Affordable housing, GCC social housing, Residential architecture, Social housing in the Middle East

GCC architects discuss the region’s need for social housing

At a roundtable held at Cosentino’s showroom in Dubai Design District, four architects who work across the GCC, gathered to discuss the future of affordable housing in the region, and the need to create social housing. Those who attended included Phillip Jones from B+H, Samer Touqan from Dewan, Ralf Steinhauer from RSP and Adrian Welch from GAJ.

“Something that isn’t often discussed is that there’s probably over a million people housed in what’s called ‘bed space’,” started Jones.

“If you’re a mid-tier worker in a hotel, for example, then you might be looking for a three-bedroom apartment that gets partitioned to fit 20 or so people,” he said. “Each person pays around 1,000 dirhams, meaning the landlord can be receiving 240,000 dirhams for rent. In reality, that unit would likely go for 60 or 70,000 dirhams. In terms of affordability, I think that the next generation is really in that market sector. We’re going to realise that we need to provide people with options for good accommodation that are legal and safe.”


Architects gather at Cosentino’s showroom in Dubai Design District to discuss residential design. Images courtesy of Efraim Evidor

He added that in a residential building where the apartments are lodging more than three times the number of people than originally planned, such risks include fire exits that aren’t large enough for the passage of tenants during emergencies.

According to the architects, social housing hasn’t really been experimented with in the GCC, but Welch noted the social housing blocks in Copenhagen and how they could potentially provide an architectural example.

“If you look at the Copenhagen’s social housing blocks, they all have children’s playgrounds in the centres,” he said. “A lot of them have parking space, too. And if you look at Glasglow, you have tenements, but they have green spaces in the middle. So just by going for this typology instead of having a point block, you immediately get this private space where children feel they’re protected and families feel at home. I spent 15 months in Kuwait, and all the blocks are basically just point blocks.”


Phillip Jones and Ralf Steinhauer

Touqan added that while there isn’t a typology for social housing, there is ‘affordable housing’, but what might be considered affordable in the regional market wouldn’t be when compared to options in other countries. Jones noted that one hotelier in Dubai explored staff accommodation that could be analysed in the form of social housing.

“We have a building typology built here that starts to fall into that category,” he said. “It’s purpose-built for the Four Seasons Hotel. You go to its staff accommodation, which is referred to as the ‘white house’, and it feels like a university dormitory where there’s a cafeteria and two people share a room and they have their own bathroom.

“That’s a forward-thinking hotelier who’s going, ‘if my staff have to face clients during the day, they need to be feeling good about where they live and coming to work refreshed and properly bussed to and from.”

According to the architects, the location of the housing would be as important as the option of the housing itself — if someone works in Dubai, they should be able to afford accommodation within the city, rather than in a neighbouring emirate.

“It shouldn’t be three hours away,” said Steinhauer. “This is the problem when people can’t afford to live in the city centre and they have to keep moving outward. I have people at the office who spend five hours a day on the road – two and a half in the morning and two and a half in the evening. I can see it’s very strenuous for them, especially at the end of the week. This is something that we need to look at.”


Samer Touqan and Adrian Welch

Using Dubai as an example, those at the roundtable noted that many families are beginning to move to inland developments, like Jumeirah Village Circle, Sports City and Arabian Ranches, and what’s more is that expats are now opting to extend their residency in the UAE to 10 or more years, as opposed to in the early 2000s, when Dubai’s expat population was far more transient. This has created a demand on the residential market that is pushing developers to look at providing more three-star accommodation.

“The residential market in the GCC has a new target audience,” said Touqan. “And this audience consists of average income people who have been living here for a while and who like it, but don’t want to spend large amounts of money on housing. So the new product targets those who want to stay and raise their families here, but their budgets don’t allow them to buy the luxury units… So we have made this product to actually recycle or recirculate the economics of Dubai itself and make it home for another layer of people.”

“I think for a long time we didn’t have anything in the free hold that was affordable,” added Steinhauer. “There was nothing there for normal people to invest in because it was the luxury segment… But it’s starting to change, and I think it’s a reflection that there are more people looking to stay more long term here.”

The architects explained that cities in the GCC like Dubai have two products: one that is inland, which is becoming more family-friendly, and the second that refers to smaller units in central areas.

“Dubai is experiencing what most of the cities in North America or Europe have experienced before, which is a city centre that is made of small units for smaller families and bachelors, and the outskirts for families to live in. And this is basically what we are witnessing,” said Touqan.

“It could be a business opportunity,” said Touqan. “Architects need to work together with legislators and developers to create such typologies of buildings and make them available for this large population of people. It could be a very interesting business model.”

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