The Dunes: It’s all in the soil make-up

After nine months of mixing, blending and digging, five holes have been completed on The Dunes golf course in Dubai Sports City. With a total of 200,000 tonnes of soil due to be laid on site on completion of the project Christopher Sell visited the other side of Dubai to see if the grass really is greener.

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By  Christopher Sell Published  September 30, 2006

|~|139proj200.gif|~|Specialist employees of Septech-Turnpoint prepare the ground near one of the course lakes. At present, over two million litres of water per day is being used, and this will rise to six million when the golf course is fully operational.|~|Nine months on from the start of construction, The Dunes, an Ernie Els-designed championship course in the heart of Dubai Sports City is on course to finish on schedule in early summer 2007. With five holes completed and nine fairways grassed, work is proceeding to the satisfaction of the Septech-Turnpoint team, which is responsible for the work.

To date, more than two million m3 of earth has been moved to form the course and surrounding residential sites, and it is estimated it will take over 6,000 man-hours of driving various types of bulldozer by the two ‘shapers’ to create the design of the course.

But more progress brings more complications. Neil Gardner, project manager, Septech-Turnpoint explains that you cannot simply just put grass down and water it in the searing heat of the Gulf.

It has to be a specific type of grass, laid over a particular constructed base, which imparts the qualities enabling grass to be supported. Top soiling of the fairways is the current task; 200,000 tonnes of soil must be spread in a 200mm layer, which must conform to the architects’ designs, and painstakingly crafted by machine and hand. And this is before Gardner has even started on the construction of the greens.

Not only do they require particularly specialised sand obtainable only from Saudi Arabia, it also has to conform to US Golf Association methods of construction.

“The sand alone won’t support any growth and we have to mix an exact proportion of peat with it – I have had to import a special blender from the US for this specific purpose – we are currently mixing 6% [peat], by volume, and it takes about two days to mix enough for one green. And every three greens I blend I have to send a sample of the mix to the US to ensure it conforms. I have already sent 20 samples off to get the blend correct,” says Gardner.

To maintain the quality of the greens, they have to be constructed in a particular way, involving a ‘perched’ water table. This incorporates a layer of gravel laid over the prescribed area, then 100mm of specified gravel before a layer of sand is laid to an exact depth.

Should these specifications be correct, water should not run through, but rather ‘perch’ between the layer of gravel and sand – held by capillary action. As a result, the sand won’t compact and the grass will stay healthy, in theory, for a few hundred years.

Surprisingly, to construct the green to such accurate depths and designs, high-tech construction methods are discarded in favour of a more traditional approach, where depth is gauged manually with the use of grading stakes for both sand and gravel.

Probes are then used to strike the gravel to ensure the make-up is correct. Tolerance within 25mm is acceptable. Shapers are then sent out to ensure the green conforms to the plans. Despite being a laborious and time consuming process, Gardner says that three of the greens were completed in one week.

But is there not a more automated process that could speed the process up and alleviate this reliance on manual labour?
“There is a company in Australia that is using GPS-controlled machinery,” Gardner says.

“However, we believe with golf course construction, the architect will put a design in front of us, the shapers will shape it and then there is an opportunity to change that design because no matter how good an architect is there is still that opportunity to tweak it at the end. If you are going purely on GPS you lose that flexibility.”

Relying on such a system Gardner says was too mechanical
and resulted in more rounded shapes that do not appear natural and are patently man-made. “When machines work they tend to work around things and make them more symmetrical, and we have to say ‘no, we want it sharp on one side and sloping on the other’,” he adds.

Architectural issues aside, Gardner highlights other challenges that the team must face. One of these relates to the transportation difficulties inherent in importing turf from Australia and the lack of control over the process.

“Leaving Australia, where it is 8°C (refrigerated) and landing in Dubai where its 50°C is a bit of a problem.” It takes just 30 minutes for fresh grass to die and so far Gardner has spent US $45,000 (AED165,284) on imported grass, $81,000 including the greens. “We are doing something we know from
our education we shouldn’t be doing, and it is asking a lot of the grass,” he says.

“Workers are another issue. You cannot just use labour hire companies. Because our job is so specific everyone has to have some degree of training for all the specialised work and equipment. We have chosen to import them and do the visas and train them as we go, which is working really well.”

There are 65 such employees working with Septech-Turnpoint and the company is hopeful they will stay for the duration of the construction process. Two varieties of grass are used on the construction, imported from either Australia or the US.

For the fairways, 419 Bermuda is the grass of choice, while for the greens it is TifEagle, but the latter does prove more expensive. “TifEagle is still under breeders rights so every square metre we plant we have to pay $0.22 to the person who grows it,” says Gardner.

Once grass has been laid, it must then be watered every three minutes every day for two weeks before the watering can be relaxed as the grass takes hold in the soil.

Phenomenal amounts are required to keep this grass happy and to that end a state-of-the-art sprinkler system, costing $2.7 million and featuring approximately 2,000 sprinkler heads is being installed.

Intelligent sensors located on the top of the sprinklers are connected via 600km-long irrigation network under the course to a central computer which acts as the brains of the system enabling different sequences to be programmed.

“You can water what you want, when you want and where you want it,” says Gavin Reid, installations manager, Septech. “Each hole is separately isolated, so if at any stage we wish to isolate it we can. As each sprinkler is individual, you get really good control of the entire system, which in an environment such as this, is very good.”

Reid says that measured against golf courses in Australia he has already installed 18 holes’ worth of sprinklers in seven holes. To accommodate this system, 47km of pipework must be laid of which the lateral pipework is currently being installed.

To sustain such vast quantities of water (two million litres of water a day increasing to six million litres when fully operational) a water treatment plant is to be built within Dubai Sports City.

Consequently all the water that is used in the houses, offices and shops will come into the treatment plant before being pumped out for course and landscape irrigation.

In case of failure (as occurred three weeks ago) at the pump
station, a back-up pump takes over. Gardner adds that an agreement has been signed with Dubai Municipality, which will donate a set amount of water per year as a contingency. The lakes located within the course hold approximately five days of irrigation, so within five days more water must be sourced otherwise the course will suffer.

With recent figures from the World Wildlife Fund revealing that Dubai has one of the highest per capita water consumption figures in the world – three times that of London, it is not surprising that golf course construction, especially in such harsh locations as Dubai, are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Gardner, however, states that international guidelines are now in place that must be adhered to and perhaps encouragingly, believes the issue of water supply should not be overplayed and is optimistic the situation will only improve.

“With Dubai developing as quickly as it is and the infrastructure they’re planning, I cannot believe water supply is going to be a problem. I believe there is more water now than they can [actually] distribute,” he says. For The Dunes, Dubai Sports City, Dubailand and Dubai itself, let’s hope he is right.||**||

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