x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Nature boys: the firms that turn post-construction developments green

As buildings and developments near completion, companies are looking closer at how to make their projects liveable by hiring landscape architects like ValleyCrest.

At the Al Ain Wildlife Park, ValleyCrest will be recreating deserts from North Kenya, South Africa and the south-west US. It is also planning a major plant nursery.
At the Al Ain Wildlife Park, ValleyCrest will be recreating deserts from North Kenya, South Africa and the south-west US. It is also planning a major plant nursery.

AL AIN // When it comes to putting the wow factor into the sprawling building projects of the Emirates, it is good to think green. In what will be a splash of natural colour, parks and tree-lined areas are sprouting up around the skyscrapers and new mini-cities here.

Considered the second phase of the construction boom, this is the domain of the landscape architects, who take the open spaces left by developers and soften them with greenery and lush settings. "We don't just design, we deal with everything outside the building itself," says Adam Bradley, the director of pre-construction at ValleyCrest Middle East. Quietly positioning itself to take advantage of what is expected to become a multibillion-dirham industry in the Emirates, ValleyCrest has big plans. Apart from creating and managing spaces at property projects, the company is looking at a major nursery operation that could sell plants across the country.

ValleyCrest Middle East is a joint venture between ValleyCrest, a 61-year-old US landscape company with US$940 million (Dh3.45 billion) of annual revenue, and the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort. The main focus of the company for now is to oversee the creation of the 900 hectare park's botanical gardens and deserts habitats. But ValleyCrest has also taken over nursery management for Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company on Saadiyat Island. Its staff of 100 is expected to increase to 300 within months.

William Leathers, the executive director of ValleyCrest Middle East, says the company's expansion in the region was timed to take advantage of the scale of development in the Emirates. "Obviously the size of work that is being built in Abu Dhabi and the region is pretty much unparalleled anywhere else in the world," Mr Leathers says. "We've worked in Las Vegas and Miami, places with a lot going on, but there is nothing as concentrated as what's going on in the Abu Dhabi area."

Other companies taking advantage of the growing demand for landscaping include the Zaal family, who are behind the Al Barari project in Dubailand and have built a nursery that is growing more than 1 million plants a year; and the UK architecture firm RMJM that is also designing landscape in Al Ain and elsewhere in the capital. Al Barari is a high-end luxury villa project surrounded by lush landscaping and gardens. The developer says it has introduced 800 plant species to the Middle East including wild garlic; Bismarkia nobilis, a palm native to Madagascar; and ancient olive trees from Spain.

About Dh1.4bn is being spent on plants and plans also call for 26 botanical gardens and a 14.6km system of waterways in the 130ha development. During the peak of the property boom, there was little time for such details because developers were busy with the large-scale projects they were launching. Now that the off-plan sector has collapsed and apartments and offices are coming on to the market by the thousands, these companies are having to compete for tenants.

This means these buildings not only have to be finished to the highest standard, they also need to offer a lifestyle options to prospective buyers, analysts say. ValleyCrest Middle East expects the market for landscaping and related services is much larger than even its enormous projects in Al Ain, or on the $30bn Reem Island and $27.22bn Saadiyat island projects. Together with the team from the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, they are trying to come up with a new plant "palette" for the region.

In the UAE today, there are just 10 or so trees and 50 shrubs that are used in landscaping projects. ValleyCrest Middle East aims to introduce plants accustomed to arid environments, such as a cactus from the US south-west and ground cover that requires much less water than ordinary grass. At the park in Al Ain, ValleyCrest will be recreating deserts from North Kenya, South Africa and the south-west US. Its teams have been travelling around the world to acquire plants.

"We are on a large procurement drive right now," Mr Leathers says. "From Thailand to Spain to North America, we are buying up plants." Mr Leathers also has an eye on upgrading much of the landscaping around the capital, from installing more efficient irrigation systems to the maintenance of the spaces. "We don't want to eliminate grass completely because people love it," he says. "But grass and turf uses more water than just about any other ground covering."

Mr Bradley says another problem is that while most plants will grow in sand, they can only survive with a continuous watering because the ground does not retain the moisture. The irrigation system could be upgraded on a large scale so that less water is wasted. In Al Ain, a group of the company's skilled labourers from the US have already achieved a major coup for the country's burgeoning landscaping sector. They have successfully begun relocating hundreds of trees from the expansion site of the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, despite fears that the local trees were too sensitive to be moved.

The trees are sitting in large wooden frames near the site and will be relocated around the project. "It's hot work," says Sergio, a Mexican landscaper for ValleyCrest. "It takes seven or eight days for a tree but we did it when people around here said it couldn't be done." bhope@thenational.ae