societies that do ships as well,” continues Lahtonen. “You need to be able to give the market a product that you know is solid and verified by a third party to be on the water. It’s very different to be on the water, as you have a lot more risk and things to consider as compared to when you build traditionally on land.”

As these floating homes are built entirely differently to traditional land-based construction, the certification process was a completely different challenge for the project team. Each villa, starting from the design, has to be certified by DNV GL, the largest classification society for all ships that are built.

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

This means that the villas are all certified from scratch – every piece of steel used for the hull has been x-rayed and certified for use, every welding seam has been inspected and certified. Every single safety aspect is scrutinised just as it would be for a ship or boat, Lahtonen explains.

“For their purpose – in that they sit in very calm canal waters – I can say that these villas are very much over-certified. There’s no class for floating real estate, but we’re working with DNV GL for that.”

Dr Ralf Heron, principal at Homeport, a UAE project management and advisory firm that specialises in marinas and associated facilities, says the biggest challenge encountered with the floating homes and the development of the surrounding marina facilities was the lack of previous regulations and rules to follow.

“While it’s easy to do some renderings and drawings of ideas and throw them at engineers and tell them to solve it, the issue we had here is that we’re building a ship – or half a ship – under the standards of Europe. They have all these regulations and authorities over there, and it was extremely challenging for Admares to fulfil all these very specific requests and certifications.

“So they build half a ship, then we come and say that we want to put a villa on top of it. Which means that we then have to go on to the building codes of Dubai. So now we have a ship code, a building code, and then everything underneath the homes is under the Marina code! Now you try and go to an authority and explain what we’re trying to do? That’s where the real challenge is,” he laughs, speaking to Big Project ME at the floating homes site.

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

Mikko Lahtonen is quick to agree, pointing out that while the design and construction aspect of the project was challenging, it wasn’t the biggest issue the team faced.

“We were creating something completely new. We needed to create plots on the water, and people needed to be able to purchase them. This obviously hasn’t been done before in Dubai, and it means that they become a permanent structure, so you can’t just moor them like a boat. If you want to sell it and issue a title deed for it, then it needs to be a permanent structure. This is something where we’re having workshops with the authorities on how to do that.”

As daunting as this may seem, Heron is effusive in his praise for Dubai’s authorities, who provided tremendous assistance and cooperation.

“We’ve received help from day One. They’ve said, ‘Yes, we have no regulations for this, but we see that this is the future, so we have to deal with it.’ We’ve sat for days and weeks with the authorities – there’s the RTA regulations, the Dubai Municipality regulations, the coastal regulations – we had to sit with all these authorities and create something that wasn’t there.

“But because Dubai is Dubai, we managed to do it. I’m glad I didn’t do this project in Europe, because it would have taken 25 years to do it! In Dubai, we sat down, solved the issues and got things done. That is amazing and exciting – if you’re a developer or a master-planner, that’s an exciting journey to take,” Heron continues.

“I cannot stress this enough. We started with a blank piece of paper, with no ideas, in October 2015. This is the brief we had, what can we do with it? And here we are today! That’s Dubai, that’s Dubai Properties – they helped us all the way to go for this. Without the client, the journey would have been impossible. I can assure you that the client had to stretch themselves to deliver this as promised on time. It was announced a year ago and they made a big commitment.”

The Dubai Properties spokesman is quick to return the compliment, praising the way the team worked together and highlighting how everyone involved went above and beyond to facilitate the delivery and satisfy the commitment made – that before the end of 2017, the project would be ready.

“There were a lot of issues to jump over. One of them was transportation,” the spokesman says. “How to plan out the moving of these structures, taking into consideration all the different aspects of the journey – from harsh weather and sea conditions, through to several options en route to Marasi, including the numerous canal bridges and new regulations such as the height and speed limitations.”

“There were a bunch of challenges for everybody. We had to secure a specialist for every single activity. We needed a specialist in transportation, a specialist in foundation, a specialist for the marina. Everyone has played their role professionally and to the highest level.”

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

One of those specialists hired was Lars Brandt, CEO of Seaflex, the company appointed to find a way to secure the floating homes in their positions. Over the last 40 years, it has developed mooring systems that replace traditional methods like piles or chains.

“Our input is obviously based on our experience on how to do these things. The calculations and all that. Adaptation to this place was important. Every site is unique – we looked at the bottom structure of the canal and, as you know, this was all dredged. Normally, in a traditional, natural cove, it’s up and down, but here was nice and flat. So that obviously made things much easier, the positioning of the anchors and all. But there’s a lot of detail that goes into the calculation and coordination with Admares as well, for the houses, the walkways and for the effects of Mother Nature!”

That meant Seaflex had to look into specific data, such as what kind of wind forces are around the site environment. While the floating homes aren’t out in the open ocean with big waves, there’s still wind speed to deal with. Furthermore, the Seaflex team needed to be on the same page with everyone else to calculate the forces and how those forces are transferred into the mooring systems, Brandt says.

“Then there’s obviously the different codes that are always hanging around, that people are trying to put together. This is all new territory, especially in an area like this that is definitely new to floating houses. Obviously, in places like America and Holland, they have adapted their technologies or calculation methods to that. I think that it’s always like this at every site, but obviously for new developments like this, you’re more focused on the challenges.”

Another engineering challenge Seaflex encountered was the linked walkway that runs around the marina. As Brandt explains, the style and shape – curving along the canal – was quite different to the traditional square designs most marinas employ.

“This gives it a flow together with the canal, and obviously we needed to come as close as possible, so to do that, we had to develop new anchors. No one will ever see them, but it’s a new style of anchor that’s installed at the bottom which will allow the floating villas to be close, but still deal with the forces. We’ve used different angles on the mooring systems to adapt to that.

“Another thing with the walkway is that while traditional pontoons are straight, the ones here curve, and that’s obviously also challenging for us to know how to adapt to that curvature and transfer the loads from the winds and the houses into the dock system pontoons, and then into the mooring systems. We needed to see that everything worked in harmony, and many hours have gone into that!”

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

Lahtonen adds that one issue Admares worked on with the RTA on was the area around the floating structures.

“The water area is very clearly defined. Wherever you have traffic moving back and forth, that area and that safety parameter has been set by the RTA. They’ve cleared that so that there’s enough space for the water buses to go back and forth, but also includes space for the safe manoeuvring of those. We’re very pleased with that.”

One of the other major challenges faced by the floating homes project team was very unusual for Dubai – getting the affectation plans for the structures on the water. The Dubai Properties spokesman explains that this was a very challenging issue for the authorities, as it was a case of who would issue the permits and approvals.

“It’s not Dubai Municipality alone. It was a case of having a complete blank sheet and creating every single item from scratch, ensuring that we got the authorities on board as well as their approvals and NOCs, confirming that they have no objections to us building on water in this area and so on.

“DEWA, RTA, Dubai Municipality, DEWA Water, DEWA Power, Dubai Coastal Department, Dubai Municipality Building Department, Dubai Municipality Planning Department, Dubai Municipality Land Department… every one of them had to stamp and say, ‘Yes, we have no objections.’

“It was challenging, but we had a great team from Dubai Properties coordination management team. Everybody was able to clarify and explain the targets and objectives. Without the support of these authorities, I don’t think we’d be sitting on this area now. They were very cooperative and supportive. This project is part of the vision for Dubai 2020 – to be on multiple channels: on water, at the Expo and so on. This is part of a big puzzle for Dubai,” he concludes.

Schedule of arrival
• 10 August: Arrival of villas at Port Rashid
• 13 August – 4 September: Work done on villas while sitting at Port Rashid (some villas done earlier, but 4 Sep is the last day for the last Villa, number 8)
• 31 August – 1 September: Towing and installation of Villas 2 & 7
• 1-2 September: Towing and installation of Villas 1 & 9
• 2-3 September: Towing and installation of Villas 3 & 4
• 3-4 September: Towing and installation of Villas 5 & 6
• 4-6 September: Towing and installation of Villas 8

In pictures: Floating homes at Marasi Business Bay, Dubai

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