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‘Let’s cut the excess flab’

Retrofit Champion – Sarfraz H Dairkee, General Manager – Corporate Development and Engineering, MAHY Khoory

| | May 15, 2010 | 12:24 pm
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Why should our buildings be so obese? asks Sarfraz Dairkee, adding that it is important to address issues that give rise to retrofit opportunities.

Sarfraz Dairkee

Sarfraz Dairkee

To drive home his point about the retrofit market in the UAE, Sarfraz H Dairkee, General Manager – Corporate Development and Engineering, MAHY Khoory, likes to quote Dr-Ing M Norbert Fisch, Institute of Energy Design, Building and Solar Technology (IGS), Technical University Braunschweig, who observed that proper retrofitting of buildings in the UAE can achieve the benefits equivalent of a nuclear power plant, at a fraction of the costs. Dr Fisch made this observation at a conference organised by AHK (The German Emirati Joint Council for Industry & Commerce) in Abu Dhabi, last month.

Likening the extremely high energy footprint of existing buildings to obesity, Dairkee says that retrofitting them would be akin to putting them through dieting and exercise to cut the “excess flab”.

Dairkee blames the “excess flab” in buildings on the market’s penchant for selling products instead of solutions. The product-centric selling approach that rules the market today is akin to “the fast food culture”, which is marked by instant gratification and an easy-way-out mentality, resulting in people becoming obese and unhealthy; in the same way, we have “obese” structures. The need of the hour, in the case of building design, is a solutions-based approach, where a pump supplier, instead of blindly selling the pump, will question if a pump is needed in the first place. “Such a change will happen only if the market is willing,” Dairkee says.

Solution development is increasingly an interdisciplinary affair; hence, all the engineering disciplines involved need to interact more closely with one another, which brings us to the concept of building commissioning. Dairkee points out that commissioning starts by asking the right questions. “A design charrette can be organised to bring together all the stakeholders for exchange of views,” he says. “When all the stakeholders are involved, there is ownership of ideas. As a result, the building project becomes something more than mere drawings and papers.”

In fact, one of the biggest factors behind the overdesigning of buildings is poor communication and interaction between the stakeholders and the specialist disciplines involved, right from concept to occupancy. It is the physical attribute rather than the subtle quality that gets all the attention. Often, the means for measuring and verifying quality and performance are not available, so the same gets attributed to certain brands or points of origin. “In the end, you limit yourself to the small picture,” Dairkee says.

Also, asking questions can help owners define their project requirements, understand quality better and ensure smooth communication with other stakeholders. The objective is to move beyond the gross in order to get to the subtle. “Defining your requirements in terms of ‘a beautiful glass building’ or ‘so many square feet area’ are examples of the gross or the superficial. Instead, you must probe deeper and find out why you need so much square feet or why you need glass?” said Dairkee.

Also, asking questions can help owners better define their project understand quality better and ensure smooth communication with other stakeholders. The objective is to move beyond the gross in order to get to the subtle. “Defining your requirements in terms of ‘a beautiful glass building’ or ‘so many square feet of area’ are examples of the gross or the superficial,” Dairkee says. “Instead, you must probe deeper and find out why you need so many square feet or why you need glass.”

A clear method of benchmarking, too, needs to be adopted; the classic example of a benchmarking tool is the ‘Building Energy Passport’, used widely throughout Europe. Under an EC Directive, all buildings being constructed, rented or sold must have a valid energy performance certificate, known as an ‘energy passport’, which contains detailed information about the building’s energy consumption. Moreover, in many EU member countries, an energy passport is required before any new project can get a building permit.

Dairkee says: “What you get is a measurable and verifiable document, which can be used for benchmarking. We can have something similar in this region, too. The data it provides can serve as a navigation tool by telling us where we stand today, so that we can decide where we want to go. My past stint in the Merchant Navy taught me that if we didn’t have such markers, we are not going to reach our destination, no matter how hard we pushed the engine.”

Can local standards be a panacea where the challenge of over-design is concerned? To the extent, they truly incorporate local environmental conditions, local standards can be beneficial. “Unfortunately, the prevalent idea is to control the environment, instead of working with it,” Dairkee rues. He likens the difference between the two to hitting the bull’s eye using a machine gun versus using a rifle armed with a single bullet. The ‘machine gun’ approach results in everybody designing and piling on safety factors, which ultimately culminates in an ‘obese’ design. “Design factor is ignorance factor,” Dairkee says. “Larger the design factor, higher the ignorance.”

The way out of this ignorance, he continues, is “learning to unlearn” and “getting out of conditioned thinking, which computers are more adept at”. He suggests Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher as must-read books for today’s engineers, who more often than not, have to work at the interfaces of different disciplines. “What these books teach you is get out of the arrogance of knowing,” Dairkee says. “There is always something new to learn; there is always a better way of doing things, even if they were done well the first time around. The answers don’t reveal themselves easily, but if you are determined, they can be found.”

Walking the talk

Among Dairkee’s memorable projects was the development of a refrigerator running on bio-gas in the 1980s when working for the Indian HVACR engineering solutions provider, Voltas. The asking price for technology transfer from Europe was too high; equally high was the scepticism about developing such a technology in-house in India. Armed with technical literature “gathering dust” from the corporate library and a vapour absorption refrigerator from the local junkyard, Dairkee set out to prove the sceptics wrong. His persistence won supporters from an unexpected quarter – the company’s highly unionised workforce, a few of whom would join Dairkee after factory hours to work on the project without monetary compensation, something dismissed as impossible in those pre-liberalisation days. “When the refrigerator finally produced ice at the end of one very long day, each one of us was literally in tears, as all the hard work and effort had paid off,” Dairkee says. As head of testing in Voltas, Dairkee undertook the difficult task of teaching himself FORTRAN programming language, so as to develop a simulation programme for testing the air conditioners manufactured by the company.

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