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Estimated reading time: 14 min

As the impact of climate change on communities around the world becomes more apparent, sustainability is fast taking centre stage in the design process. But while sustainable technologies are now almost a mandatory feature of project design in developed nations, developing nations have been largely left to their own devices.

As the global economic dynamic shifts, however, sustainable initiatives are beginning to take form in some of the world’s rapidly developing nations. Based just outside Pakistan’s most populous metropolitan city, DHA City Karachi (DCK) is fast becoming a marked example of the positive impact sustainable initiatives can have on a country. Commissioned by the Pakistan Defense Housing Authority (DHA), DCK promises to provide a benchmark for future sustainable design in Pakistan and future cities across the developing world.

Pakistan as a developing nation
We talked to Atif Osmani, CEO of RMJM Osmani, and a consultant in the design and construction of Pakistan’s first ever sustainable city. “We knew we had to do something extraordinary,” says Atif, referring to the daunting task of creating a city for 600, 000 people without the “petrodollars” of projects like Masdar City in the UAE. The pressure to deliver “something extraordinary” is understandable. Pakistan is ranked by the 2015 Economic Freedom Index as 121st out of 178, dropping to 146th out of 177 in the UN Human Development Index. Meanwhile, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Pakistan as 93rd in 111 countries for quality of life.

Despite this, the situation in Pakistan is improving, with real GDP expected to grow by about 4.5 percent in the next year, assisted by lower oil prices, planned improvements in the supply of energy, and investment related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Initiatives like DCK could further elevate Pakistan’s economic standing, harnessing the power of the natural world to ensure a higher standard of living at a lower cost to the people of Pakistan. As Atif explains, that’s exactly what DCK is about – taking advantage of what’s available and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

A historic partnership
DCK represents one of the biggest projects undertaken in Pakistan since its formation in 1947, similar in physical scale to the design and construction of the capital Islamabad in the early ‘60s. RMJM was heavily involved in the masterplanning of Islamabad, now regarded as the most developed city in Pakistan and ranked as a Gamma+ world city. The project brought together RMJM, Osmani and the father of Ekistics Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis for the first time. DCK  follows a similar lead, utilising the technological capabilities of RMJM with the local engineering knowledge of Osmani & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd. and the Ekistics theory of Doxiadis to develop the ‘cities within a city’ network. The project brought together leading minds in the sustainable technology community. Spiro Pollalis, Professor of Design, Technology and Management at the Harvard Design School, played a fundamental role in the development of a set of sustainable by-laws by which the entire construction team had to abide.

Sustainable design in Pakistan
A diagram of the Ekistics theory implemented in DHA City Karachi

DCK Masterplan
Atif argues that as a collection of ‘cities within a city’, the layout of DCK allowed for some highly original urban design. “We tried to design an enabling environment based on spatial proximity” he states, adding, “this approach will reduce the carbon load and allow everyone to appreciate their surroundings.” Each community provides integrated facilities in an attempt to ensure no citizen of DCK has to walk more than twenty minutes to reach vital amenities. The masterplan, developed by RMJM Osmani in conjunction with the Harvard Design School and Doxiadis Associates, has been intricately considered. Spread across 20,000 acres, the city is sectioned into two parcels of land, with DCK South covering around 12,000 acres and the northern half making up the other 8,000. Between 10-12 communities have been planned in total, each one representing a different sector of society. Healthcare, business and cultural districts provide essential services while holistic integrated planning provides a network of infrastructure systems to ensure every area of the city remains completely functional at all times.

Sustainable design in PakistanA breakdown of DCK’s community class centre’s

From the ground up
As the first city in Pakistan planned, designed and constructed on the principals of urban sustainability, DCK may be a daunting challenge, but it’s also the best method for introducing sustainable technology on a large scale. “In city planning, there is an added advantage in a jump start; we can introduce sustainability wherever possible” states Atif, adding “there are fewer options to apply such innovations in cities like London or New York.” Established cities can still integrate sustainable design into new developments, but DCK offers a unique opportunity to integrate viable energy-saving technology from on a mass urban scale.

The project has made a notable impact on development in Pakistan. A detailed brochure of the cities features has been made available through the DHA website, prompting several other firms throughout South Asia to adopt some of the techniques. “It’s a problem for us because we do a lot of hard work and we don’t have much in the way of copyright here” admits Atif, although he allows that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “If by virtue of publishing it makes people start thinking about sustainability, then that’s a good thing.”

Coordinating the impossible
While DCK has ignited a dialogue in Pakistan around the potential of sustainable design, it still faced significant hurdles in the design process, not least the mammoth task of coordinating a huge multi-disciplinary team. “We believe in coordination and teamwork not only between the design and supervision team but also with contractors and clients,” says Atif. “We ensured dedicated management staff liaised on a timely basis and were present at the site to solve the issues then and there.” RMJM-Osmani ensured supervisory staff maintained the quality of materials and structures but also educated the site and design staff to keep every aspect of the design consistent with the overall vision. Maintaining a coherent design vernacular was perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the design team. With every new team called in to complete a facet of the design process, the risk of losing sight of the design vision increases. On a project of this scale, just as in any project, regular communication is absolutely vital to maintaining a consistent design vision.

Sustainable design in Pakistan
A comparison of the urban layout of central New York to DCK

Finding accreditation
RMJM Osmani responded to the issue of coordination with regular meetings and a consummate design focus, but other issues were less simple to resolve. The most pressing of these was the need for official accreditation for their sustainability. The US-based Green Building Council represents the gold standard in sustainable design. But whereas LEED predominantly focuses on the US states, DCK was designed for Pakistan with less financial leeway. The best option for the new city was to seek a rating system capable of taking the economic surroundings into account. “We asked the client if they were aware of this Envision® rating system. It’s a sustainable rating system also devised in the USA, specifically for infrastructure. LEED can work for infrastructure, but we felt it was a more comprehensive system using Envision®” contends Atif. The system uses a set of guidelines to optimise the sustainability of an infrastructure project during the planning and preliminary design phases, as well as to quantify the relative sustainability of the project. DCK is already Envision® rated and ISI (Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure) certified. With this certification came a greater level of confidence, both for stakeholders and future inhabitants.

Sustainable design in Pakistan
The five key performance criteria of the ISI Envision rating system; Quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, the natural world and climate & risk

Security Concerns
Security represented a major consideration to DCK’s development process. Despite a burgeoning middle class and improvements in domestic security, Pakistan still faces a range of domestic and international security threats. As DCK is a city constructed for army personnel and their families, security remained an integral aspect of the design process throughout. “We adopted two approaches to maintaining consistent security; soft security through ICT and hard security through physical design” Atif explains, adding “We further controlled security through traffic circulation by avoiding crosses and unnecessary entries into residential streets. We designed controlled gated communities with emergency exits at each sub-sector level, which means any entry into the residential area can be monitored.” Physical security measures have been extensive, but the intricate digital security network also goes a long way to providing peace of mind to DCK’s citizens. Residents are provided with optimal communication devices to provide real-time information to security services and service operators, meaning any issue, be it security or otherwise, can be addressed quickly and efficiently.

Sustainable design in Pakistan
A diagram of some of the security measures put in place in and around DCK

This level of design-led innovation has influenced every aspect of DCK’s design. Challenges were transformed into opportunities with the aid of some truly out-of-the-box thinking. The city’s location presented a major problem to bringing in residents; located 54km away from the DHA’s original town just outside Karachi. DCK’s isolated location was further exacerbated by the limited access provided by the two-lane Malir expressway. The team’s response, Atif says, was to propose a ‘river motorway’ capable of easing congestion and reducing travel time between cities. “As a result, this motorway will connect Karachi to Lahore. We linked the Malir expressway so that it will take only 25 minutes from the old DHA to the new DHA Karachi City. This will change the whole dynamic of the city” beams Atif. This solution had the added advantage of reducing congestion in Karachi by diverting it up the motorway, further improving the quality of life for the people of Pakistan.

Sustainable design in Pakistan
A sitemap showing the proposed Malir River Expressway and it’s proximity to DHA City Karachi

Working with Nature
In the same vein, DCK turned the potential environmental disadvantages in its favour through intelligent design. In a country where access to electricity and clean running water can be sporadic, employing techniques to harness natural resources can provide a level of comfort still lacking in other areas of Pakistan. The design preserved the site’s topography by building around the ‘critical ridges’ of the surrounding foothills, channeling wind into distinctive corridors. Likewise, existing streams were preserved for natural drainage, running down into one of two natural lakes maintained for rainwater storage purposes.

Atif describes some of the other innovations incorporated into the DCK design. “We found 50% of the gas bill was for heating water, and 50% was cooking food and things. So we made all the buildings have solar heaters to heat the cold water.” The innovations included as many renewable energy generation techniques as possible. The city’s proximity to a wind corridor and regular sun exposure prompted the installation of wind turbines and solar plaques. DCK isn’t the first city to avail itself of its natural surroundings, but rarely if ever before have natural resources been engaged on such an ambitious scale.

Sustainable Design in Pakistan
A triptych of the various terrains in DHA City, including a shot of one of the city’s main lakes

It’s not just about harnessing the resources of the surrounding environment. Preparing developments to withstand weathering reduces wear, ensuring a longer life while reducing the energy used to maintain a comfortable interior temperature. “We designed in a way that means the wind will flow between the houses and made it mandatory to use double glazed windows, so the heat will not leave the house” Atif explains. Even the positioning of the house can affect the energy output “South and west are the two elevations where we face problems in the summer, so we made it mandatory to use insulation on these sites.” These innovations aren’t cheap Atif admits, but DHA understands they will save money and energy in time. “We are trying to project sustainability as an achievable aim for clients in developing nations. Part of that involves explaining to the client that including double glazing and solar panels will cost more, but it will save a lot of money in the long run.”

Sustainability on a budget
The city has set a benchmark for future projects in Pakistan, but it has also proven the implementation of sustainable technology doesn’t have to come with the price tag associated with other large-scale sustainable projects. “It’s proven that in the environment of Pakistan, just like other developing countries, a city level development can be built on similar sustainability principles” argues Atif, keen to push the idea of dreaming big whilst always keeping your budget in mind.

RMJM Osmani was determined to implement sustainable practice at every stage of the design process. Such is the team’s commitment to maintaining sustainable standards, waste material was converted into the design. Atif clarifies: “We found a lot of stone when excavating the site. Once you remove the stone and build up the site you can’t use them again. So we took the stone out, turned them into tiles and are now using them in the design.” It’s this economic outlook that most characterises DCK. By collecting and reusing ‘waste material’, the team reduce spending and CO2 emissions on transporting the stone to a landfill, mining and producing other stone for the site and transporting it back to DCK.

Sustainable design in Pakistan

Incentives and Attractions
The challenges of building the first sustainable city in Pakistan go deeper than just obtaining and utilising sustainable technology, it also requires a fundamental understanding of the factors that would draw people to live and work there. DCK caters to a range of institutions, including business and trade facilities, community-based amenities, world-class healthcare, education, highly regarded recreation facilities and well-planned energy and municipal services. However, in order to convince Pakistani citizens of the merits of DCK, the team knew they had to offer a sustainable basis for employment and regular tourism too.

Before embarking on DCK, a team of engineers, architects, masterplanners and designers embarked on a research mission to inform their ‘model city’ concept. “We saw universities were popular, as were theme parks,” says Atif. Justifying the inclusion of medical teaching facilities in DCK, Atif remarks; “In Karachi, we saw people will come from far away if it’s a good college. Also, if it’s a respected medical institution, people will travel.” For the city to stand as a benchmark for future developments in Pakistan, it had to maintain a cultural and practical use for years to come.

“We asked DHA to make institutions cheaper to attract universities” Atif continues. By ensuring access to quality educational and medical facilities, Atif and his team also dramatically increased the allure for the politicians, thinkers and trendsetters of the future. So far, three universities are already signed up to develop campuses within the city. Features like this, including the large theme park situated in the ‘Gateway District’, fulfil both an economic and cultural need, improving the quality of life while ensuring a regular inflow of paying visitors, further bolstering Pakistan’s domestic economy.

Sustainable design Pakistan
A detailed breakdown of the different land-use for each sector. The light blue sections denote centres of education

Plans for the world’s first completely sustainable mosque are already underway in DCK while the progressive outlook of the international team of designers is apparent in other design features. As one of the first cities in Pakistan to provide city-wide handicapped access, DCK is also pioneering disability rights. “We made sure to always provide handicapped accessibility” Atif explains, adding “We couldn’t achieve the American standard perhaps, but we realised if we provide ramps and wide enough corridors, we can make people aware that we should be doing something to cater to everyone.”

This mentality represents a driving factor behind the overall design of DHA City Karachi – the need to create a more inclusive world, where sustainability isn’t the sole preserve of the wealthiest nations, and improvisation can be the seed from which the next standard grows. DHA may not have the same access to funds as cities in the UAE, the UK or the US, but it is founded on the same principles of developing the framework for future living today. DCK can also act as an inspiration to other developing nations looking to create their own sustainable havens. Sustainable design in Pakistan may still be a fresh concept, but it is also vital to take advantage of the limited infrastructure of developing nations now. Sustainable developments like DHA Karachi City don’t need to be stocked with all the latest gadgets to be a modern marvel of engineering; vision, drive and cultural awareness can go a long way to creating “something extraordinary”.


  • Craig Warson says:

    Like what I see
    Currently under demobilization after 2 + years as master planning advisor / design manager for the urban integration of the 1st phase of the Qatar Rail – if you have any apprppriate jobs in master planning / urban design
    Best regArds Craig

  • Jerome Johnson says:

    Lovely flow to this interview… Atif seems genuinely passionate about this project, compounded by the exemplary nature of DHA City. By that I mean he isn’t waxing lyrical and lauding some gaudy and ostensibly cheap piece of ‘starchitecture’.
    I hope the project has the impact it deserves.