The challenges of the Middle East

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Niall Glen

Imagine the scenario. You have been given 60 hectares (150 acres) of flat, raw, virgin and compacted sand and your only brief is to design an 18 hole championship golf course capable of hosting major events. The topographical survey shows that the existing land falls three metres over a distance of 1.2km and the budget will be negotiated after the masterplan is approved. Sounds straightforward?

Such a brief appears to offer great design flexibility but such freedom often comes at a price when the limitations of the site and the proposed uses of the surrounding land are considered, as they often increase the complexity of the project, placing immense additional demands upon the architect.

This was exactly the situation faced by Harradine Golf when designing the Sahara course in Kuwait. The task was to design an interesting course from a completely flat site, ensuring that horses could always be seen from the grandstand as they raced around the track. Success depended on two factors: transforming a completely flat and compacted sand area into an interesting topography and convincing the client to accept the cost implications of large earth movements. In total 1,000,000 cubic metres of sand was excavated from inside the racetrack and used to fill and shape six holes and a driving range that are routed externally.

Golf courses in the Middle East are now a result of a purely commercial decision by developers. Golf courses sell houses and the sale of housing funds the construction of the course. Houses along the frontage are prime plots whereas the remainder benefits from the gated community and from being near a golf course.

Golf courses on real estate projects are only sustainable if the developer allows the golf course architect to design the general masterplan, giving the footprint of the course, clubhouse, real estate and roads.

Unfortunately, designing golf courses with adjacent real estate is far from an ideal situation but it is a compromise that the golf course architect must accept.

Apart from the very obvious safety concerns of errant shots causing damage, the architect must also allow home owners to see and enjoy the golf course while providing a safe and private environment.

In such situations the architect must consider lowering the golf course or elevating the real estate. But achieving a successful relationship is a very complex challenge that requires all of the architect's skill because the majority of sites have little elevation change, which could result in an uninspiring golf course.

It is important that the architect designs the golf course first, coupled with the complete masterplan after being briefed on the proposed number of houses, hotels and clubs. The challenge of the architect is to transform these constraints into opportunities and use the added flexibility offered by the circumstances to ensure that the golf course is the best that can be provided.

Working within and around real estate designed by most urban planners is the biggest constraint to any project's potential and is a direct result of the misconception that it will suffice to create a green backdrop to a housing estate rather than an integrated masterplan with a fantastic golf course that will offer much longer term value as a result of good publicity.

There are few environmental concerns in the Middle East. Sand is inexpensive, easy to move and shape and contractors have the resources and the experience to tackle large earthmoving projects. Unfortunately golf in this region of the world is not a traditional sport and contractors' competence in dealing with large projects is not always mirrored by their understanding of the game and the specific and subtle shaping requirements.

A common misconception is that the biggest difficulty faced by golf courses in arid regions is the complexity of growing grass in hot climates. Selection of the grass species is very important but with the correct construction materials, a reliable water source of reasonable quality and an experienced greenkeeper it is quite simple to establish grass.

Ever greater emphasis is being placed on the inclusion of water bodies due to the beauty of living on a lake and the ability to sell such properties at a premium rate. However, building lakes in the desert is very costly as they have to be lined and given the strong desert sun and soaring temperatures, water circulation is imperative. Stagnant water allows algae to grow, mosquitoes to breed and an accumulation of unpleasant smells. Most architects are using salt water to fill their lakes.

To make the golf course as inexpensive as possible to maintain, irrigation water must be kept to a minimum. The architect is challenged to create an interesting and playable golf course with about half of a normal European grassed area for an 18 hole course. Instead of grass most desert courses have compacted sand or sabqa as rough. The definition of the fairways is created by the contrast between the grass and these sandy waste areas.With surrounding real estate the architect is forced to try and disguise as much of the sand as possible by planting trees, shrubs and tall grasses whilst ensuring that the playing characteristics of the golf course are not compromised by the creation of an overcomplicated planting scheme that blocks the views from the real estate.

Value engineering, an improved understanding of the physical environment and the continuous development of water saving products that can save large quantities of irrigation water are all helping to make the grass desert golf course a more sustainable concept.

This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.