Abu Dhabi's NBAD banks on style

As the first construction work on NBAD's giant new global headquarters on Al Maryah Island gets set to start this summer, the bank's head of premises and architect Gensler talk about the ambitious project.

Gensler's design for the new NBAD headquarters is meant to embody the bank's increasing global prominence, says its head of facilities. Sarah Dea / The National
Powered by automated translation

Looming over Abu Dhabi's financial free zone like a partly cut deck of giant playing cards, the new global headquarters of National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) is set to be yet another grand vision of the future.

Working on the city's unofficial motto of "if you build it they will come", construction work on the 31-storey, 67,300 square metre Gensler-designed tower is due to start this summer on Al Maryah island close to the Sowwah Square scheme as the bank seeks to accommodate the vast numbers of new staff it expects to take on in the coming years.

But that's not the half of it: the new global headquarters will be used by NBAD in addition to its existing NBAD Towers headquarters in Khalifa Street, which will be retained for the domestic banking business, and a third office tower in Khalidiya, which will be used for the bank's operational business. And the lender is planning to start work on a new headquarters for its Northern Emirates staff in Dubai over the coming months.

"The building will take about 4,000 staff. At the moment I think we have around 2,400," says Ayad Mohammed Ahmed, the head of bank premises and facilities management at NBAD. "I can tell you there will be only a few floors empty and they will fill up in no time.

"The bank today is not like it was eight years ago. Between 1990 and 2009 the bank grew 10 times in profits," he says. "Now it is full there, it is full here, it is full everywhere. And we are renting the surrounding buildings here and there. We are paying too much rent. Can you imagine what will happen in the three or four years until our building is ready?" he adds.

Built in a similar style to Barclays' recently completed building on the Canary Wharf estate in London, Mr Ahmed says the new global headquarters is designed to send a message to the world.

"NBAD always ties itself to Abu Dhabi and its success is Abu Dhabi's success. So we were moved to pick a design that would best suit Abu Dhabi's vision," he says.

"The National Bank of Abu Dhabi aspires to be the next trendsetter. We're not going to make it as good as them, we're going to make it better. And the NBAD building should embody all of that. We are the Barclays of Abu Dhabi. We are the Citibank of Abu Dhabi.

"NBAD is the champion of Abu Dhabi and if not the top bank in the UAE then certainly one of the top banks, so our facade aims to encapsulate the optimism of the UAE and the vision of 2030."

And as well as offices for 4,000 people, the vast new edifice is designed to include a hub branch of NBAD that both regular customers and VIP customers can use as well as a vault, safety deposit boxes, a 400-seat auditorium, cafes, restaurants and sumptuous executive floors.

According to the bank, excavation work to dig eight storeys below the ground has already started and construction is set to begin in the third quarter of the year.

Having bought the land for the new headquarters three years ago from Mubadala for Dh400 million, NBAD then set about selecting an architect to design it from among the most prestigious firms in the world.

"First of all we made investigations all over the world for all bank buildings. We studied 20 or 30 architects from all over the world, all the major financial hubs - at New York, London, Hong Kong, all over - and we are really sure that we will not only be equal to them, we will be more than them," says Mr Ahmed.

"That was the basis for selecting the consulting firms. Do they have enough experience? Then we shortlisted eight international firms - the ones we thought could do such projects."

Then, to judge the entries, NBAD set up a special committee of building experts, urban planning experts and the bank's top brass to evaluate each of the submissions based on a detailed set of criteria including aesthetics, functionality, cost and environmental impact.

"The technical criteria took up about 20 pages to analyse, the financial took just a few pages. All of these together allowed the jury to come up with a mark or a rating for each of the submissions. None of them could tick 100 per cent," Mr Ahmed says. "[The UK architect Lord] Norman Foster did not get the best rank. He got about 70 something. The most acceptable one got a mark of 86 per cent. Still that means he still has some gaps to fill here and there. You can select him as the best. When you award him the job you can sit with him until you fill all the gaps to come with 100 per cent."

The American firm Gensler's winning design comprises a single block covered in aluminium fins and divided into two thin towers by a symmetrical central core.

"It's a very square building and the space layout internally is very efficient," says Tareq Abu-Sukheila, the managing director at Gensler. "We actually came up with five design concepts and this one was selected. They really liked the formal look and solidity of the building."

Vertical fins, ranging between 30 and 45 centimetres in width, shade the glass building from direct sunlight and make the shape of the NBAD logo on the facade.

"The building is huge," says Mr Abu-Sukheila. "Including parking spaces, in total it will be about 1.5 million square feet. And part of the building is actually built in the water. It is very ambitious."

Currently Gensler is designing the sumptuous penthouse office interiors for NBAD's 10 highest executives and the fit-out for the lavish top-management dining area.

"What we have here is very custom-made and traditional with very specific rugs and woods. We are looking at some finishes with hand-woven carpets and silk," says Mr Abu-Sukheila.

"Carpets, marble floors, high-end woods, very fancy leather seats, customised lighting fixtures. Most clients are going for modern western design, Italian furniture, but a bit more luxury."

Much of the firm's time has been spent devising ingenious ways to allow the various categories of people using the building access to it while keeping them separate.

"The accessibility of staff and visitors has to be carefully considered," adds Mr Abu-Sukheila.

"There is a specific access for visitors and access for staff and access for VIPs and top management as well. So when we designed the building we had to consider those four types of people."

"We are trying very much to accommodate the culture within this region and culturally here, the top management usually have their own lifts - it's the same thing with the VIPs. The NBAD board consists of some of the Royal Family so they will not go as part of the regular staff lift or visitors from outside."