Creating a masterpiece – Art of Living Mall site visit

Airolink, MMS Global and LACASA on creating an architectural masterpiece in Dubai

While Dubai may already have a plethora of shopping malls, such is the appetite for consumerism in the city that developers are constantly looking for new concepts and ideas to launch into the retail space. As a result, over the years we’ve had shopping malls built around particular styles or concepts, while others have been built to cater to specific sectors and markets.

However, despite this variety and range of offerings, there has yet to be a dedicated space for the home design and interiors market, says Dr Samer Al Omari, managing director and CEO of MMS Global, a UAE company that specialises in large-scale development and high-quality design.

It was because of this gap in the market that the decision was made to launch a retail project that answered that need, he tells MECN’s sister publication Big Project ME during a site visit to the Art of Living Mall.

“The idea emerged from Dubai city itself, as it’s a city that’s always looking for new ides and where projects strive to be the best, first and biggest by challenging existing situations and finding suitable solutions.

“One of the factors that lead to this project is the horizontal expansion of the city along Sheikh Zayed Road, which divided the city into old and new zones, separated by long distances and heavy traffic. Thus, the furniture market as well was divided into several areas. On the other hand is the environmental situation in the UAE, which makes home renovation a nightmare to someone who has to suffer a long shopping experience in open markets. Therefore, the Art of Living Mall aims to solve all of these challenges by uniting everything under one roof, with the most luxurious of shopping experiences.”

Planned as a specialised mall for furniture and home accessories, the mall is spread over a plot area of 14,957sqm in the Al Barsha Two area, along Umm Suqeim Street. With 22,262sqm of gross leasable area, it will house around 100 shopping outlets offering a variety of products, including home design items such as carpets, furniture, interiors, lights, curtains and art.

Consisting of three levels – a ground floor, a mezzanine level and a first floor – in addition to a basement, the project uses space and light to create a sense of openness and freedom, in line with the vision of the developer.

“The interior design of any project requires a lot of mix and match formulas which will not be possible when moving from one place to another, from one shop in the Marina to another in Salah-Aldein, for example. That is why shops should be united under one roof, so that the process will be easier when matching curtains with sofa fabrics, or matching lighting with accessories. That is why a one-stop destination is much more logical than separated shops,” explains Al Omari.

“In the Art of Living Mall there will be different brands coming from all around the world, with a lot of ranges in price, from medium to high. Whatever your requirement, you will be able to find it here.”

As benefits the ethos of the project, the design of the mall has been carefully planned and considered, with the developers stressing that the building should live up to its name and be a work of art itself. This meant the exterior mass is just as important as the interior spaces, with AL Omari explaining that he wanted a project that would be a landmark for Dubai.

“We play with volumes and materials that range from the transparent to the solid, while adding a distinctive lighting for the exterior elements and landscape. This is so we can attract the eyes of visitors, so that we could create and add yet another architectural landmark to Dubai’s skyline.”

One of the most striking aspects of the mall’s design is the massive freeform steel structure that covers the mall’s two main entry points, creating eye-catching designs that serve to attract attention in an area surrounded by busy highways and heavy traffic.

However, as attractive as these structures are, their design, construction and installation have posed a major challenge to Airolink, the main contractor on the project, and the company specifically appointed as an EPC contractor for the steel structures.

“The entire steel structure, which is the backbone of the project, has been designed by us as an EPC. Fully, from engineering, procurement and everything,” says Ajith Nair, senior project manager for Airolink on the Art of Living Mall.

“The freeform structure is the biggest challenge for us. Structurally, internally there’s a lot of ins and outs, and each structure is unique. There’s no repetition or any of that. It’s just a series of structures and you have to think about it, plan and coordinate it, for MEP, for structural works, architecturally and then get it done. It’s a very tough element of the project that way.”

Although there was a consultant hired for the rest of the project – LACASA Architects and Engineering Consultants – Nair says Airolink took on the challenge of designing and building the steel structure as an EPC contractor specifically because of how complex a structure it was. One benefit of this approach is that it allowed the team to conduct a thorough value engineering process on the steel structures, ensuring they were able to make it viable.

“We have a very strong architectural and technical team which looks at the structural, architectural and design elements of [the steel structures]. This entire design went through the same team, the freeform structure and the building. We did a huge value engineering exercise with it – the outside steel façade structure was supposed to be made up only of steel, but one of the major changes that we did was that we made it into a steel plus aluminium combination.

“It’s a radical solution and it’s not done generally in the market as it’s a difficult solution to come to. But because of that, what has happened is that while the entire steel structure was supposed to weigh 1,400 tonnes, we took on the challenge and made it into a structure that weighs around 800 tonnes. The whole structure quantity has been reduced. This was a major component of the value engineering process, which in turn has helped us to get the project completed faster.”

Al Omari points out that MMS Global has been an enthusiastic partner in the value engineering process, explaining that the biggest challenges on the project have been the time and value engineering process.

“Our strategy is focused on providing a smart design that gives a fantastic luxurious look, as well as being feasible cost-wise. Our team is always keeping an eye on the small details and for any value engineering possibilities,” he says.

He adds that during the tender process, the developer was keen to appoint a contractor that valued a sense of teamwork and cooperation, so as to work hand-in-hand in reaching company’s goals.

“We were impressed by Airolink’s portfolio and projects, the size of their technical team and their design and build capabilities. Furthermore, we were glad to feel the sense of enthusiasm and the positive attitude from their CEO and top management for the project, as they understood the uniqueness and importance of such a landmark. All of that were great assets for us to sign the contract with them,” he asserts.

Appointed to the project on a $54.4m construction contract, Airolink intends to hand over the shell and core of the mall by October, with Nair explaining that the project will then be handed over to the client for the rest of the work to be carried out.

“We’ll hand over the project – the shell and core – with the external finishes done, but the rest of the work, inside the shops and all, will still be going on. That may take between three to six months for the client to decide. But we will hand it over. By September we should complete the structure, while the approvals process and all will be done by October.

“Externally, we have done the plasterwork of at least 70% of the area, it’s the front that needs to be developed. We’re doing that now, the finishes to the front. As for the steel structure, the entire atrium is completed, now the glass has to come on top of it. We’re about 75% to 80% complete, but we can surely do it [by the scheduled handover date].”

Al Omari adds that with the final stages of the project ongoing, he and the team at MMS are eager to open as soon as possible and to start fit-out works with future tenants. He highlights that there has been a strong response from retailers in the region, with booking requests exceeding the area of the mall.

“The market is very positive about this project,” he says. “However, we are responsible for ensuring the correct mix between tenants and their distribution across the various levels of the mall, in order for the final result to match our leasing concept.”

Another challenging aspect of the project has been the design of the mall itself, says Nair, pointing out that there are multiple levels, curved walls and slabs that go in and out. Although it’s a distinctive design that will look beautiful when completed, he admits that the complexity has caused progress to slow as the team works to get every element and part of the project absolutely right.

“Structurally, there are more than a thousanf changes that have had to be done. It’s not that it’s anybody’s mistake, it’s just that a structure of this complexity will need the steel structure to be connected to the concrete properly. The MEP also has to come through everywhere. It takes a lot of coordination and technical planning.”

As a result, there is a large team on-site for the technical coordination, and their job is to supervise the various segments of the job, from structural engineering through to coordination. Their job is made even more difficult due to the lack of BIM on the project, he adds.

“We didn’t have the option of using BIM, because the original software, the drawings that were developed, we were not able to do it at that stage. That made our job more complicated,” Nair relates, but adds that having a strong rapport with the rest of the project stakeholders was vital to the project’s success.

“We have a very good rapport with the consultant, structural engineer and architect, plus we have a good relationship with the client designer as well. So at the initial stages, all the drawings were passed on to us and our technical team coordinated everything, superimposed the drawings and all that, checked it through and found out the flaws.

“A project of this magnitude cannot be done basically with just the design drawings. We have completed more than 2,600 drawings on this project. It’s a huge volume for a project like this. Because of the complexity, we had to do more and more of the design elements, so as to make sure that everything was coordinated properly.

“There have been no major structural repair works done, and there have been no major defects or breakages on the project. To do a project of this complexity, it’s not possible if our design team had not coordinated initially. It’s the teamwork between our design team and LACASA’s design team that made sure everything worked,” he stresses.

As part of the effort to work together, Nair says weekly coordination meetings, project progress review meetings and technical coordination meetings are held with the consultant, contractors, subcontractors and client. With more than 14 subcontractors on the job, it is crucial that everyone is on the same page.

Another aspect of the project that has needed close attention and coordination has been the MEP for the mall. In fact, getting this part of the job right is so important that the MEP team holds a separate weekly coordination meeting to discuss progress on-site.

“For the MEP, the main challenge is that it’s a mall. It requires all these additional features – there’s WiFi, building management systems, security features and more. To get all of this together and coordinate it is very difficult,” he explains.

“The client is also very insistent that the floor height be maintained. For a 6m slab, for example, he wants 4.7m as a minimum. That means that you’re only left with 1.3m of space, and in that the slab itself is 300cm. So you’re left with 1m to fit the AC ducting, the fire lines, the pipes and so on. It’s very difficult. In some areas, we’ve had to go through the beams and put them in there. There was no other way.”

When it comes to the construction of the site itself, Nair says the project is a cast in-situ structure, with precast not an option due to the large number of curves and shapes in the concrete works.

Furthermore, for the steel structure, comprehensive third-party testing was done for each element, with not even 5% or 10% of the elements missed. To put this into context, he points out that generally this is a random testing process, with between 25% to 30% of elements tested. However, for this project, each component was tested first at the manufacturing facilities in Sharjah and in other parts of the UAE, before being further processed and transported to site.

Logistics has been another challenge for the team, given that it is a fast-track project with more than 1,400 works on-site at peak. Not only was work conducted in two shifts, 24 hours a day, the team also had to cope with working in an area with limited accessibility and space around it, given its proximity to a major highway and residential areas.

“The programme, from the beginning, was a fast-track project. We had two shifts working on it, day and night. The major concreting works were done during the night shift so as to avoid major delays. We have a very good relationship with Dubai Municipality and the RTA. We utilised those relationships to take an entire stretch of road outside the site. There would have been a lot of difficulties getting materials in otherwise.”

Not having a proper laydown area for materials also posed a problem for the team, and once again the Airolink team was forced to adapt and improvise.

“The steel structure sites go down to the basement, so from the beginning we have allotted this area as the place where we’ll keep incoming materials. No work has been done in that area yet. Once the steel structure starts coming in, the materials that are currently inside will be moved out. These are about 1,000sqm each in area.

“We have set up the tower cranes in such a way that they’re easily accessible to this area. We restricted it to two tower cranes. Originally there were four cranes planned, but we brought it down to two. This is a project that needs to be accessible from all four sides, and with the tower cranes, we’re limiting the tonnage and maximum loads that can be carried. What we’ve done instead is use mobile cranes around the perimeter, along with the tower cranes and boom loaders to lift in and bring in all the materials.”

At present there are 1,000 workers on-site; there were 1,400 at peak construction. Despite these large numbers, Nair is proud to report that there have been no major accidents, with the health and safety record currently perfect.

“We have a very strong safety team with us. There’s a senior safety manager, who’s our manager across the UAE, there are two safety officers each on the day and night shifts respectively, and all of us [the on-site leadership team] are committed to directly imposing safety principles. There’s no separate team here, we all want that the safety standards are there. It’s a direct instruction from our managing director, Dr Anil Pillai, that we have to make sure that we’re working safe.

“He’s very clear about this. This company is based on labour, and he’s been crystal clear about this – if nothing else, the labour has to be kept safe. There are continuous, regular toolbox meetings, plus we have separate meetings for new activities. That is, for each activity, before it starts, there is a task briefing. It’s full-on, we take care of everything and only then do we start the work,” he concludes.

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