Building the future, block by block, in Dubai

Friday 24/04/2015
\'Cargotecture\' at work 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.