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Visiting Dubai’s first-ever fully-sustainable mosque in Deira

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With its traditional design and its quiet integration within the Deira urban grain, one might not realise that the Khalifa Al Tajer Mosque is brand new, if it wasn’t for a smattering of scaffolding and workmen onsite.

Yet despite its restrained appearance, the mosque is in fact the largest in Dubai and the third largest in the UAE – after Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah – with an internal capacity for 3,470 worshippers on a 9,750m2 plot.  It is also set to be the only LEED-certified mosque in Arabia, and only the second green-rated in the world after the Al-Mawaddah Mosque which opened in 2009 in Singapore.

Targeting LEED Silver certification, the mosque is on course for completion by the end of June, in time for Ramadan. Leading an exclusive tour of the site for Middle East Consultant, Tayeb Abdulrahman Al Rais, general secretary for Awqaf and Minors Affairs Foundation (AMAF), explains that the sustainable direction stemmed from the need to save money and reduce operating costs.

“By going green we are going to save 20-25% on water and electricity,” he remarks. “It’s all about conserving resources.”

Al Rais explains that project was taken on by AMAF when the building owner tragically fell into a coma and became mentally incapacitated. One of the foundation’s first decisions was to scrap the original Turkish-style design, with multiple domes, in favour of an aesthetic more befitting the Arabian Peninsula.

He continues: “We didn’t want to spend all that money on a Turkish design. It doesn’t make sense for this region, so we designed a mosque that is of our heritage. It’s simple – it’s not like the Turkish design with 10, 20, 30 domes – but this is ours and we are very proud of it.”

The final design was refined to include one dome – 24m in height from the outside – and two 36m-high minarets. A large outdoor plaza contains an ablutions fountain and functions as an extra area for worshippers during peak times such as Ramadan and Friday afternoon prayers.

UAE-based Al Ajmi Engineering Consultants was appointed as lead consultant and worked closely with AMAF. Amer Shehadeh, supervision and contracts manager for Al Ajmi, says: “Since AMAF took over we have worked with them on everything – the architecture, structures, interior design, the appointment of the green consultant, contractor and the selection of each and every material or equipment for the project. It was aimed by AMAF from day one to have a singular and first of a kind mosque in Dubai. We worked with sustainability consultant Greenfield Trading to make sure the materials did not deviate from LEED.”

Dr John Patronis, managing partner of the UAE-based eco experts, adds: “We worked very well as a team. Greenfield’s scope was more than MEP, it included different areas – materials, indoor air quality – for the whole project.”

In addition to housing solar panels for generating renewable energy, the outdoor area contains a landscaped area which features a “desert-style garden”. Flora varieties include Washingtonia Robusta – a fast-growing, dateless palm which consumes less water than other types of tree. “The garden will not have any grass,” adds Al Rais. “Lawn is not for this country – it’s for places like southern Australia and the UK where there is a lot of rain.”

He explains that any irrigation will use water that is recycled from ablutions and air-conditioning. “For any recycling system you need 20% fresh water every week. But because we have connected the distilled water from the AC, which is even cleaner than drinking water, we have avoided putting that 20% back in. It was a very smart move by the consultants.”

A separate imam’s house – which stylises with the mosque – contains solar heating panels on the roof. Another adjoining building houses the main ablution area. Al Rais explains that variety was key, and adds: “We have several styles of ablution so anyone and everyone can be comfortable. You have sitting, standing and sink-style so we are not giving anyone an excuse not to wash up. Water is all controlled – it stays on for two minutes and then shuts off.”

Patronis interjects: “We have set it the required temperature, which is mostly taken care of by solar heating. We estimate that it will consume 45% less water [than an equivalent mosque].”

Al Rais explains that the project is targeting LEED Silver, rather Gold or Platinum, for practical reasons. He continues: “We didn’t see the need to spend that extra money to achieve Gold or Platinum – we were not going to get any extra benefit from it. For LEED Gold you have to provide things like a covered area for bicycles – nobody rides a bicycle here so why should we spend that money?”

Once the tour moves inside the prayer hall, the true scale of the mosque becomes apparent. Compared to other mosque interiors in the country, such as the opulent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the interior is elegant and stripped down.

Al Rais says: “It is a very simple heritage design – no fancy materials or engravings. When you come to a mosque you are supposed to get busy with prayer and not look around. Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is very impressive, but you are constantly looking around while praying. Islamic design is not meant to be elaborate. It’s as simple as we could make it.”

The most decorative element to the interior is an impressive custom-made chandelier, weighing around 500kg, which hangs below the dome. Al Rais says: “We only have one chandelier. If we’d stuck to the Turkish design we would have to have eight or nine of these, which would have cost a minimum of $1m in total.”

Large openings allowing light to enter in a controlled manner. “Other mosques shrink the window size,” says Al Rais. “We decided to make them larger and double glaze them. We have 14 hours of sunlight per day so why should we not utilise that? Why should we put an extra load on with artificial lights during the day? This is a big place to light.”

A total of 66% of the lighting load is saved due to the maximisation of natural lighting, plus sensor-controlled LEDs for the artificial lights. Sensors are also used to control air conditioning.

Al Rais continues: “One of the things that usually gets broken, or requires continuous maintenance, is the AC control as people always fiddle with it. Some people will be hot, others will be cold, and some will want to turn it off. So what we have done is put a sensor system so the temperature goes up and down according to the number of people coming in and going out.”

Materials are sourced locally to earn LEED points. For example, marble from Oman is used to line the walls below window level. Al Rais says: “During prayer time, people want to put their backs against the wall, so if the wall is painted you have to repaint every three months. With marble you pay a little extra but it stays forever.”

The flooring aggregate contains recycled stones from Ras Al Khaimah, while the carpet – which was yet to be installed at the time of our visit – contains material which can be recycled.

Wood for the doors comes from sustainable sources and gypsum is used for the simple ornamentation on the ceilings.

Another factor which accrues valuable points is the mosque’s proximity to public transport. Al Rais continues: “There’s a bus stop at the corner of the mosque, a metro station 50m away, and even the fact that civil defence is so close earns some points. We are surrounded by buildings and it is easy for people to walk here.”

A common occurrence on a Friday afternoon is to find cars parked in every spare inch of sand or tarmac surrounding a mosque. Al Ajmi’s Shehadeh believes that car congestion will be limited by the mosque’s location. He continues: “I don’t think it will be an issue because we are surrounded by so many hotels and many guests will not have cars. You also have Deira City Centre mall just opposite. People can just cross the road or go through the tunnel.”

Greenfield’s Patronis stresses that the project will act as a benchmark for the region. “We have set a standard for the whole Middle East. We are saving 45% of water and 23% of energy levels compared to international standards.”

Al Rais admits that the predicted performance of the mosque is largely theoretical and currently based on estimations. “We will have the figures at the end of the year. Everything we have is on paper – nobody has come here to pray and nobody has [done ablutions] yet. Once 12 months have passed, the figures could be higher or lower than our estimations.”

However, he believes that the results have the potential to pave the way for green, both in mosque construction and in other sectors. “We will publish the figures because we want to encourage others to build similar structures, whether it is a mosque, house or an apartment building. We want to conserve energy and resources for future generations.

“In one year, we can go to DEWA, the Municipality and Islamic Affairs, and say ‘this is what we’ve done, we need help to set it as the standard in Dubai’. If it’s a standard, it will creep out like a weed to the rest of the UAE, the Middle East and the Islamic World.”

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