UAE developers need to keep track of changing lifestyles to prevent towers becoming obsolete

The trend by developers to build ever-greater numbers of small studio units in apartment buildings is understandable, but a little depressing.

First, the understandable part.

Alongside the need to appeal to investors’ appetite for maximum possible returns, there are a few differences in the local market which broaden studios’ appeal here when compared to other parts of the world.

Firstly, there is the fact that couples who are unmarried are not permitted to cohabit under UAE law (although there are many who run the risk of arrest for affordability reasons). Secondly, the large salary and benefits packages that were once offered have been reined in as the global workforce has become more mobile, meaning that increasing numbers of the local workforce are not families, but younger single people.

A study published last month by Dubizzle found that millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) make up the greatest proportion of Dubai’s population. The Dubai Statistics Centre states that the median age of Dubai residents is between 30 and 34, with one-fifth (500,000 out of 2.5 million) of the population falling within that bracket. Extrapolating these results to cover the entire millennial range, Dubizzle estimates that 49 per cent of Dubai’s inhabitants are millennials.

This is part of a worldwide demographic pattern that could reshape building trends, according to the Canadian-headquartered consulting giant WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. It argues that the changes could be most notable in high-rise buildings, which are becoming increasingly important as urbanisation rates grow.

Research in the US by the Brookings Institution found that the proportion of jobs located in US city centres dropped from 63 per cent in 1960 to 16 per cent in 1996 – but has been growing ever since. City centre-based jobs grew by 0.5 per cent per year from 2007-2011, compared with an annual decline of 0.1 per cent outside of cities.

As well as being city dwellers, millennials are also said to have different priorities to older groups, favouring experiences over ownership. WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff points out this is partly through necessity as the prospects of home ownership remain remote for many (this is the depressing part).

Overall, it argues, millennials will demand more from the spaces they occupy, prizing quality of life and ease of access to shops, entertainment and places to spend time with friends. They want to live in urban areas that are walkable and well-connected.

Given that tall towers are expensive to build and maintain, it said that designers need to give serious thought to creating “high-rise communities” to make sure they remain viable – especially as increasing numbers of people live alone.

When asked how such trends are relevant to Dubai, with its high proportion of both towers and millennials, the firm’s director of building structures for the Middle East, Brian Hillesdon, said that the fact that so many people here are renters means that developers perhaps need to consider millennials’ requirements more closely than elsewhere. The city’s transient population means people are not tied down to spaces, and if buildings don’t work very well or don’t provide the right facilities, people will move somewhere that will.

“Size is perhaps becoming less of an issue, but location and facilities are still key to letting a property,” he said.

He delivered a talk about eight years ago in which he argued that, at the time, Dubai’s tall buildings were typically single-use – an office or residential tower – with little human scale and few facilities. Often they didn’t even have pavements.

Since then, he says, there has been a push to create more enjoyable places to live and work, and that newer high-rises are generally of a better quality. He also says that a greater emphasis is placed on community in master planning and on places for residents and tourists to socialise.

“Fifteen years ago, there were very few areas with a community feel – Diyafa Street, Satwa and Deira being key examples,” he said.

Now he cites Downtown, DIFC, Boxpark, City Walk and The Beach at JBR as just a few examples of places which offer that social experience.

Within buildings, common areas such as pools, gyms and food and retail areas become increasingly important if people end up living alone in smaller studio apartments, he says. Larger developments need common areas or spaces that offer a “user experience”, he said.

“If they satisfy these criteria, [buildings] will sell, or rent, making both tenant and owner mutually happy.

“Likewise, older, out-of-date, low-cost, low-quality buildings with minimal facilities and little community spirit will be the second choice for millennials – commanding much lower returns for owners.”

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