Site Visit: The new Heriot-Watt University Dubai campus and building on values

Currently in the middle of a fit out by Khansaheb, the Heriot-Watt University Dubai campus will be in a class of its own when it opens in January 2021

The UAE is regarded as one of the more mature education markets in the GCC region, and has attracted investor interest from some of the most prestigious institutes from around the world, including the likes of New York University in Abu Dhabi, and Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, amongst many others.

Education has long been considered a key element in the GCC’s drive towards economic diversification and sustainable development. The UAE, in particular, has led this charge towards making investment in higher education a key priority. This comes as no surprise, given that the 18-24 population has been projected to grow at a CAGR of around 2% between 2017 and 2021, a PwC Middle East report says.

With recent reforms extending student visas from one year to five years, and introducing a special 10-year for exceptional students, there is clearly an emphasis on attracting top-tier academic talent – an impression backed up the arrival and growth of several high-ranked universities in the country. These measures are likely to drive up enrolment numbers, with an optimistic scenario being that private enrolment could continue to grow linearly at a CAGR of 3.5%, adding more than 21,000 students by 2021, the report adds.

Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has slowed momentum, universities in the country are banking on enrolment figures resuming their rise, and as such, have begun investing heavily in upgrading and developing their campuses and assets.

One such university is Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, which recently announced that it had awarded the interior fit-out contract for its new campus in Dubai Knowledge Park to Khansaheb Civil Engineering, the locally owned construction company.

In a statement in June, Heriot-Watt said that following a lengthy tender process – which started in 2019 – the university had made the decision to finalise the appointment of Khansaheb in April 2020. The university was assisted and advised in this process by Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), who have also been appointed as project managers for the project.

“There were several reasons why we decided to move to a new campus. We made a commitment to this region to continuously deliver high-quality education and research in Dubai and this move to a brand-new campus in 2021 is part of that,” says Professor Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai, to Big Project ME during an exclusive interview about the project.

“This move plays a key role towards our strategy 2025, which is called Shaping Tomorrow Together. It is a values-led strategy that seeks to embed our four guiding values – Inspire, Collaborate, Belong and Celebrate – into everything we do. Focused on our vision for excellence, our mission to benefit society, and our ethos and values, our strategy expresses what we intend to achieve over the next six years, and that includes offering students the best possible experience.

“Heriot-Watt is a globally connected university and has campuses in Scotland and Malaysia, as well as in Dubai, and key to our Strategy 2025 is being a globally connected university, hence the need for a new digitally enabled campus, with suitable spaces to help link students and staff with their peers and stakeholders globally, not just locally,” he explains.

A key part of the student experience at the new campus is that it is based at the heart of Dubai Knowledge Park. By being centrally located in one of the city’s influential business hubs, students will be able to network with the surrounding business community, Kaka adds.

“We also think that our investment in a new campus is proof of our belief in the economy, even during these unprecedented times. Heriot-Watt can and will help in the economic recovery of Dubai. Not only through our collaborative research initiatives with the business community, but by continuing to attract and develop the best possible talent in the UAE. We expect to see a full recover post-COVID and our investment in the new campus has been made in view of the same,” he states confidently.

A Modern Facility:

The new campus is set to further enhance the student experience through a digitally enabled learning environment that supports the delivery of the University’s portfolio of programmes, which includes Data Science, Computing and AI, Business, Accounting and Finance, as well as Psychology, Architecture and Design, Construction and Engineering.

It will offer students exciting new features, such as a dedicated student hub, significantly more social learning spaces, an engaging library with study spaces, a Maths Gym for Maths support, and a central Student Services Centre for student administration.

Classrooms have been designed to be more interactive, where rather than traditional lecture theatres, there will be two collaborative lecture theatres supporting small group work, as well as whole class teaching.

Kaka adds that considerably more space will be allocated for doctoral students and research fellows than currently available. The new campus will include an in-house recording studio in order to enable and encourage the creation of digital materials, in line with Heriot-Watt’s vision of offering a world-class interactive learning experience.

“The new campus will also include an Enterprise Floor, similar to what has been developed at our campus in Edinburgh, combining our GRID (Global Research Innovation and Discovery) infrastructure and the business incubators at our Edinburgh Business School. The enterprise floor will allow our staff, researchers and students the opportunity to interact and work with business leaders and entrepreneurs,” he says.

“Furthermore, Heriot-Watt University has recently committed to a multi-million-pound investment in robotics infrastructure and research in Edinburgh. In Dubai, we are delighted to announce that we are launching a degree in robotics and our new campus will include a state-of-the-art robotarium as part of its mechanical engineering laboratory.

“The entire design has been planned bearing in mind that the education landscape is dynamic and constantly evolving. For example, we believe that learning is likely to have a blended approach so have ensured the new campus will support that effectively,” he asserts.

By moving to a bigger facility, Heriot-Watt will be able to accommodate a student population of 5,000, and due to the campus being much larger, Kaka hopes students will have more capacity to network, engage in innovative projects, problem solve and work in teams.

Delivering the Campus

In order to deliver such a vital project, Heriot-Watt turned to Khansaheb, one of the most venerable names in the UAE construction industry. With a rich heritage and a reputation for delivering similar projects on time, within budget and consistently meeting key deliverables set, awarding the contractor the project was an easy decision for the university, Kaka says.

“As part of the tendering process, they were able to demonstrate that they have successfully delivered large-scale, bespoke design projects; and as a locally owned company, they have the knowledge and context of how to work efficiently in the region. They also demonstrated their ongoing commitment to the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, which was a key factor during the procurement process.

“The deliverables Heriot-Watt tasked Khansaheb with cover on-time completion, Health and Safety and Quality Assurance. All the deliverables will be benchmarked against stringent performance indicators,” he points out.

With the project commencing work on site in April 2020 and progressing well, in line with the Contract Programme, Ross Trivett, Khansaheb Interiors general manager tells Big Project ME that work is currently 17% complete, and that overall completion is scheduled for December this year.

“The client required a technically strong contractor who could deliver a high-quality product, on time, working in a collaborative, proactive and innovative manner to ensure that the project was executed successfully, while at the same time creating an enjoyable, ‘can-do’ working environment,” he says.

“Due to the current situation, several staff have been working from home during the engineering phase of the project, and this has proven to be challenging as normally workshops would be adopted with all key stakeholders, so as to fast track the required approvals.

“From a construction viewpoint, as the building is shell and core and has only recently been completed and begun commissioning, snagging is ongoing. We have faced some challenges with handover procedures for the Service/Front of House lifts and isolation of the existing services to allow demolition works to commence in certain areas. We have overcome these initial challenges and the construction works are now rapidly progressing,” Trivett outlines.

There are currently just over 240 Khansaheb staff and operatives on site during the day, while the recently commenced night shift has 20 staff members and operatives to expedite the demolition works waste removal, he says.

“At peak during the construction phase, we forecast having between 375 to 400 staff and operatives split between the day and night shift,” he adds, pointing out that all workers and staff members onsite are protected by Khansaheb’s robust Health and Safety standards, which are embedded within the company’s processes and define how things work on site.

“Our K-Standards define the minimum standards for site mobilisation, site setup and worker welfare. They include items such as Five-Point PPE, AC buses for operatives, AC HSE rooms, AC welfare areas for operatives, AC offices for staff, lifts provided for operatives to reach higher floors, filtered and cold drinking water provisions and so on.

“With summer working hours upon us, we have implemented shade covering for external platforms for both deliveries and waste disposal; while water stations will be placed on each floor with electrolytes provided to all on site. Fans and temporary AC units have been placed within the working areas for air circulation and cooling,” Trivett outlines.

Furthermore, pre-start briefings are conducted before activities commence onsite, in line with the Risk Assessment and Method Statements for the works, while toolbox talks are regularly conducted on key project risks, he adds. Operatives are also made aware of changing site conditions, and safety signage in three languages for all operatives and staff to understand is put up across the site.

“At Khansaheb, Health and Safety is our number one priority on all our projects, and we have clear visible Health and Safety leadership from our senior management and Health and Safety manager, who all have a responsibility to carry out frequent, unannounced safety inspections on all projects.

“No works are carried out without an Approved Risk Assessment/Method statement and the pre-start briefing is signed by each operative undertaking the task discussed. Our standards include a card system, where yellow and red cards are issued for non-compliance to HSE requirements. We also regularly hold safety award ceremonies, where operatives and staff are given certificates and prizes for working safely throughout the project, which is a good incentive for all to follow the HSE procedures and guidelines put into place,” he adds.

Due to the threat of COVID-19, Trivett stresses that stringent measures have been put in place to protect staff and operatives, explaining that all authority guidelines are being followed, starting with all personnel entering the building being required to submit to body temperature checks.

“All operatives and staff must wear facemasks and gloves as a mandatory requirement. Sanitisation areas and stations are installed throughout the site, along with signage and toolbox talks conducted for awareness and requirements around social distancing and hygiene. The number of operatives allowed in the lifts are restricted and we have spaced tables and chairs in the welfare area to maintain distance for all operatives during breaks.

“We have clearly marked red circles throughout the main access routes and waiting areas to indicate distance required between operatives when queuing. The transport of operatives is limited to 50% capacity, allowing only one operative per row on either side of the bus to maintain social distancing. All high touch points throughout the site have dedicated resource allocated to ensure they are regularly cleaned,” Trivett clarifies.

The construction programme for the project has been structured so as to work from the top down, Trivett explains, with work starting on level six and working down through to the floors to the ground floor. Each level has been phased into five separate areas that is managed with dedicated supervision and resources to ensure that the programme is achieved. Each trade commencing with demolition will start on level six and work from North to South towards the material hoist, he says.

Despite the crisis, Trivett says that only minor issues have been encountered during the engineering period, with some engineering delayed due to the late receipt of material samples from international suppliers.

“As the works are now progressing, procurement, manufacture and delivery of materials is critical and this is closely being tracked and monitored to ensure deliveries are received in line with project programme requirements,” he states. “Some of the key early work packages materials have been airfreighted to us, so as to achieve their programme dates.”

Kaka adds that the biggest uncertainty during the procurement process has been the impact of COVID-19 and asserts that Heriot-Watt has been at the forefront, working with all stakeholders to resolve issues.

“The supply chain of materials was affected by the outbreak and we have therefore been extremely careful to work with project managers, designers and a contractor who could work with Heriot-Watt University Dubai to help share and solve any challenges,” he says.

“Materials are being procured from all around the globe as specified for the project. We have procured materials in-line with the delivery required at site dates, and have airfreighted materials as required to meet programme dates,” Trivett adds, pointing out that the project team uses a detailed procurement schedule to track and monitor deliveries. As a result, any potential delays are flagged early, and alternative plans are put in place to mitigate any potential delay.

The Next Phase

As work continues to progress smoothly, the new campus is scheduled to open in January 2021. This will mark the next step in the university’s journey, which has thus far seen it offer internationally recognised and first-class education in Dubai for 14 years. With the university operating five campuses across the UK, as well as one in Malaysia, the new campus in Dubai is shaping up to be a clear embodiment of Heriot-Watt’s values and influences, Kaka says.

“Heriot-Watt was one of the first international campuses to set up in the UAE, and we have always played a leading role in higher education in the region. The new state of the art campus is our next phase of development in Dubai and we hope that it will inspire others and help continue to push the academic landscape in the UAE forward.

“We were very mindful with regards to design and planning the campus, especially as education is constantly evolving and having to take a more blended approach. Our values – inspire, collaborate, belong and celebrate – underpin who we are, how we behave and the ways we work together across every aspect of the University. This approach is embedded at every level of the organisation and has greatly influenced our building design,” Kaka concludes.

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