Chinese walls

The Gulf should take a leaf from China when it comes to innovative design and build, writes Stephen Corley Anyone paying more than a cursory glance at this column this year will have noticed a hardly overwhelming endorsement of both the style and the manner in which regional property markets have developed.

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By  Stephen Corley Published  September 10, 2006

|~||~||~|The Gulf should take a leaf from China when it comes to innovative design and build, writes Stephen Corley Anyone paying more than a cursory glance at this column this year will have noticed a hardly overwhelming endorsement of both the style and the manner in which regional property markets have developed. The dearth of objective analysis available, clouded as it is in self-interest and the barrage of wildly optimistic forecasting, makes a healthy forum on the subject difficult. Whether or not we are in a property bubble or whether those who rent are idiots compared to the savant like foresight of those who buy is irrelevant. But if we can move away for a moment from the emotions engendered by such discussions, there does seem to be a mismatch between client expectations and the reality of the delivered product. The growing dissatisfaction of Middle Eastern property buyers stems not only from the poor quality of build materials and services but also in the homogeneity of design and the “one size fits all” approach. The novelty factor may have worked for the 13,000 individuals who have taken delivery of their properties but if we are to believe the projections for inward migration, then I doubt that copycat, mass build estates will attract the calibre of person both the city and the Emirates require. Frankly the buyer deserves more; therefore, I’m glad that Emaar have opened an office in Shanghai. Developments in this fast growing city offer an interesting alternative to our current experiences. In Songjiang, 30km outside China’s commercial capital, the municipal government has built a centre of education and technology, which houses nine universities, 100,000 students and staff, a few high tech factories and one of the world’s biggest shopping malls. A railway will take commuters into the centre of Shanghai in less than 20 minutes. It’s part of a government plan to re-house 500,000 people out of an overcrowded Shanghai and into China’s newly launched suburbs. Thames Town, is one of seven satellite towns nearing completion on these suburban fringes. Its six siblings have been designed in a variety of architectural styles adopted from Italy, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Holland and Germany. Thames Town boasts all the essential accoutrements of a long forgotten England, the village green, red telephone boxes and mock-Tudor pub selling real ale. For a cost of $370m, the scheme has seen 500 years of British architectural exploration squeezed into a few hectares and built from scratch in little over three years. The developers, Atkins, no strangers to increasingly bizarre themed development, said: “We are aware of the Disneyland implications. This could become a joke if built in the wrong way. But this is a working community. Compared with other Chinese towns, it will be a pleasant place to live.” Foreign visitors, Shanghai planning officials have said, will soon be unable to tell where Europe ends and China begins, a feeling well known in reverse to anyone venturing through one of the several streets leading off Leicester Square in London to the Chinatown area in Soho. What is truly interesting about this particular plan is that Atkins have managed to pull of a huge number of architectural styles, importing quality original materials (apart from the English style slate roofs, which interestingly come from China anyway) and deliver 8000 units, on time, at a total cost of less than Dhs1.4 billion. The completed units range in price from $100k for a small apartment to $500,000 for the largest villas. If one considers that the top price paid there is about the minimum entry level for a villa in Dubai and that Shanghai is a frenetically growing city in the world’s most dynamic economy, then two conclusions are possible. Either UAE property is seriously overpriced on subjective analysis or that more innovative styling could be made available here at less than the costs normally associated with recent residential property developments. Dubai Properties announced recently that work has started on its new residential development in Al Quoz, which will deliver 8,000 housing units, with an estimated value of the project placed at over Dhs2 billion. If this heralds the start of innovative building design then it is to be welcomed. If, however, we are in for the suburban Legoland experiments of late, then the planners may have much to learn from the Chinese. Stephen Corley is a business consultant with experience in fund and asset management. ||**||

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