With offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Riyadh and Montreal, U+A knows every nuance of the journey from local to international. Project director Malcolm Macleod discusses the ‘X factor’ that drives the business and distinguishes its work
U+A has often been quoted as saying that clients are different in every market, and its multinational profile suggests it’s well-placed to comment. We’re bound to ask then, what’s so distinctive about clients here in the UAE?
“I think there’s a maturity in our immediate market Dubai which we all have to appreciate”, says Malcolm Macleod, project director at U+A. “For example, the larger development companies are committed to achieving projects within particular datelines and they harness their energy towards this end with a focus on the timeline. That’s very much a local hallmark and we appreciate that, because from our side, we believe that a motivated client with a reason to do things is the best kind to have.”
“We’ve noticed that in other regions there tends to be an inordinate amount of time spent on decision-making; Whereas in this region – Dubai in particular – has a grasp on how best to achieve project goals. We’ve all seen what I call the ‘uptake’: the market demands the highest quality product and enjoys the project that results.”
He elaborates, “I like to put it this way. The respect this region has for the end-user – for the occupancy of developments – is what allows us to grow and have that continued demand for better places of habitation and places of work.
U+A’s work with Emaar in particular has been widely celebrated, but has it provided lessons for other collaborations? “Whilst we’ve had some time,” says Malcolm, “with one of the more dominant developers in the region, this doesn’t mean that we have the same expectations from everyone. We welcome the experience of working with different personalities and thresholds. In fact, I feel that being able to respond to and understand every scale of client is actually a critical aspect to the ongoing strength of our portfolio.”
A Signature ‘X Factor’?
Speaking to Macleod about the firm, which also has offices in Abu Dhabi, London, Riyadh and Montreal and whether its work is immediately distinguishable from other work in the market, Macleod makes an interesting statement.
“Well, I know that architecture is a very visual medium, but it may perhaps surprise you to hear that we don’t necessarily see visual themes as our key consideration; it isn’t necessarily a particular visual style. I have to say that if you’re looking for a thread across our work, it isn’t quite as easy as that!”
He expands, “Instead, maybe you’ll have to look at the smiles on the faces of the people we’re building for and who live in those communities. It’s all about respecting that community and making people better. This is an experiential value, not purely visual. Of course, having said that, when a ‘signature’ look is called for, we’ll be happy to oblige.”
U+A’s international presence necessitates an awareness of the latest construction and structural mediums, as well as insights into requirements and challenges in multiple markets. Asked whether 3D printing technology is an opportunity for innovation that the firm is now widely adopting, Macleod reveals a lot about the current state of technology and its actual usable applications.
He comments, “Certainly, 3D printing is an opportunity for construction, but at the moment it is just that – an interesting opportunity. In terms of working applications, it is still in its infancy. So, the question is, how can we develop this technology and push it to its boundaries? There are limits to that boundary, because right now, 3D printing is an experiment. Rather than see it as the be-all and end-all, the more significant question is how can we use it to augment our ideas and create something more varied and significant?”
Any study of U+A’s portfolio shows that the firm has been quick to grasp the potential of new technology; it’s a core element of the client proposition. How does Macleod see the role of that technology and what are the projects where we can see its hallmark?
He responds, “At the moment, the honest truth is that in our industry, the experimentation with technology to site isn’t fully developed. But we are early adopters – for example, with BIM: it allows us to meet client schedules and gives us the nuance of time to innovate and experiment. There’s no doubt that it gives that extra edge and advantage.”
“In terms of a project where technology has been centre-stage throughout, it’s important to mention The Swiss International Scientific School, in Dubai. It adheres to the Swiss Minergie system for measuring energy in a building – and indeed, it was the first building in a cooled environment ever to meet the Minergie requirements. Coming from a colder, European environment, the Minergie protocols were of course usually applied in a heated environment. The whole school can literally be dismantled and – with the exception of the concrete skeleton – be recycled wall panel by wall panel. I really do mean the entire building!”
He elaborates, “It has the lowest power consumption per sqm anywhere in the region. This is a measurable specific, and something quite different from the kind of regulations and performance criteria we’re familiar with, in something like the LEED standards, for example.”
“LEED encapsulates a whole range of factors, for example, where do the materials come from, what is your insulation value, what is the building’s orientation, etc but this works with the real energy specifics. You have a longer-term benefit, because you have an absolute benchmark measure of what you are using in real time, and when. We take the larger generalisations of the other standards as the starting point, not the finish.”
“I believe that when you’re working to this kind of sustainability goal, it all rolls back to one key question: what do we expect of ourselves when we are delivering an environment to the greater community? It has to be lived in, realised, appropriate and uplifting through every consideration that we make – and these are the elements that we always bring to our designs,” he points out.
The Impact of COVID-19
It has been over one year since COVID-19 began impacting the region, which in turn forced governments and organisations across sectors to pause and reevaluate how they operate and do business. The construction industry though one of the few sectors in the UAE that was allowed to carry on working through the lockdown period, albeit with a raft of safety regulations that are still in play today, is now beginning to green light new projects or move on those that were put on hold in 2020.
Asked about the impact of COVID-19 from his point of view, Macleod notes, “People often ask if the pandemic has led to client briefs that require new kinds of building structure and a greater separation of working areas, and so on. I have to say that the answer is ‘no’. Early on, we were asked to look at ways and structures for separating people and processes, but that call has now disappeared. This is probably because while on the one hand we understand the impact of what’s happened, there’s a level of optimism that rebounds. It’s a normal human condition.”
He expands, “Then again, when it comes to the engineering side, there are factors like air quality, filtration, and so on, and these are definitely getting more attention. Ironically enough, these probably should have always been there. We will definitely be looking after these things moving forward and they’ll become a new baseline.”
“I do, though, see one trend resulting from the pandemic: the market for single housing units has definitely picked up. There has been a notable change in the sense that people are now looking to have their own space and not be part of a multi-story structure,” he notes.
The Growth Story
While COVID-19 and the uncertainty associated with it are still very much of personal and business life, it’s safe to say that the UAE and the broader GCC region is on the road to recovery, as vaccination drives continue, restrictions are eased and tourism begins to come back online. These elements are encouraging firms to look at the second half of the year and beyond with a positive outlook for stabilasation and even growth.
Discussing what factors Macleod sees as most significant in driving the company’s growth and whether there’s a special ‘recipe’ that the firm relies on, he notes, “Our approach may not be unique, but whoever we interact with, they are considered as part of our team. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset here. We always take the view that everyone needs to be included in every decision. We keep our clients close to us and they feel that very directly. This is what I call the U+A hug!”
He concludes, “Our goal is always to ensure that the client succeeds – and after all, that means we have success together, because it reflects on us, too. One more point here: there is also a much bigger picture to consider when we are talking about developers and architects and their impact on society. At the end of the day, successful developers mean successful societies… We really are all in this together.”