"Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value”, a quote by Albert Einstein is applicable to the holistic role of designers today. Designers have an opportunity to create an imaginative space that allows its occupants to be active participants in the story projected by the interior. It should also invite the user — who form the starting-point, and the emphasis of any designer’s project — to rework and reconfigure themselves to their best interest within the specific interior.
However, considering design has a far-reaching impact on an individual’s mental and physical well-being, why do construction sector workers, who play such an important role in the development of our cities, sidelined by the design community? Their mass-produced living spaces have historically lacked a thoughtful narrative, resulting in passive occupants, and institutionalising their behaviour.
Design in the modern society
Design, however, as understood by society, does not always fulfill its entire potential. More often than not, design is treated as a commodity that only the privileged few have access to. It is also measured in terms of the outer packaging rather than the deeper and intangible attributes of design which elevate people’s well-being.
Reinventing workers accommodation in Dubai serves as a perfect example to highlight the collective responsibility of designers, organisations, and the authorities to the betterment of society through design.
Through my research, I made important discoveries, connections, and conclusions, which demonstrated a significant relationship between the workers’ mental well-being and their living spaces. To put it in perspective, it’s not much different from the emphasis we put on our own living environment, whether at home or at work. The results are based on research, conducted on the target audience — workers living in labour camps in Dubai as well as the society’s perception of these accommodation spaces in the metropolis.
The study conducted among the city’s residents revealed that most of the participants have the misplaced notion that labour accommodations lack adequate space and hygiene, and therefore, further adding to their unfavourable view of the workers’ abilities to perform a task well.
However, this sounds contradictory as these workers are contributing to the building of a metropolis like Dubai with a special set of skills. With strong building guidelines and the high regulatory standards that the authorities have put in place, it is suffice to say that the quality of the work delivered by the workers is on par with global standards.
Happiness is intertwined with meaningful design
Potentially, re-designing staff accommodation for blue-collared workers in Dubai can serve as a perfect example to highlight the collective responsibility of designers, organisations, and the authorities towards the betterment of society through design.
I am using these specific living spaces to illustrate this point, in view of my extensive research on the topic for my senior thesis. According to the results of my research at some of these camps in Dubai, one of the relevant conclusions is that there is a direct correlation between the happiness of workers and the design and facilities of their living premises.
For majority, if not all, of these workers, a long day of work culminates in a phone call to their loved ones in their home countries. The lack of recreational areas for social engagement leads to a widened gulf between the workers and the rest of the city’s residents. As a result, loneliness rate among workers is consistently high. At the same time, the research also drove home the point that an overwhelming number of workers are convinced that by improving the design of their living premises, they will feel happier, relaxed and socially active. Deconstructing the concept of existing accommodations in a radically new way needs to be considered.
Keeping in mind Dubai’s high standards and its ambition to become the world’s happiest city, the involvement of the authorities in such initiatives goes a long way in creating awareness from the grounds-up.
To begin with, Dubai Municipality has taken a proactive approach towards improving the living conditions of this strata of the city’s residents. It has announced that it is building running tracks and sports facilities at Muhaisnah and Jebel Ali labour camps. The AED3.8mn project is in line with its objective to support enhanced living environment for the inhabitants of these camps.
There are also strict guidelines by the authority, which mandate minimum standards in adequate ventilation, lighting, sanitation facilities, and minimum living area per worker, in addition to other provisions such as a medical clinic, prayer rooms and barber shops.
Recently, locally-based companies such as Farnek, Transguard and Khansaheb have taken the lead in providing not just the basic amenities, but also other facilities, such as social recreation areas, and free high-speed Wi-Fi, which result in a holistic space that address the physical and mental well-being of the occupants.
Following my research, I have made a few conclusions, which serve as guidelines, within the given civic directives.
Focus on bringing the inhabitants' world inside
The above-mentioned workers mostly come from South Asia. The design of their living space should be more empathetic by creating a home-away-from-home perception. It could provide an entirely different experience for the occupants by working with, for instance, colours, materials, patterns, and scents of the individuals’ home countries.
Allow for customisation, within the municipal framework
Living has never been a fixed concept. By introducing spaces that allow for customisation by the user, the needs and expectations of the occupants can be better met with. For example, the design could introduce furniture that can easily be reconfigured depending on the preference of the users.
Create spaces that create social communities and trigger interaction
Communal spaces in the living premises create maximum impact with minimum resources. For example, instead of open, large-scale cafeterias, the area could be made spatially more inviting by dividing into smaller, intimate zones.
About the author: Julie Blondeel, who moved to Dubai four years ago, is a Belgian senior-year student in the interior design faculty at the American University in Dubai. Currently, she is working on her research project — “Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value”, a quote by Albert Einstein. The topic dwells on the human-centric approach to designing workers’ accommodation with an aim to improving their well-being and to generate a more sustainable business model. As a young designer, Blondeel is intrigued by the multifaceted aspects of design — from its exclusive ability to its inclusive role in society.