x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Grand property projects in the UAE start small

The swimming pools at Saadiyat Retreat look tempting, but for now, they're only a few inches across. The development today exists only as a scale model, crafted by artisans, who like their peers in construction, are returning to work as the economy rebounds.

The miniature mock-ups that Art Heir Model Making creates for its clients feature even the smallest detail. Jaime Puebla / The National
The miniature mock-ups that Art Heir Model Making creates for its clients feature even the smallest detail. Jaime Puebla / The National

It's just another Sunday afternoon at Saadiyat Retreat on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.

Men, women and children are sunbathing on the beach, going for a drive down the street or relaxing in dozens of newly built villas. Dinghies are drifting in a clear azure sea.

But before you rush out to take a dip in one of its luxurious swimming pools, it's worth noting this Saadiyat Island neighbourhood is about 8 feet long and the people frolicking in the sun are no more than half an inch tall.

The architect's model is just one of many representing future property developments in the UAE that is being built by Art Heir Model Making, a specialist model-making and architectural company based around the back of a locksmith in Sharjah's warehouse district.

The mock-up is being created by six model makers, one carpenter and an electrician. It features about 3,000 miniature cars and 500 villas, each with a pool. Among other buildings are malls and mosques, and hotels with a couple of pools apiece.

The managing director Rony Hobeika walks around the small, crowded workroom with a proprietorial air, pausing briefly to watch the six men hunched over their workbenches who are slowly assembling the 1:500 scale model of the Retreat.

"We started work on this model last year," he says. "The developer approved it last year but then they stopped it. Now they want to continue with it again. Things are starting to improve."

Model making is big business across the UAE, where property developers have been known to spend millions of dirhams on vast and magnificent scaled-down versions of their schemes, which appear at exhibitions such as Cityscape and are a vital tool in persuading investors to part with their money.

Costs vary, but the model will cost about Dh400,000 (US$108,900) and take about six weeks.

"At this year's Cityscape there were a number of new projects announced which hadn't been seen before," says Craig Plumb, the regional head of research for Jones Lang LaSalle. "For the last couple of years there just haven't been any new projects launched so model makers must have had a tough time."

During the property boom of 2007, Dubai alone was home to about 60 model-making companies competing against each other as the emirate's property developers attempted to outdo each other with glitzier and bigger visions of the future. Sometimes the rush to grab attention led to unreasonable expectations.

"During the boom it was illogical for us," says Dani Bterrani, the chief executive of 3dr Models, which has a workshop in Dubai. "There was a huge demand for models. We saw some examples where the architects had not even finished the design and they wanted us to jump in and make a model for the project so that they could display it to investors. Clients had more on their plates than was realistic."

But recent years have been tough for model makers in the UAE.

As with all construction companies in the Emirates, the once booming trade was decimated by the global financial crash.

In the three years following the downturn the number of model firms in the country plummeted by 80 per cent to just 12, while average prices for the few models that have been made has slumped by a fifth.

Now with business picking up, Mr Hobeika says Art Heir is on course to deliver 60 models this year and expects it will build about 80 next year. The company even plans to open a new office in Qatar to work on models connected with Fifa 2022 World Cup building schemes.

"2012 was a slow year," he says. "But now I start to have bigger models. So rather than taking three to four weeks, it's taking two and a half or three months. So now I'm fully booked until February. The number of inquiries is almost three times more than last year. Things are getting better in the property market, especially since the beginning of the summer. For forward orders we expect even more."

Mr Bterrani has a similar outlook.

"As model makers we tend to know more about the future than the present," he says. "We are seeing on a daily basis some new inquiries in the UAE as developers start work again. For the last three years all we really did was to refurbish old models. But now we are back building new projects. For Cityscape in Dubai [this month] we did seven new models."

These, Mr Bterrani says, included a vast new 10 metre by 8 metre scale model of Meraas Holdings' The Beach development to be built at Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai.

The property market revival comes none too soon for firms such as the international model makers Pipers, which retreated from the UAE market during the crisis.

"I remember that in 2009, projects just stopped dead," says Nicholas Freeman, the creative director and the head of Pipers' Middle East operations. "Nobody was building anything and we pretty much went back to Europe. Now that there are signs that the market is improving we will be back, but I don't know who else will be there with us."

Mr Hobeika says his staff was more than cut in half during the past few years. 3dr went from employing 120 in Dubai and 680 in Hong Kong to just 60 in Dubai and 520 in Hong Kong.

During the downturn salaries for those lucky enough to still find work dropped by at least 12 to 15 per cent. Senior model makers in the UAE earn about Dh15,000 a month, project managers about Dh12,000 and model makers between Dh6,000 and Dh8,000.

Most model makers depend on working overtime, putting in 12-hour stints most days when a project is on.

During the downturn, modelsin production were suddenly left gathering dust in cupboards as schemes were cancelled or delayed.

Some have been broken up or dumped, but until May this year Art Heir was keeping Nakheel's show-stopping designs for the world's tallest tower in its basement.

"The Nakheel Tower was supposed to be the world's tallest tower," says Mr Hobeika. "It's was in my storage for the past two years. Even the client didn't want to take it. He was paying around Dh30,000 a month to keep it there. It's a huge model."