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The Green Building Conundrum

Saeed Alabbar discusses how modern buildings in the Middle East are actually less efficient than decade-old constructions, and suggests measures that need to be taken to address the problem.

| | Nov 17, 2012 | 12:44 pm
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Saeed Alabbar discusses how modern buildings in the Middle East are actually less efficient than decade-old constructions, and suggests measures that need to be taken to address the problem.

Whilst the term “Green Building” is relatively new to the region and is currently much in circulation, the concept itself has been around for generations here. In the early decades of the 20th century, buildings were extremely sustainable due to the lack of availability of centralised electricity and water supply and the use of only local building materials. Buildings were, therefore, constructed with a strong focus on using passive design measures to provide ventilation and daylight, whilst keeping out unwanted heat.

Following the discovery of oil and the introduction of centralised power and water in the region, the design of buildings began incorporating air conditioning, electrical lighting and running water. However, during this era, building designs still maintained the passive design measures of local traditional architecture, such as window set-backs and shading. This was mostly due to the fact that at the time electricity was still considered a luxury and a precious commodity. Designers and builders, therefore, would instinctively develop buildings to suit the local climate with due consideration for resource scarcity. There are numerous examples of such architecture throughout the UAE, such as the World Trade Centre building in Dubai.

As the UAE entered the 21st century, globalisation brought with it many ideas and design concepts from the West, and fully glazed skyscrapers began dominating the city’s skyline. It can be argued that the use of fully glazed and, therefore, poorly insulated façades can be an inappropriate design concept for the climate in the region. However, the concept came to be frequently used to showcase modernity in new buildings. Costly, energy-intensive air conditioning technology was utilised to ensure that such buildings were able to maintain comfortable interior conditions despite the poor insulation.

Recognising the need to improve building sustainability, local building codes began evolving during this time to incorporate some of the fundamental features of Green Buildings, predominantly with a focus on insulation. For example, Dubai Municipality introduced insulation standards for new buildings in 2001. Towards the latter part of the decade, local governments also began introducing more rigorous codes, such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System in Abu Dhabi and the mandating of elements of the LEED Rating System for buildings within Dubai World’s jurisdiction. Furthermore, Dubai Municipality is also due to release its own Green Building regulations.

Whilst these are, indeed, welcome measures for the industry, and local governments should be praised for the bold steps being taken to address the sustainability of buildings, there are a few fundamental issues that need to be addressed in the industry. Despite all these measures being taken, we are still, unfortunately, in a situation where buildings being constructed today consume more energy per square metre of floor area than buildings constructed in the 1970s. As an industry, we are falling over ourselves to find the latest breakthroughs in technology to help save energy, and there have been some incredible advances made in technology. Why, then, are we using more energy now than 40 years ago? Surely, engineering should be about progress, shouldn’t it?

Unfortunately, we as an industry are still not asking ourselves the fundamental question of how much energy a building consumes in real life, compared to other buildings. It is true that some wonderful work is being done at the design phase with building information modelling in order to simulate the performance of buildings before they are built. This is, undoubtedly, a move in the right direction and is a great tool for designers to improve building designs. But shouldn’t we also, then, pay more attention to what the building consumes in reality after it is built?

Furthermore, a lot of the analysis done at the design stage consists of comparing the building being designed to a theoretical baseline of “the same building built to code requirements”. Therefore, if the fundamental design is terrible, the analysis that is required by the rating system will not reveal this. So, the question that needs to be asked is: What do we need to do as an industry? Here are a few suggestions, which, in my opinion might help address the issue:

Adopt a realistic approach

We need to start talking about a building’s energy use intensity and energy consumption per square metre, rather than comparing buildings to theoretical baselines.

Set stringent quality control guidelines

Quality control in the integrity of building envelopes needs major improvement. Some insightful analysis goes into building designs to select the right glass and insulation. But quite often, all this good work is lost during construction, as insulation and façades are installed poorly, with high levels of thermal bridging and air leakage. It is not only the contractors who are at fault here. A lot of building envelope designs done by architects in the region are also very poor, with enormous amounts of thermal bridging. There is really little use in specifying the top of the range insulation if heat is allowed to pass through all the exposed elements of the building. Major savings in energy can be made by addressing this rather simple issue, which would not cost that much to fix.

Focus on the operational aspect

We need to move the discussion of Green Buildings into the realm of building operation. There is a lot of talk about green design and green construction. But all the noble objectives appear to cease to matter once the building is completed and has received its rating. Buildings do not consume energy while they are being built. They only consume energy when they are occupied. This, therefore, should be the most important phase of a Green Building’s life. In the light of this, we need to pay more attention to the energy efficiency of building operation and begin reporting the energy use intensity of existing buildings.

Ensure proper utilisation of new technology

Before we try to outdo ourselves with the highest technology of systems in buildings, we need to make sure that those systems will be commissioned properly. Far too often, when we look at existing buildings, we see the most expensive and the highest spec building management system turned off because it is not working properly or the operators do not know how to use it. Bridging the interface between construction and operation through proper commissioning is essential, particularly now, as buildings are becoming more and more high-tech.

Despite these issues, there is a lot of great change that has taken place in the industry over the past few years, and governments and private sector are both making great strides in the realm of sustainable buildings. However, we must not rest on our laurels and must wake up every day and ask ourselves the fundamental question of how we can really make our buildings better.

The writer is Director at AESG. He can be contacted at s.alabbar@aesg-me.com

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