On solid foundations: Reviewing the building industry in 2018 and predicting the year ahead

AESG’s Saeed Al Abbar lays out his thoughts on the trends that will shape the building industry in 2018

2018 was a momentous year for the built environment sector with an unprecedented level of change sweeping through the industry.  At the end of the previous year, I set out my thoughts for 2018 and a key theme in that piece was in fact ‘Change’.  I predicted that firms that would measure 2018 as a success would be those that best adapt to the rapid evolution taking place not only in the sector but also the regional and global economy.  For us at AESG, 2018 was a milestone year.  Despite challenges in the market we managed to grow by over 60% through evolving our services to meet new market demands as well as diversifying our offerings in new verticals and geographies.  As we start the new year, I’ve taken the opportunity to revisit some of the sector predictions I made for 2018 and take stock of where we are and what we can expect in 2019.

Zero and Near-Zero Energy Buildings

The urgency of transitioning to near-zero or net-zero energy buildings has come to the fore in 2018 with the IPCC releasing a report in October seen as ‘’a final call to save the world from climate catastrophe’’.  This dramatic report on keeping global temperature rise under 1.5°C  says the world is now completely off track, heading instead towards a 3°C rise.

Adhering to the preferred target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will mean “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. This new study says that going past 1.5°C is dicing with the planet’s livability. And the 1.5°C temperature “guard rail” could be exceeded in just 12 years, which is a frighteningly short timescale.

On the positive side, 2018 saw the start of far reaching actions necessary to achieve the targets of the Paris agreement as leaders from some of the world’s biggest cities plus two major regions, have committed to enact regulations and/or planning policies that will require all new buildings within their jurisdiction to operate at net-zero carbon from 2030; and all buildings, including existing, to operate at net zero carbon by 2050, under the World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

We have already seen the first movers in this space and are working with some forward-thinking clients on net-zero and near-zero schemes.  We anticipate that in line with global trends, this will be an area that will continue to gain significant momentum in the Middle East in 2019.

Fire and Life Safety

Despite increased attention being drawn to the issue, the number of high-profile façade fires, both globally and regionally, highlights that there is yet large room for improvement. Façades remain a focal area and the UAE Fire Code and Saudi Building code have been updated recently with emphasis of the issue of facades, fire safety during construction and the introduction of specific super high-rise building rules.

Besides due attention being paid at the time of development, it is vital for building owners and facility management teams to manage their liability and safeguard their investments. With its new fire code, the UAE has taken a positive step in this direction by clearly defining the responsibilities of the various stakeholders in ensuring building fire and life safety. As a result, this year, we have started to see the positive effect as various stakeholders has begun to acknowledge the seriousness of their roles. Furthermore, with the consequences of failure or negligence including possible legal implications and more repressive action against violators, there has been clear reason for these stakeholders to ensure compliance.

Ultimately, I expect that this will lead to the stronger involvement of property insurers asking for stricter fire safety implementation. This will also result in greater involvement of fire consultants in more and more in fire safety reviews and in the assistance of fire safety upgrades.

Building Performance and Commissioning

I predicted that 2018 would see an acceleration in the demand and delivery of high-performance buildings, defined as buildings that integrate and optimise all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant safety and productivity.  Whilst we have definitely seen more Clients demanding this at the design stage, unfortunately there is still a lot more to be done to ensure the realisation of these goals through construction and operation.

This can only be achieved through greater accountability for the performance objectives of the building and having a robust process to ensure that the design performance intent is achieved through operation.  I see the role of commissioning being vital for this and we have a lot to learn to catch up with other sectors.  For instance; in the automobile sector a new car will undergo extensive testing and fine tuning before being released to the market as quite simply customers will not accept a car that is designed excellently but does not perform on the road.  Consequently, when you purchase a new car you do so with a very high level of confidence that it will work as intended.  Unfortunately, this is seldom the case in the building sector and needs to be improved through greater attention and accountability in the commissioning and handover process.

In 2018, we definitely saw the demand for third party commissioning and handover services, from being almost negligible in previous years, experience encouraging increase. There still remains a lot of misunderstanding regarding the purpose and scope of this exercise however. The market is yet to reach the desired level of maturity to ensure a robust and independently verifiable handover regime is in place to ensure that all building assets begin their operational cycle in a state of high performance.

Value Engineering

Economic challenges in 2018 continued to drive the need for value engineering (VE) though all too often, clients opted to do so too late, resulting in the VE exercise being reduced to mere cost cutting at the expense of quality. Often, Clients wait until they finalize their building layouts with the architectural teams before engaging the rest of the team. However, having the engineers work closely with the architect to optimize the building design and distribution, and details such as the location of main plant rooms provides the greatest likelihood of ultimately achieving the best value. Or take for example MEP works wherein there is a lot of repetition and abortive works between the Consultant and Contractor. The current design process has to change to avoid this and the conflicts that arise from it.

To be truly effective, VE has to commence at the start of a project and involve close collaboration between teams and should be woven into the project development process rather than begin treated as a cost cutting exercise carried out only once designs have been completed.

Management of existing assets

With the current market conditions, it is inevitable that developers and building owners look more closely to their existing assets to maximise their value and revenue potential.  This is coupled with the market reaching a maturity level wherein there is an increasing number of aging assets that are in urgent need of refurbishment.

I predicted that this would be a growth area for the industry in 2018 as Clients looked to ensure that their assets meet modern standards and codes and also explore opportunities for renovation or change of use for older or distressed assets. We certainly saw this trend come to the fore in 2018 and we conducted a large number of projects to upgrade and recommission existing assets to ensure compliance with updated life safety codes, health and well being criteria, and energy efficiency goals.  We were also requested to conduct a number of building surveys for Clients that are looking at a major upgrade of existing assets or change of use to better suit changing market conditions.

I definitely see this being a continued growth area in the market as the regions property sector evolves to a more mature market status.

One challenge that has been evident in this process is the lack of accurate documentation and records for existing buildings, including those that have been recently handed over. A BIM model with asset data attached is the best method for managing data throughout the project, from concept to handover to the FM team. Unfortunately, the use of BIM is still concentrated on visual elements rather than information, so this needs a mindset change before it can work successfully. Logging and reporting on this information could be used to draw comparison with predictions from the design. This would then give building owners the ability to correct operating issues quickly and reduce their OpEx while also increasing the life of their investments.

Overall, through 2018, we saw the industry make strides in the right direction. Change will continue to be the only constant in 2019, which is why keeping a keen eye and reacting rapidly to evolving building trends will be essential to success. 2018, saw a solid foundation being set in place and I remain optimistic that this will be built upon in the year ahead.


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