Building the future on Saadiyat Island

Nick Leech meets Jassim Al Hammadi, the engineer charged with providing the services that will make the Saadiyat Cultural District tick.
A model of the plans for Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District, which was on display at the Global Cityscape exhibition at Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre last year. Ali Haider / EPA
A model of the plans for Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District, which was on display at the Global Cityscape exhibition at Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre last year. Ali Haider / EPA

Four blue and white road signs greet those who make it through the security gates that guard the most westerly tip of Saadiyat Island.

In the beginning, a single sign directed traffic to the forest of cranes and reinforcing bars that mark the site of Louvre Abu Dhabi, but this has been joined by similar signs pointing the way to the sites of the island’s other museums: the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum.

The fourth sign, however, is for something quite different.

Rather than pointing to a building, it identifies a 2,430,000 square metre idea – the Saadiyat Island Cultural District.

The Cultural District is the name given by the Tourism and Development Investment Company (TDIC) to the part of Saadiyat Island that will eventually house the three museums.

In addition, it will be home to largest school Abu Dhabi, the largest school campus in the city, and The District, a 17 hectare indoor-outdoor shopping neighbourhood.

The District will provide three new avenues for the capital – Luxury Street, Canal, and Main Street – as well as 550 new department stores, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and cafes, some of which will be housed in Abu Dhabi’s newest mall, the Crescent Arcade.

It is difficult to estimate exactly how many people will be involved in the transformation – over the next two years, the number of labourers working on the museums alone is set to leap from 5,000 to 25,000 – but the effort to transform the Cultural District from an idea to reality is something that occupies much of Jassim Al Hammadi’s time.

“Can you imagine the logistical challenges that will need to be overcome to allow all of these people to work together at the same time on site, plus all of the equipment that will be needed to be delivered plus the vehicles and the machinery and the cranes?” he asks.

Mr Al Hammadi is TDIC’s director of buildings and infrastructure. As such, he is responsible for delivering the vital services – safely, to schedule, on budget, and according to plan – that will make this part of Saadiyat Island tick.

“Most people are unaware of infrastructure because a lot of it is hidden underground.” he says. “They are only aware of the roads and the street lights, but a lot of work is required to make sure that you can deliver the right utilities, such as power cables, fresh water, sewage treatment and telecommunications.

“We have to make sure that all of the infrastructure surrounding the Cultural District is delivered on time and before the testing and commissioning of any of the museums, otherwise you will have a series of dead buildings without any power, water, sewage or irrigation, that cannot be operated. You simply cannot run any building without infrastructure.”

Work on the infrastructure for this part of Saadiyat Island continued even when construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi experienced a temporary hiatus in 2011. Deep services for the museum district, including sewers and stormwater pipes, were completed in March of that year and construction of the main sewage treatment plant on Saadiyat was completed in the summer of 2012.

For Mr Al Hammadi and his 35-strong team of project managers and engineers, delivering the services at the right time is only part of a process that starts before the drawings by architects and designers have even reached a detailed stage.

“We make sure that the ideas of the developer can actually happen,” says the 34-year-old civil engineer.

When each new project is added to Saadiyat island – such as the new campus for New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), or Cranleigh – steps have to be taken to ensure there is enough capacity in the available infrastructure to support it. If not, it means working with utility providers to provide the necessary infrastructure, water and energy.

“We are then involved in the design stage, to make sure that whatever is designed will meet with the requirements of the various authorities and will gain their approval,” Mr Al Hammadi says. “Afterwards, when the consultants have delivered their detailed designs, we conduct a technical review of the drawings before they are issued to potential contractors for bidding.”

After contracts have been awarded and construction begins, Mr Al Hammadi and his team make daily visits to each site and attend progress meetings, the details of which he reports directly to the executive directors of TDIC.

“My job is to make sure that everybody is doing their job properly,” he says. “We are the client’s representatives and we have to make sure that the contractor is committed to the quality that we have agreed on and to the programme as well. We are also responsible for ensuring that he doesn’t exceed the budget.”

Mr Al Hammadi’s role is a technical position that draws on his 13 years of experience in construction.

His first role was as a site engineer with the developer Al Qudra, after which he worked with Sorouh on major projects on Reem Island before moving to TDIC and the Saadiyat Island project.

“You cannot have a position of responsibility on a construction site without having the experience yourself,” he says. “That gives you the experience and the knowledge of construction techniques that you rely on later in your career. As a project leader, you need that to understand how problems can be solved.”

As director of buildings and infrastructure, Mr Al Hammadi feels a great deal of responsibility, not only for his immediate team – six of whom are Emirati – but for the welfare of all the workers who ultimately fall under his charge.

“We have 5,000 people working on this job at the moment and we have to make sure that they are working in a safe environment,” he says. “That’s a great responsibility to have on your shoulders. As for the locals, I want to increase their capacity, so that one day they can lead projects of their own.”

Al Hammadi’s mentorship started with his own family when he persuaded three of his four brothers to pursue a career in civil engineering.

“I was the first one to graduate and then I advised my brothers to do the same,” he says. “As a civil engineer, you are responsible for delivering a product that everybody can see. You can see shopping malls, you can see roads, you can see buildings, but you are also giving something back to society.”

In the four years that Mr Al Hammadi has worked for TDIC on Saadiyat Island, he has also helped to provide the infrastructure for the St Regis Abu Dhabi, the Saadiyat Beach villas and the NYUAD campus.

“I’m very proud that we are putting our signature on this project and that, by doing it, we are changing the map of Saadiyat Island itself,” he says. “We have helped to create a lot of projects over the last four years, including the St Regis hotel and the new campus for NYUAD.”

Mr Al Hammadi is the first to admit that he has come a long way during his 13 years in the construction industry.

“When I graduated from the Higher Colleges of Technology in 2000, I promised myself that one day I would work on the very biggest projects, but I didn’t expect this,” he says.

“The Cultural District will put Abu Dhabi on the world tourism map, so I consider myself very lucky to be working on this project. Delivering one museum is something, but working on three is unique.”

Published: April 21, 2014 04:00 AM


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