Building the future, block by block, in Dubai
DUBAI - The Middle East construction scene is booming as never before, with nations vying with each other to set the stage for the ambitious development plans they have for the coming decade.
The UAE leads the way with its World Expo 2020 preparations and Qatar is right on its heels with eyes firmly set on FIFA World Cup 2022. Saudi Arabia’s Economic Cities promise to be as spectacular as the sets of an animated science fiction movie and the rest of the Middle East is developing its infrastructure at unprecedented rates, with expectations of increased tourist footfall in the region.
With so much happening simultaneously at breakneck speed, it is no longer viable to rely solely on traditional construction options. The need of the hour is a set of options that guarantee sustainability, speed, safety and economic feasibility and offer quicker return on investment. Something like a set of “green” LEGO blocks, which can be manipulated to form shapes and structures limited only by the player’s imagination.
Enter shipping containers! Yes, those steel mammoths that lie abandoned in lots, taking up space and waiting for a new lease of life.
They may well be the solution capable of meeting the growing demand for construction alternatives. The proof lies in splendid developments worldwide such as London’s Box Park, Re:Start of Christchurch, Amsterdam’s Keetwonen Student Dormitory and the container cities cropping up in different urban pockets.
Dubai, with its typical receptiveness to innovative ideas, has embraced the technology with fervour. The city is home to the first permanent container building in the MENA region. It was built by Smart Box Industries LLC as headquarters for Geo-Chem Middle East in TechnoPark in 2013.
Geo-Chem’s 1,240 sq. m headquarters was made out of 42 units of 12.1-metre high cube containers, and is a typical commercial building.
Arjun Menon, managing director of Smart Box Industries, has this to say about why he ventured into something thus far unexplored in the Middle East context: “Though the idea of upcycling containers was new to the region, we were confident that it will revolutionise the region’s construction industry. We had the technology, expertise and raw materials – all we needed was a client willing to take a bold stance.”
And Geo-Chem Middle East, convinced by the viability of the technology, was keen to be the region’s trendsetter in the technology.
Container conversion, popularly known as “cargotecture”, has gained increased acceptance and momentum in Dubai. Many new, cutting-edge developments have incorporated cargotecture, notably the Box Park Al Wasl with its 220 shipping containers forming a unique architectural design with an eclectic mix of colours, and Pocket Park in Dubai Design District (D3), which boasts wind towers made of vertically placed containers.
Containers are also being used as pop-up venues for events and exhibitions, Container construction is also gaining official recognition in the UAE, with the advent of sustainable bus stops made out of used 6-metre containers. The project is the brainchild of United Arab Emirates University students enrolled under the Carbon Ambassador Programme (CAP). Mamunni Vellaparambil, of Consolidated Contractors International Company (CCIC) which is leading the construction phase of the project, says, “We foresee the project kicking up a storm and the demand will gradually rise for the new concept.”
The region is obviously waking up to the fact that shipping containers are the building blocks of the future. Not only do they provide visually engaging structures that adapt themselves to any design aesthetics, they also offer the most feasibility, in terms of cost, speed of construction, safety and durability, not to mention decreased on-site labour and the ease of assembly line production within the factory.
What makes shipping containers the ideal building material?
To begin with, shipping containers — or ISBU – Intermodal Steel Building Units — are made of Cor- Ten steel, a special “weathering” alloy of anti-corrosive metals, which loses a mere 1.0 mm of surface per 100 years to corrosion when unpainted. When coated with epoxy paints and maintained well, the lifespan is virtually infinite, providing a perfect weather resistant structural surface.
As Cor-Ten steel is not subject to cracks or plaster decay, which renders structurally damaging biological growth impossible as is habitual with traditional construction, an ISBU epitomises sustainability, recyclability, durability and longevity. Built to transport goods safely in a “hostile dynamic maritime environment”, containers are stacked up seven units high on ships. On terra firma, they can go up many more levels without affecting safety in the least.
Even more appealing is the sustainability aspect of cargotecture and the fact that it is one of the most environmentally friendly construction options available today. Lending itself easily to insulation and other sustainable options, a container building can be the most energy efficient structure of any development.
Additionally, made up to 98% of recycled material which are further recyclable, a container building also calls for minimum foundations to be dug, with least impact on land. This allows land to be restored to its original condition upon dismantling the structure once it has run its course.
“The shipping container is here to stay. It is the perfect building block for the future. Whether as single units for urban retail spaces and public toilets, or as more complex multi-storey buildings for hotels, apartments or offices,” Arjun Menon remarked.