For this house in Al Barsha, Dubai, Archidentity employed sustainable design by addressing issues of shade and natural lighting Image Credit: Supplied Picture

The UAE’s increased commitment to sustainability puts it ahead of the other GCC countries, according to architects and industry experts. Yet, while the situation is improving, the market still has to overcome the misconception that greening and improving a building’s energy efficiency is a costly affair.

“The UAE has a good framework [the Estidama Pearl Rating System] and we are seeing the process in Abu Dhabi setting good examples, including the goal of reducing energy bills by 20 per cent in all new homes built across the emirate,” says Antonio Ceci, Sustainability and Permitting Section Manager at RW Armstrong, an engineering consultancy and architectural firm.

“While regional sustainable building codes are welcomed by the construction industry and will boost investment, individuals and end users also need to be part of the sustainable built environment.”

A grey area

Ceci says sustainability-related regulations started in the UAE with Estidama, before spreading to Qatar as the Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS). “Now all other GCC countries are showing signs of implementing assessment tools that can be classified as sustainable regulations.

“But while many are talking the talk, few are walking the walk, as sustainability goals must be embraced throughout the design development and through to construction,” 
he adds.

Understanding what sustainability entails is still a grey area, he says, even for those in the construction and consultancy industries.

“The question that arises is whether sustainable architecture is worth the investment, and what the investment actually is,” Ceci adds. “A sustainable building should cost marginally less to build and have much lower operating costs. Developers are well informed and see the long-term benefits. But contractors, in some cases, lack the experience of implementing environmental design principles into the construction methods and procedures. This makes it complicated to fulfil the requirements as stated in the building code regulations, especially regarding the sustainable supply chain, construction and demolition waste management.”

Engi Jaber, Architect and Sustainability Coordinator at Dewan Architects & Engineers, agrees. “The result is always guaranteed on paper. However, the reality of successful implementation very much depends on and is challenged by the dimension of social sustainability. This deals with the end user awareness and interpretation, behaviour and overall consumption to ensure a successful impact on the built environment,” she says.

Emirati architect Ahmad Bukhash, Chief Architect and Founder of Archidentity, seconds this. “The normal market interpretation of sustainability is usually in the form of a promotional gimmick. It looks at a mechanical and product solution to sustainability, rather than addressing the design problems at the grass-roots level.”

‘It is getting better’

Bukhash says there are cost-effective ways of curbing a building’s energy consumption. “A well-designed building will utilise natural winds for ventilation and cooling effects. The architect will also break the monotony of surfaces in order to provide more shaded pockets and prevent solar gain on the façade,” he says.

Today, clients are more informed and thus are more willing to have a discussion about sustainable design, says Huda Shaka, Senior Consultant, Environment and Sustainability at Arup. “It is getting better. Design teams are more interested in considering the broader environmental and social dimensions and are better equipped to undertake the necessary analysis and modelling. In addition, there is more data available, which allows project teams to make better decisions and be more confident in implementing innovative strategies.”

However, cost perception remains a key hindrance. “The high-cost misconception comes from the fact that a green building usually has a much greater aspiration, function and comfort level than a regular building,” says Ceci.

“The fact that a green building aims to generate its own electricity, and sometimes even sell surplus power to the grid, makes it an entirely different concept.

“This will be the best approach in terms of the environment, but it requires the full commitment of the client, such as Masdar.”

Adds Jaber, “Though some clients are keen on investing in sustainable architecture and are motivated by the long-term payback, others believe that it is an added cost and extended procedure that they can do without.

“Moreover, developers and consultants face major drawbacks as contractors are not accustomed to following these requirements and implementing such construction practices. It is without a doubt a challenge to the entire construction industry to comply with these new regulations, but things have changed in the region,” says Jaber.

Adopting trends

“However, as we are only reaching construction completion of the first rated projects, the operational efficiency of the implemented designs will measure in real-life conditions over time and we expect that significant feedback will be provided in order to learn more and hopefully perform even better,” he says.

That said, Bukhash says he is already seeing a major shift in clients’ briefs. “It is now common practice to use solar heaters in villas. The market also offers substitutes for the traditional concrete blocks used to construct the walls. This new alternative uses less manpower and features good insulation properties combined with structural capabilities to form a good thermal barrier, thus reducing the use of air conditioning,” he says.

Other trends include clients asking for the use of grey water to irrigate landscaping, automated sanitary fittings and soft mood lighting and sensors, which reduce utility bills. “We are also asked to design in a way that all the glass is used on the inside of the building. This way the interiors get more natural light. Many buildings in the UAE are designed like boxes, which forces people to use lighting during the day and raises their electricity bills.

“Again, in terms of energy efficiency, it is known that shade reduces the temperature inside the building. So, avoid designing buildings facing the southern light, as occupants will experience an increase in heat and a disruptive glare,” Bukhash advises.

Ceci adds that by integrating the concept of sustainability at the start of the project, challenges and opportunities can be identified and addressed early in the design phase. Thus appropriate green options can be assessed and incorporated into the design and construction process. “This approach is far more suited to keep projects on vision, on budget and on time,” he says.

“It is well known that an initial green design investment of just 2 per cent will produce savings greater than 10 times the initial investment, based on a very conservative 20-year building lifespan.”