A tour of the inner reaches of a UAE skyscraper

The National finds out exactly what facilities management looks and sounds like on the ground - and in the air.
View of Burj Khalifa and Business Bay area from the Ubora Commercial Tower in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
View of Burj Khalifa and Business Bay area from the Ubora Commercial Tower in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

In the belly of a 52-storey tower in Dubai’s Business Bay district, an orange-clad technician toils inside a machine. He kneels over a motor, contemplatively, aware that If something does go wrong; if the air conditioning breaks down, if the water pump floods, he has to answer to his supervisor. His supervisor has to answer to his manager. His manager has the whole of Ubora commercial tower to answer to.

“We have security services, we have cleaning services and we do maintenance. Apart from that we have additional services; we manage shuttle buses, we provide office support; stationery supplies and cradle-cleaning for the external facade, Then we have maintenance technicians of each category: air conditioning, electical, plumbing,” says Tareq Parvez, facility manager at Farnek, before a window-framed view of Burj Khalifa.

The size of the UAE property sector is no secret to anyone who has ever stepped into the shadows of its glitzy towers. But behind the glass facade is a symbiotic relationship between property development and an industry which simultaneously feeds on and sustains it – facilities management.

Almost US$22 billion was spent on facilities management across the GCC in 2012, according to a report by Credo, a facilities management strategy consultancy. Dubai, it says, it expected to benefit from the fastest facilities management growth in the region, bolstered by high GDPs and construction growth.

The sector has not only grown in size over the past decade, but also in scope, with companies growing from small, specialised entities to large, multi-faceted corporations.

Taking The National on a facilities management tour of the three-year-old Ubora tower, Mr Parvez begins with the elevators. “These are the second-fastest elevators in the UAE,” hesays. The building operates a network of 26 lifts, with three separate elevator groups for the lower floors up to floor 26, the middle floors from 27 to 40 and the higher floors from 41 to 52. He adds: “We receive third-party certification for the lifts every six months to check their load-bearing capacity and safety components. We have third party certification for our cradles too.”

They certainly are fast, rocketing up to the 41st floor so quickly that ears begin to pop. The maintenance floors, sandwiched between storeys accessible by normal lifts, are themselves accessible using only service elevators or the stairs. Mr Parvez opts for the stairs, walking down a floor to the elusive higher technical floor, M2.

The maintenance floors of Ubora tower are a sight to behold. To many, the term “maintenance floor” might conjure up social realist images of perspiring engineers banging tools against pipes in claustrophobic and concrete-walled rooms. A more glamorous stereotype might even set the scene to musique concrète. However, in Ubora’s case, neither could be further from the truth.

M2 is home to the facilities management offices, where supervisors coordinate activities and host weekly toolbox training sessions. There are 36 topics to cover, and all sessions aim to mitigate the risk of accidents and mistakes. Sampath Desilva, senior MEP supervisor, says: “We teach them how to use the tools, about [different types of] accidents, risk assessment, confined work, working in the heat, how to use scaffoldings – all of this, and what precautions they should take.”

The floor begins as a series of conservative corridors, barren but light, and, equally importantly, clean. It sports a locker room and a recreation hall; a large room with marvellous panoramic views of the Dubai skyline, along with table tennis and badminton for facilities management staff, property managers and landlords. However, with occupancy at around 68 per cent and plenty of work to be done, the recreation room in not used very often any more, laughs Mr Parvez.

Mr Farnek’s Ubora team of 46 includes cleaners, security guards, maintenance technicians, concierges and receptionists. It outsources other specialist services, such as pest control and elevator and CCTV maintenance. The mechanical floors are where the “hard” service staff, ie those who work in mechanical, engineering and plumbing, are based. “Soft” services, on the other hand, include cleaning, security and other non-mechanical roles.

The recreation room also offers the tour’s first glimpse of heavy machinery: a network of pipes weaving around what looks to be a huge funnel-tipped vacuum cleaner, which meets the wall. This is the fresh air handling unit, used to draw in fresh air from outside and circulate it into the building’s air supply. Mr Parvez says: “But if we just take in that hot air and give it to the [AC] units, then it’ll affect cooling of the existing units. So, there is a process inbetween, in which we reduce that 45° [Celcius] air to 35°.”

Mr Parvez opens a nearby machine, which reveals an almost cabin-esque interior, lit with a warm overhead light. It is, again, spacious and clean inside. A heat recovery wheel slowly revolves, cooling the air it is fed by around 10°C. After this, a cooling coil takes the air down to 21 or 22°C and it is then ready to be fed to the units around the building.

Opposite the machine is a series of terminals, with luminous, brightly coloured buttons that almost look like controls to an archaic arcade game.

The main technical room on the floor dispels all dark and grimy preconceptions. It is of minimalist appearance, with large machines spread out far apart, in front of another lovely panoramic view. It is a peaceful, quiet atmosphere. However, it is also where the buildings keeps another of its four fresh air handling units and a series of water tanks.

On floor 27, Mr Desilva points out the hallway lights use sensors to turn themselves off automatically after 15 minutes. Sustainability plays an important role in facilities management. Given that Farnek manages all the building’s common areas, and has contracts with Ubora tenants too, it is expected to minimise the amounts of energy and resources consumed across the board.

Mr Parvez adds: “In the lift lobby and corridor areas, we have 12-volt to 15-watt spotlights, so on each floor you will find around 45 to 50 spotlights. Since we are a green company, we have to think about the items that are recyclable also. So, we have proposed LED lighting solutions to replace the lamps. No doubt the initial cost will be high to the landlords, but in the long run it will not only be cost-effective to them, but there will be good energy savings.”

Another proposal is a water-saving solution: installing aerators on taps to reduce the current discharge of 11 gallons per minute to 5 gallons per minute.

Mr Parvez, again, walks downstairs to the buildings lower mechanical floor, M1 – nestled between floors 26 and 27. This floor boasts chilled water pumps, which receives 4.5°C water from the district cooling service provider Empower and pumps it throughout the building at 13°C.

On the ground floor is the security headquarters, which is, ironically, louder than any area encountered so far. Visitors are met by a crescendo of whirring and groaning machinery, and an Orwellian mosaic of CCTV monitors. Every CCTV feed in the building is displayed simultaneously on a wall of screens – besides a stack of DVD recorders.

Dozens of fire alarm cables climb up the wall, like rows of red liquorice, while a security guard picks up a white phone without buttons – so discreet one would assume it was a direct line to the White House. This, however, it is not. It is merely an intercom connected to the car park security barrier.

In the basement is the electrical room – a corridor of terminals, monitors and what appear to be plus-sized fuseboxes. The building receives its power from Dewa in its five main distribution boards. This is then transferred to smaller sub-main distribution boards, which then distribute it to distribution boards, which, in turn, send this to the tower’s tenants. The room is awash with more coloured, flashing buttons.

The basement also receives chilled water from the energy solutions company Empower, sending it through a district cooling system of heat exchangers and chilled water pumps, before circulating it up to the first maintenance floor between floors 26 and 27. From here, it is pumped up to the top of the tower, along with air circulated through two air handling units – one of which is on M2, between floors 40 and 41.

Mr Parvez then takes the tour up again, to the still-unoccupied 52nd floor. It is well kept but completely void of furniture. The view is remarkable in all directions; the city stretching out towards Abu Dhabi in one direction, towards Sharjah in another, and yet another towards the barren desert. Countless clusters of towers loom over foundations and half-built constructions. Despite this, there is still clearly much land to build on. On the side facing Burj Khalifa, a trolley begins creeping into sight from above. Two window cleaners dressed in orange wave and give thumbs-up signals. An unenviable task.


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Published: June 14, 2014 04:00 AM


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