Life spent at the drawing board

Elias Daniel, a Lebanese architect who has worked in the UAE for 34 years, is responsible for shaping much of Dubai's skyline. He reflects on the change in focus he has witnessed across the industry and reveals his latest passion in post-crunch construction philosophy.

Anyone entering Elias Daniel's Emirates Hills home in Dubai could be forgiven for wondering if they had somehow been transported to renaissance Europe.

Hand-blown Murano glass sconces curve away from the walls, Italian marble lies underfoot, while hand-painted frescoes of frolicking angels adorn the ceiling arches. "This one is about 100 years old," says Mr Daniel, pointing to a sculpture of the Madonna that he says once belonged to a Belgian baroness. "The seller told me it is a museum piece." The decidedly un-Arabian decor fits the architect's sensibility. He spent five years designing the home to reflect a global aesthetic. That philosophy has also shaped his practice.

"In architectural history, every country has its own heritage and themes of buildings. There are schools of architecture that teach the same," he says from behind the grand piano that serves as the centrepiece of his home's bar, itself more reminiscent of a hotel jazz club. "Here, people were coming from Arab countries, from Europe, from America, France, South Africa, everywhere - and everybody with his own background. That is why you can see a mix of all architectural themes and designs. This is not a monolithic city. And it ended up nice."

The 59-year-old is the managing director of the Dubai-based architectural and engineering consultancy National Engineering Bureau (NEB), and has contributed to designing and building more than 200 buildings in the emirate over almost three decades under his company name. While executives and economists often talk of taking the long view, Mr Daniel is one of the few with the perspective to have such a view in the UAE. Financial trauma "happened several times in 1978, and then 1985 and 1997, but it only lasted two years and the difference now is that it is international".

That is not to say he has been unaffected by the global credit crunch. Developers last year suddenly started asking him to put their projects on hold, and he has had to consider cutting staff. "I am waiting, because most of these people have been with me for years," he says. "It is not easy." It is a stark turnaround from five years ago. Then, developers "made hundreds of millions. They took land and quadrupled their money in two or three years. Everybody was happy," he says.

But now it's different. As Mr Daniel observed late last year: "some projects were cancelled, it is not a secret. And, of course, some developers cannot afford to pay me and it makes a good percentage of my business, about 40 to 50 per cent". In 1976, the civil war in Lebanon prompted a then 26-year-old Mr Daniel and his new wife to move to Dubai, where his brother already lived. At the time many Lebanese people of his generation were fleeing their home country for jobs in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"At that time, everybody around me was looking for someone else he knew outside," he says. "Dubai seemed to me to be the nearest and the most feasible option. At that time when you got here, you got a job. The UAE was booming and they needed qualified people. Whereas in the States or Brazil, or far away, you had to fight a lot." When the young architect arrived he was immediately hired by Arenco, now one of Dubai's largest construction, design and engineering firms.

The first projects he worked on formed the foundation of Dubai's skyline today: the towers that are home to HSBC, and the Astoria Hotel. In one way or another, Mr Daniel has had a hand in numerous buildings that line Sheikh Zayed Road, as well as many in the Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lakes Towers neighbourhoods. Unlike the most recent property boom in Dubai, which attracted international investors, in the 1970s local investors were the ones splashing out.

"We were working on several projects at the same time," Mr Daniel says. "Everybody wanted to finish very fast because people were coming from everywhere and waiting in lines either to rent or to move in." By the end of his 20 years at Arenco, he was the company's general manager. In 2002, he left the firm and took over NEB with some partners. Since then the company has grown from a staff of 10 to about 400 people. His favourite current project is the Torches, a 100-storey building under construction in Dubai Marina and scheduled to open in two years.

Mr Daniel calls Dubai the land of opportunity. "You know, everybody made it in Dubai, not only me. The market was big for everybody." He does acknowledge, however, that the days of large local architectural firms dominating the design of the emirate's buildings are over. Firms worldwide now bid for Dubai projects. "Now there are specialised international architects in the market coming here to do only one job," Mr Daniel says.

In addition, clients are more picky. "People also became sophisticated and always want something very special. When you show the plans, they say 'no, I want something better'. So you ask 'better like what?' and they say 'I don't know, but I want something that nobody has done before'." In the post-bust economy, "green" building is his passion. Preserving and minimising the use of energy has become a priority in Dubai's new developments.

"It does not cost a lot more, about 10 per cent, if you want to satisfy the green requirements," he says. "You have to find the best ways of consuming electricity and water, use a double or triple glazing so that you don't absorb a lot of heat from outside and set the building in such way that the sun does not hit the glass all the time." His focus today is Abu Dhabi's new island communities, where he says most architects are now doing business. Mr Daniel's influence may eventually be evident in the capital, too.