UAE in comparison to Europe

It’s just over a year now since Nulty opened up its second lighting design consultancy in Dubai – to service the UAE and wider market. Starting a new venture like this is a real experience, so we thought we’d share some of the opportunities and challenges we’ve come across.

Aside from the obvious logistical complexities involved in setting up a new office – overseas – we’ve been trying to reconcile the differences in the design process between projects within the UAE and Europe: in terms of style, interaction with the wider design team and client expectations.

As designers, we’ve been presented with new challenges that need to be addressed in order to continue to thrive, add value and to be competitive in the UAE and surrounding areas – a relatively young sector for architectural lighting design.

Here’s a bit of background

We did our homework, and then some. This was critical and allowed the focus of efforts and resource to be targeted and efficient. Locating the studio in Dubai was an obvious choice: it’s the largest and most populous city in the UAE, it’s a melting pot of different cultures, and although it’s relatively young on the scene, it’s highly ambitious. Its aspirations for design, business, architecture and culture are, some would say, comparable to Paris, Tokyo, Milan, London and New York.

With the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai, there’s an associated increase in the drive of tourism. The Dubai Department of Tourism & Culture has a target to double the number of tourist visits to 20 million per annum, by 2020. Naturally this has generated a strong demand for the provision of hospitality infrastructure, and whilst the city’s hotels aren’t yet at capacity, it’s currently lacking in 3/4 Star establishments.

Design Process 

There are some big variances that make the feasibility of running an independent consultancy slightly trickier and quite different from what we’re used to in Europe: for example, from route to market, and the design team structure to concept delivery.

In comparison to the UK, we’re invited to bid much earlier in the project process and often when lead consultant teams haven’t been appointed. This means a lower hit rate: about one in ten fee proposals convert to live projects, compared to the UK’s one in four. And, because lighting design is less established, fees are generally lower as the value isn’t always fully comprehended. There’s also a strong “trading” frame of mind with developers and clients, who often want to negotiate large discounts to get a “good deal”. Some of this can be allowed for in the initial fee bid, but it’s quite a different process in the UK where time is very clearly scheduled out in tender proposals.

On most European projects we’re appointed by (and collaborate with) the likes of architects, project managers, interior designers, or the end client, and will – normally – present regularly to the client team. This means we can coordinate and obtain design approval and feedback. In the UAE, we’re typically appointed via the “lead consultant” only – direct client presentations are not as often, so the lead consultant’s responsible for communicating design ideas, and liaising with the wider team.

Why does it work like this? Well, partly due to the chain of command being more formal – the end client could be a member of the royal family. Because of this, design schemes are often submitted as stand alone “work books”, and feedback comes back in written form. This rather ceremonial process means that a greater level of documentation, detail and photorealistic renders are required to reduce any mistaken interpretation of design intent. On a whole (plus with tighter fees) the margin for error or repetition is slim, compared to the UK.

In the UK market, lighting consultants, on traditional contracts, tend to be involved from concept to practical completion, or, if a design and build contract, novated to sit client or contractor side. In the UAE, the majority of projects use fixed-price design and build contractors with lighting distributors (instead of lighting designers) offering “free” design, in return for supplying light fixtures. The result – devaluation of lighting design. And, the value of keeping us on is not yet commonplace, so it’s hard to secure appointment past RIBA stage 4. On a side note, like the UK, most projects follow the design stages set out in RIBA’s scope of works – our appointment and involvement as lighting consultants and the design process is shown here:



Design Culture 

The UAE is a young region and has emerged from a “quiet backwater to one of the Middle East’s most important economic centres”. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are a melting pot of different nationalities, so, within the design process, there’s not really a one-size fits all approach when reflecting local culture. But, an international architectural style is widespread and colour palettes are often monochromatic with an increasing use of natural finishes.

With a varied tourist market, and a large international and expat contingent, comes a mixture of food and beverage offerings (amongst other things) and differing interior styles are often needed in the same hospitality venue. From a lighting perspective, this presents challenges in the transition of light levels and colour temperature that can typically vary between these styles. However, there are always certain ideological customs that should be acknowledged or at least considered within mood images and concept documents.

The UAE is a slightly more moderate/ respectful culture, and, as such, explicit mood images in terms of exposure of skin have to be thought about. If designing food and beverage areas for markets like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, then imagery of alcohol must be avoided. And, Religion is also highly considered within the region, so has to be carefully evaluated too.

To keep tourist numbers on the up, the region is investing heavily in a cultural base that reflects not only on its own heritage, but also where its trade meets the crossroads between east and west. Examples are the Jean Nouvel-inspired Louvre and Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim that are well underway in Abu Dhabi. The Louvre’s design demonstrates excellent control over daylight and shade in a sophisticated and distinct style. It’s both practical to the climate and recognisable to the region, demonstrating the development of its own architectural styles.

Façade lighting, on the other hand, hasn’t yet evolved in the same way and differs from the subtle accent lighting that might be seen in countries with more stringent heritage and planning constraints. It’s still dominated by “brighter is better” and the use of saturated or changing colour. This combined with the Dubai Municipality’s relaxed planning laws on the aesthetic of lighting schemes means some very impactful designs – like the proposed “Dubai Wheel” and Burj Khalifa.

So what are the challenges?

Since opening our studio in the region, we’ve come across a number of them that are more specific to the UAE market. For example, from managing cash flow with back-to-back contracts, to the realisation of a lighting concept where certain cultural and climatic differences must be navigated.

The climate impacts external design consideration, massively. Temperatures north of 45 degrees (in the shade), salinity in coastal areas and sand blasting of lights from sandstorms all require careful consideration when designing and installing lighting details. In-ground luminaires can be completely lost overnight and drainage can be blocked with sand, leading to prolonged submersion of light fixtures when it does rain.

Design and supply is the most common route to market for manufacturers and maintaining a specification is difficult, especially if a lighting consultant isn’t appointed beyond the tender stage. Contractors have strong links to Asian and Indian supply markets, which are competitive on price, however vary in comparable quality. The average LED downlight budget for a residential scheme is around £15, creating challenges for European manufacturers to be competitive.

Also, extensive construction work and ambitious build times means it’s not unusual to find insufficient experienced/ skilled labour on site. Design details therefore need to be re-thought to be robust and not necessarily rely on tight tolerances and plaster-in finishing.


Regardless of the differences in culture and current mind-set towards architectural lighting design, between the UAE and Europe it’s our responsibility as architectural lighting consultants to provide the client with the information needed to make key design decisions. As such, continued education of the design and client teams is crucial, but, currently, time and fee dictate our involvement.

What’s needed is an adaption of the lighting design process and model, and it’s important not to operate in a “London-centric bubble”. We’re seeing success in conceptual input filtering through into schemes, however, the lighting design industry needs to continue to find ways to add value and quality to the overall design process, and to educate clients in the benefit of considered lighting design.

Dubai is an excellent business hub in the UAE and wider areas, which will provide Nulty with opportunities to grow and influence what is still a comparatively young market, to establish lighting design for years to come.

The expertise, confidence and sophistication in the lighting industry as a whole will continue to thrive, and as mentioned earlier, events like Dubai 2020 Expo, in addition to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup, will see many businesses starting to think ahead.

At Nulty, quality is integral to all that we do and we’re looking forward to being part of the growth in the Middle East, and have recruited the best team to move our consultancy forward. Exciting times lie ahead.

Banner Image by Pexels from Pixabay