Cooling systems account for 80-85 per cent of the total energy consumption of buildings Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sustainability stands at the core of the UAE energy policy, with the UAE Energy Plan 2050 focused on boosting clean energy, reducing dependence on natural gas, slashing CO2 emissions by nearly 70 per cent and improving energy efficiency by close to 40 per cent by the middle of the century. These initiatives could result in net savings of a whopping Dh700 billion.

With buildings positioned as the highest consumers of energy, using up nearly 70 per cent of all energy produced in Dubai, the energy policy is strongly hinged on improving energy efficiencies in the built environment. Tall buildings and skyscrapers pose an additional challenge, with the design, infrastructure and maintenance demands of these structures creating several energy-intensive scenarios.

The UAE’s energy policy takes into account the varied built area, including the old and the new, the tall and low, with energy regulations to control new building fit-outs balanced with retrofitting initiatives to improve energy efficiency of old buildings. But regulations, like the demand-side management initiative, need to be coupled with intensified education efforts and transparency in sharing the savings and benefits with building users, to maximise energy efficiency in buildings.

Faisal Rashid, director of demand-side management at the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy, explains, “The Dubai Demand Side Management Strategy 2030 targets savings of 30 per cent on electricity and water. It targets primarily buildings, which comprise over 70 per cent of all consumption, and are thus a key focus for the implementation of the programme. The two key enablers are more stringent building codes and aggressive building retrofit programmes for existing buildings. The Supreme Council of Energy is working closely with other government entities in ensuring all savings are made known to building users and, upon implementation of EE measures, that all savings are measured and verified.”

Designing for efficiency

A critical part of energy conservation in all new build-outs in Dubai is the design of the building. This can have a significant impact on the energy consumption of the building across its entire life cycle, says Michele Pasca di Magliano, associate director of Zaha-Hadid Architects. “Tall buildings consume a great amount of energy during their construction and within their lifetime,” says Magliano. “It is therefore essential that sustainable measures are taken into consideration in their planning. One of the aspects we principally focus on at Zaha Hadid Architects is minimising embodied energy, such as optimising orientation and reducing areas of full glazing to minimise heat gain. Few key moves can greatly reduce the amount of energy that the building requires.”

This brings us to a very important consideration when talking design in the context of Dubai, which is the city’s fixation with super-tall structures clad with glass curtain walls. The “glass-box” phenomenon as it is called, requires a significant amount of energy to be habitable, both from a cooling and a lighting perspective.

“The need is to design climate-specific buildings,” exhorts Scott Coombes, director of AESG, a consultancy and commissioning firm for sustainability, energy and facades. “Because we like a building in France does not mean we can replicate the same here. It is necessary to push designers to reflect on traditional architecture, like having thick thermal walls, which provide good insulation, and good ventilation, but if you use big curtain walls and big windows without putting shading outside or across the windows, it is not a sustainable design.”

Using small windows that are set back from the façade, with a façade that is reflective of light, is a simple way to make tall towers more energy efficient. Several building codes have been put in place to ensure new building design and construction comply with the energy-efficiency goals of the UAE. Some of the stipulations include 50 per cent of external glazing to be north-facing, 5 per cent of construction materials to be recycled, and the use of light reflective walls, smart meters and speed control escalators with traffic detection capabilities.

Keeping cool is costly

When analysing energy usage, air conditioning is one of the top culprits as cooling systems use 80-85 per cent of the total energy consumption of buildings. Despite this, it is impossible to eliminate or significantly reduce the use of cooling systems in Dubai given the climate and temperature. The key lies in optimising usage, while not compromising comfort, says Rashid.

“In the context of buildings, energy savings must be viewed as a source of energy,” he says. “It is cheapest and cleanest not to use excessive energy at all and have consumption optimised at no loss of comfort or functionality to the user of energy.

“Due to harsh weather during approximately half of the year, a lot of life in Dubai happens indoors, which is also where most of generated energy is spent. Ensuring that our comfort is provided at maximum efficiency is our vision and goal.”

Smart sensor technology and reprogrammed air-conditioning units can help reduce the HVAC consumption figures by effectively balancing loads with demand. “We try to work with central cooling, which, especially in mixed-use scenarios, allows to reduce the total load by differentiating timing of peak demands between residential, offices and commercial,” says Magliano.


Old buildings comprise a significant portion of the built-up landscape in Dubai, and pose the greatest challenge being the highest consumers of energy and expenders of carbon emissions. Due to a sharp increase in utility rates between 2008 and 2011, wherein electricity costs went up by 120 per cent and water by 40 per cent, many companies became focused on reducing their utility costs, which has been achieved by retrofitting.

Retrofitting, a term that has become more mainstream over the last year, is the process of revamping old buildings with more energy-efficient systems to reduce wastage and optimise consumption. The size of this market is massive.

“With over 30,000 potential retrofit projects to be carried out in Dubai before 2030, under the Etihad Esco, a Dubai Electricity and Water Authority-led initiative to retrofit buildings from a lighting and energy perspective, the market has gained considerable momentum with a host of companies looking for solutions to reduce energy consumption and ultimately costs,” says Markus Oberlin, CEO of Farnek, a property maintenance firm.

Given the size of the market, the potential for savings is also considerable, especially in the context of tall buildings and skyscrapers. Despite the initial investment, implementers are reporting highly favourable returns.

“A large percentage of the savings will come from medium to high investments in HVAC, or air-conditioning units,” says Oberlin. “Those with a long-term vision for profit margins will see greater returns from investing now. Skyscrapers and tall buildings that have not implemented environmentally friendly measures consume considerable energy. Therefore, retrofitting plays an integral role in energy savings and increasingly property owners and managers are recognising the financial upside of ensuring a greener building.”

How it impacts end users

End users can significantly benefit from energy-saving practices being implemented across old and new buildings. Oberlin says the cost and energy savings from retrofitting include decreased utilities budgets due to higher efficiencies in energy and water usage, reduced building operations budgets due to lower maintenance and repair costs, and better-quality living spaces and greater services and amenities. For landlords, they also benefit as they can charge a premium for providing a quality product.

It definitely pays for all stakeholders to be fully involved and committed in the drive to optimise energy usage towards a greener future, not just for the feel-good eco-friendly factor, but also with the favourable returns and savings in energy consumption and maintenance.