The green revolution in Middle East construction

Experts explain how regional cities can improve their sustainability ranking

The global construction industry has for years been known to put profit above the planet. Forums like COP21 have drawn attention to the fact that carbon emissions have skyrocketed over the years, which has resulted in governments working around the clock to put rules in place to regulate the construction process and materials used to create our built environment.

The results of these efforts can be seen in a handful of cities today. According to the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, Frankfurt, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Rotterdam occupy the top five positions for being the most sustainable.

Not too far behind are a few Asian cities like Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, followed by a few others from America and Australia. But when it comes to the Middle East, places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha still rank much lower – 33rd, 34th and 41st.

With initiatives like the UAE Vision 2021 National Agenda, which focuses on improving air quality, preserving water resources and increasing clean energy, why is the region still low on the global sustainable cities scale?

For starters, sustainability practices are very young in the Middle East, notes Omair Awadh, senior sustainability consultant at Dubai-based AESG. Awareness and consideration has improved in the last decade, but this varies from city to city.

“Few cities fiercely encourage sustainable practices such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, where it is mostly government-driven. Other cities are struggling due to the lack of support, like in Amman and Beirut. I think government-driven practices seem to be the most effective when it comes to the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability, while the social aspect has not been considered as such,” he says.

Wayne Morgan, senior engineer at Cundall, agrees that sustainable construction practices are slowly getting a foothold in the Middle East. In fact, he says that over the last few years experts have been starting to notice an increase in the number of projects seeking LEED or ESTIDAMA certification.

However, he feels more can be done to promote sustainable practices, not only when constructing new buildings but during activities like refurbishment and office fit-out as well.

Taking a different stand point that it is a wide misconception that the Middle East has never been sustainable is Omnia Halawani, managing partner at Griffin Consultants. She points out that sustainable practices have been around for ages, as old architectural approaches in the UAE incorporated a lot of passive sustainability measures like shading, wind towers and low window to wall ratios.

“Architects like Hassan Fathy, the Egyptian architect, saw the value of sustainable construction long before it became a craze in the West. Climatic conditions and public health considerations shaped many of his architectural decisions. Wind catchers, courtyards and dense brick walls were some of the strategies incorporated in his architecture. But when exponential growth occurred in the GCC, sustainability took a back seat to construction speed. It has now regained its position as one of the pillars for sustainable economies.”

Considering past efforts and the fact that current sustainable drives are still in their infancy, what do Middle East cities need to do to match their European counterparts?

Morgan believes the main problem is that things are a little too fast-paced in the region. For instance, when a project comes online, the developer wants it to be completed as soon as possible, which often prevents thorough planning and consideration of sustainable options.

“If you want a sustainable building, you need to have the right materials and equipment, and that might not fit in line with the client’s programme. Everything is very fast-tracked here, whereas in European cities like Frankfurt or London, they take more time to design, plan, construct and incorporate green practices correctly.

“Things like building materials need to be considered. Ideally you should look to source your materials locally to fit in with the programme, but sometimes you may need to consider sourcing products from Europe, which might pose a problem.”

Halawani agrees with Morgan’s point on the pace of development. She even points out that it is a well-established fact that rapidly developing countries face serious environmental challenges. However, she says that there are certain considerations to be made as well, like the fact that temperatures in the region make it impossible to eliminate the use of artificial cooling.

“The exponential growth in the UAE, and other Middle Eastern cities, has led to an increase of the country’s energy usage and the energy use per capita. It’s worthwhile to note that every room in the UAE is air-conditioned due to the extreme climate, and therefore to have an apple to apple comparison when developing rankings such as the Sustainable Cities Index is not feasible.

“Another thing is that in cold climates, inefficiency in buildings like appliances and lighting benefit the heating system, since these generate more heat. But in a city like Dubai, inefficient lighting and plug loads would add to the cooling load and drive the consumption of the air-conditioning equipment even higher.”

Awadh says that while developing cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are working towards being more sustainable, they need to adopt a post-construction monitoring and data analysis system. For example, he says Frankfurt has not only set its own energy and environmental benchmark but has also established future targets and a plan for achieving them. To do this, data sharing and management is essential.

There are other things that can be done as well, such as making older buildings in the city more sustainable through refurbishment. In fact, Morgan highlights that they’ve done a project where they replaced a district cooling plant; the biggest problem is convincing the owner of the building, as it means shutting it down.

“While it’s easy to create a sustainable city from scratch, I think there is probably more benefit from improving what’s inside buildings that are already built. If you look at the size of Dubai, there are thousands of buildings that were built 10-15 years ago that are probably now highly inefficient. Replacing that with current standards probably gives you more benefit than constructing a new development, but trying to justify a working building being shut down to the developer despite it being inefficient is tricky.”

There are other less expensive things that can be done too, like generating electricity from a natural resource by using PV panels, using LEDs, and lighting control through daylight sensors, which brings down the overall energy consumption of the building.

Improving artificial cooling systems is another factor to consider. Halawani says that according to a study conducted by Griffin and AESG, 67% of Dubai’s power is used by cooling systems at peak times, which emphasises the importance of exerting efforts to make this sector more efficient.

“The cooling systems in the majority of buildings here are oversized, and this is an easy and straightforward area for optimisation. Considering that artificial cooling is needed in every building, the selection of more efficient cooling systems would play a vital role in achieving sustainability.”

While it is important to construct a green city, balancing sustainability and economic growth is equally necessary. But Halawani believes that economic growth targets do not need to contradict sustainability. She points out that this belief is shared by 190 nations, including the UAE, who agreed in Rio+20 Summit in 2012 that a green economy is one of the vital tools needed to not only achieve sustainable development but to eradicate poverty.

“In 2012, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the launch of a long-term national initiative to build a green economy in the UAE. The initiatives that were started under this strategy come under sectors like oil & gas, water and electricity, industry, construction, transport and logistics, waste management, land use and agriculture, financial services, and tourism and hospitality.

“Some of those initiatives include renewable energy projects, efficiency standards and green building codes, public transportation, waste-to-energy projects, organic farming, ESCOs, and green hotels. It is anticipated that more national and local policies will be enforced in a coordinated manner to facilitate this green agenda.”

Naturally, all of this comes with a set of challenges, the biggest being spreading awareness about the importance of sustainable practises and convincing clients that it isn’t an expensive option if planned and executed correctly. Morgan says one way of overcoming this is by consultants spending more time advising the client about the benefits and the return on investment in the long run.

“What tends to happen is that a client will come and say that he wants a green building or a LEED-certified development, and most consultants just say, ‘Okay, here’s the fee’, and that’s it. You’ve already lost them with that one sentence.

“They need to know that being sustainable may require more investment at the start, but there are longer-term benefits for themselves as a company and the people within the building. They need to know that in ten years’ time they will regain that investment and will have helped the environment as well.”

In Awadh’s opinion, the challenge is not just awareness but also documenting and quantifying the impact of sustainability practices at environmental, social and economic levels.

So what is the way forward for Middle Eastern cities, and how far are we in reality from catching up with the West?

One thing’s for sure, with initiatives like the UAE’s Vision 2021 and HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s ‘A Green Economy for Sustainable Development’ in place, we’re heading in the right direction, says Halawani.

Awadh says that he believes that pilot net-zero energy buildings are evolving in the UAE, and that carbon-neutral developments will be the next step. He believes that self-sustained cities and regenerative developments may be the future of sustainability practices in cities.

Concluding, Morgan points out that while we are on the right track, we are a way off from being completely sustainable.

“Take Masdar City as an example. It is expected to be finished in 2030, and while the initiative is excellent, that’s a long time to build a relatively small city. I think the urge to be sustainable has to come from various bodies and not just the government.

“We do have the Green Building Code, but if we truly want to build a sustainable city, the government should bring in more stringent regulations and make it mandatory. Attaining an entirely green city would be a tough task, but it’s not impossible. If everybody recognises the importance of it, it would happen a lot quicker, but at the moment it’s probably a long way off.”

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