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State of the industry: Building performance

The leadership in the GCC region has been introducing a raft of vision statements and measures to encourage, urge and support the multiple stakeholders to raise the bar on building performance. Such path-breaking initiatives and thought processes as region-specific Green Building regulations, building-retrofit programmes, nearly zero-energy buildings, smart cities and IoT point to the right direction in terms of intent. Broadly, we are witness to market transformation and positive disruptive approaches, which have the potential to cut project timelines, and improve energy efficiency, indoor environment, reliability and resource conservation. But are building owners, architects, consultants, sub-consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and FM firms prepared to align themselves with these changes, broadly speaking? Are they showing a willingness to rise to the occasion? Or, are there factors – some self-induced and some beyond their control – that are proving to be challenges in the pathway to optimising their performance towards delivering better buildings? Climate Control Middle East brings you a two-part state-of-the-industry report, with the focus on the MEP consultancy and MEP contracting sectors. At the same time, the narrative includes aspects related to building owners and the role of policymakers and planners in influencing best practices. Here, we bring you the first part of the report, where the focus is on the MEP consultancy sector…

| | Sep 22, 2016 | 9:53 am
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Part 1 – MEP consultancy services in the GCC region

In an extraordinary sequence of events, starting barely 10 years ago, the leadership in the GCC region began expressing its socio-economic and sustainable development aspirations and goals through a raft of vision documents. The most recent addition came from Saudi Arabia in the forms of Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program.

Inherent in all the documents was a collective set of aspirations for the health, fulfillment and well-being of the population; strong economic health and for safeguarding the environment. Inherent in them was a multi-dimensional role for our HVACR industry, provided it shows a willingness to rise to the occasion and delivers to its fullest potential in ushering in better building performance, food safety and security, and reliable and efficient process cooling, to name three.

This report looks at building performance, specifically the role of the MEP consultancy and the MEP contracting sectors in delivering structures that embody energy efficiency and good indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Of the two, the focus of this – the first part of the report – is on the MEP consultancy industry.

It is generally agreed that MEP consultancy firms constitute a critical aspect of a building’s construction cycle. While it is argued in certain quarters that specialised MEP consultancy services are needed only for iconic structures or for specialised facilities like data centres, airports and malls, the broader sentiment is that MEP consultancy firms have a critical role to play in all spheres, especially in the context of the vision statements, which have indirectly and directly called out for good IEQ and energy efficiency of the highest order and unrivalled quality.

Against this background, what is the typical mindset of the MEP consultancy sector when it comes to embracing change as the first response to a set of new aspirations and measures? For instance, what is the sector’s reaction to the call for developing smart cities, nearly zero-energy buildings and retrofit projects?

Stuck in the status quo

Scott Coombes

Scott Coombes

Based on the evidence so far, the shift in thinking is barely discernible, though there is a comprehension of what the vision statements, measures or, for that matter, newly introduced regulations stand for. In some parts of the region, there has been a slight increase in activity than others. The UAE, for instance, has been trying to position itself as a centre of innovation, says Scott Coombes, Director at UAE-based consultancy firm, AESG. This has stirred some activity. “We have seen some recent exciting tenders for nearly zero-energy buildings, and with Al Sa’fat [the Green Building rating system being introduced by Dubai Municipality, this month], and the sustainability initiatives in Abu Dhabi and, again, with Dubai keen on 3-D-printed buildings, we are seeing potential opportunities,” he says.

MEP consultancy firms, for a large part, though, have not moved towards a significant change from their long-held practices. As Coombes puts it, while there definitely is an appreciation of regulations, maybe unsurprisingly, there is not a huge change. “They appreciate the change, but at the end of the day, the majority of the firms are catering to what their design brief is, what their clients are looking for,” Coombes says. “They don’t have an opportunity to deviate. Clients won’t encourage that and view giving consultants a ‘blank sheet’ as risky, so they [the consultants] are not pushing the boundaries. Also, the Middle East markets cater to fast-track projects as opposed to investigative feasibility studies.”

Mario Seneviratne

Mario Seneviratne

Mario Seneviratne, Director of UAE-based Green Technologies, mirrors Coombes’ words about consultants sticking to the design brief, saying that their interaction on Green Building projects or innovative work is with the clients. “If clients demand they want the tallest building, the consultants will rise to the occasion,” Seneviratne says. “The client has to drive the initiative. And if consultants don’t deliver, then they would have a legal framework to protect the client and also the consultant.”

Kandasamy Anbalagan, Managing Partner of UAE-based Proleed Engineering Consultants, also says the onus is on clients to drive specialised assignments, such as nearly zero-energy buildings. To date, he says, he has not seen any bids openings up on such buildings. “We are currently bidding on a sustainable and technologically advanced building, but even there, they are not talking about a nearly zero-energy building,” he says. In his estimate, such a building represents a future business opportunity, which clients would consider seriously when they feel the cost would justify building them. In his opinion, the cost of every single element of a nearly zero-energy building could typically have a recovery period of beyond 10 years, so it would be up to clients to take a call on them.

Waiting for the green signal
Leave alone nearly zero-energy buildings, despite Green Buildings dotting the GCC region’s landscape, the view towards green itself is still dependent on the client’s nod, which, perhaps, points to a lack of sufficient awareness among consultants towards sustainable development, as a first step to even suggesting to clients the need for incorporating green measures in the project. Coombes says there is only a slight shift towards consultants demonstrating a bit more awareness towards the environment, which he adds, is not an adequate response, given the fact that a sustainable environment has multiple benefits for not only the environment but also the economy and, in the context of the UAE’s Green Economy framework, will have a direct impact on the country’s GDP. The adequate response and a change in the mindset towards green are aspects that Ghaleb Abusaa, the Saudi Arabia-based CEO of consultancy firm, GASO, also eagerly looks forward to among the consultancy community. The change, he says, can only happen, though, when green is first appreciated in the heart. At the same time, he points out a contradiction. “I may like green as a consultant, but I need someone to give me that kind of a project.”

Kandasamy Anbalagan

Kandasamy Anbalagan

Anbalagan seconds Abusaa’s viewpoint and says it is for developers to take the lead. In his opinion, most developers don’t have concern for the environment. Many of them, he adds, still talk about clusters of residential or commercial buildings, which are being constructed for the purpose of selling to end-users. In those circumstances, they don’t care about sustainable development. “On the other hand, if it is a mall by Emaar, for instance, they would consider something that is environmentally friendly. In the case of most other developers, though, unless commercially viable, the imagination is not going to be driven.”

Seneviratne adds heft to the stand taken by Abusaa and Anbalagan by saying that it is a business-as-usual mindset in the case of most of the projects, unless the client insists on a LEED Platinum building, say. Seneviratne says there seems to be no idealism on the part of the consultant community, though they are proficient enough to design super LEED Platinum even. He says the mindset would perhaps change if clients were to show a bit more commitment towards green – and perhaps also a certain savviness. “I have been to Board of Directors meetings, where the clients are able to on their iPad ask, ‘What is the built-up area, and what is the rentable area?’ But they do not ask how many tonnes of air conditioning would be needed for that area or what is the energy consumed,” he says. “That savviness is not there in the client. I am hoping for the day when clients will ask if their building is 50% better than ASHRAE, and the architect listening will respond by calling an MEP consultant to ensure this.”

We have seen some recent exciting tenders for nearly zero-energy buildings, and with Al Sa’fat and the sustainability initiatives in Abu Dhabi and, again, with Dubai keen on 3-D-printed buildings, we are seeing potential opportunities

No wriggle-room for post-handover building assessments
A key aspect of sustainable development-related best practices in the construction cycle of a building would be to measure its energy performance and also to verify its IEQ integrity. This naturally would necessitate the involvement of MEP consultants. Assessing a building they have designed would not only give them an insight into the impact of their design decisions but also provide a roadmap of fine-tuning their consultancy services for subsequent projects they undertake. In that context, visiting a project after it has been handed over to the client ought to be a given. Surprisingly, though, only a few undertake such visits. Seneviratne says that while he tries to meet the clients after the handover of the project, there is a drawback to the whole situation. Consultants, he says, are on a tight fee, so once they complete their contractual obligation they move on.

The situation can be addressed, he says, if the client would bear the expenses of consultants undertaking an audit of the project, but traditionally, maintenance budgets have been a fraction of the construction budget. It is, therefore, likely to be financially suicidal for consultants to undertake such an audit. “If I were to go to audit an Existing Building and if I were to do design work, I should get the same fee,” Seneviratne says. “Auditing in maintenance is very bad. I do go on visits out of love of the job or when we have a friendly or passionate client, and we validate our energy systems. A good audit will take a significant part of the maintenance budget, because you have to go and measure on site, and there are equipment and skills involved. It is a highly skilled job, and the cost of it is huge.”

Cost is just one aspect, though, Seniviratne says, adding that access to the project site, post-handover, can be a challenge. “When you go into such facilities, you are dealing with junior maintenance staff,” he says, “and they consider it harassment if you go to audit a building.” Anbalagan, sharing his experience, says his team and he don’t visit projects as a practice, unless it involves a client with whom the company has a long-standing relationship, or if it is called for during the Defects Liability Period (DLP); beyond that, his company does not see the buildings it designs. “I would say, we try to do it, but our fee does not allow it,” Anbalagan says, “though in an ideal scenario, you need to do it for your own improvement. But we do follow the procedure of design validation, which primarily addresses the gaps in design and construction, and we have a practice where we conduct internal sessions, which are about lessons learnt, in which we address issues and enter [them] into our system.” That way, Anbalagan says, his company is able to prevent the recurrence of the issues in future projects. On a parallel front, he says, he informally keeps talking with the clients to ascertain if they are having any problems. This service, he adds, he extends to clients even with whom he has had a short-term relationship.

Ghaleb Abusaa

Ghaleb Abusaa

Abusaa echoes Seneviratne and Anbalagan, saying that the costs do not justify making post-project visits, unless the client pays for the service. Such a stance, Abusaa says, could attract criticism from the contractor or the client, but it is not fair to blame the consultant community. Saying that it cannot be a free service, he adds: “If a consultant designs five projects and he visits all of them, he will spend 20% of his time just visiting. Who will pay for this? He could face a loss. We have to remember that the contractor makes money in terms of equipment and labour, but the consultant makes money only out of his time.”

Like Seneviratne, Abusaa highlights the issue of access also being an impediment to making site visits after handover. The consultant may not be able to enter the building owing to security reasons or because the owner does not want to inconvenience the inhabitants of the building, he says. He may not have a pass to enter the premises. Further, even if he is able to, and finds mistakes in the building, he has no power or the contractual support to remedy the situation.

Material certification – whose onus?
Another key area of concern in the building industry has to do with the quality of the materials used for construction. Those HVAC manufacturers that get their products tested and certified for either fire safety or energy efficiency, often complain that some manufacturers and suppliers resort to misrepresentation of certification of products. They say it is the responsibility of MEP consultants to identify the miscreants and bring them to book. They add that misrepresentation is rampant, because consultants are failing in their duty.

I am hoping for the day when clients will ask if their building is 50% better than ASHRAE, and the architect listening will respond by calling an MEP consultant to ensure this

The MEP consultancy sector seems to be polarised on the issue. Coombes is of the opinion that the onus is on the contractor to do due diligence of his procurement chain. Seneviratne, on the other hand, says the consultant has a responsibility to do due diligence. If a consultant has approved a product that is not UL-listed, say, then the owner should even sue the consultant, he says, because he has hired the consultant on trust that he would do a proper job. At the same time, if the manufacturer or supplier is caught misrepresenting the certification, he should be taken to task.

All said, Seneviratne concedes that it would take a lot of skill on the part of the consultant to decipher a genuine product from a spurious one. “As a company, we go through a lot of hassle to ensure that every piece of furniture is Green Guard-certified, if we are trying to get LEED-certified for furniture component,” Seneviratne says. “If a single piece is not Green Guard-certified, you won’t get the certification, and so we have to be thorough. It is the same with UL or with CTI certification for cooling towers. It requires rigour to do a CTI test. Likewise, all motors have to be ASHRAE 90.1. All my specs insist on that – all, small or big, without exception. Or if European, then I insist on European standard for efficiency of motors.”

Abusaa has a different take on the issue, and does not agree that the responsibility entirely lies with the consultant to check for the authenticity of certification of a product. “People blame the consultant for not verifying, but my question is, did the client include this procedure in the contract?” Abusaa says. “What is the limit of the consultant’s responsibility? He would have written in his report that the product should be UL-certified, say, but if the owner goes to someone and brings equipment that is fake, why blame the consultant, if you don’t include the consultant in the contract to verify? Why expect him to do it for free? If no contract exists with the client to check the equipment, then the consultant is not to be blamed; if it exists, then the consultant surely has to be penalised.”

Abusaa says it is highly challenging to verify the authenticity of products. And oftentimes, carrying out checks is tied with money – with what is paid the consultant for his services to a project. Writing specs and doing drawings are easy for consultants, Abusaa says, and therefore, people can compete on them and put low prices. When it comes to supervision, though, it is direct money – it is charged to the client, Abusaa adds. Those aspects can be very expensive. “Project Management takes 10-15% of the project value, and the FM people take a good part of annual charges,” Abusaa says. “They put 10-15 engineers at the job site just for supervision. You never charge so much for specs and design. The average consulting engineer’s charge is AED 15,000 per month, and 10 engineers means a lot of money. You need a lot of engineers to carry out supervisory duties to check the products on site. If the working hours are more than eight, you effectively have 20 people per day, and this is very costly and people avoid it. But they don’t realise that a mistake in the building will cost a lot of money to replace.”

Abusaa says that the efficacy of verification of products on site as an activity varies from project to project. He says the problem of spurious products on site is rampant in small, private-sector projects. Government projects, on the other hand, don’t suffer as much. An infrastructure project costing hundreds of millions of dollars, he says, will have supervision engineers and project managers on site. But such projects are fewer. About 70% of the market is the small private-sector projects, and that is where the problem is, he adds.

Keeping an eye on the project
Even in private-sector projects, there is a variation in circumstances, Abusaa says. If the client is building 100 apartment buildings, he will look at the critical mass and hire a supervising engineer. On the other hand, if he is building an individual villa, he will not invest in supervision engineering. “If you have more buildings, you can divide the cost,” Abusaa says. “You can supervise 20-30 buildings even if they are 10-15 storeys each, because not all are completed at the same time. One is probably at the foundation stage, another is at the glazing stage and yet another is at the MEP stage.”

When you go into such facilities, you are dealing with junior maintenance staff, and they consider it harassment if you go to audit a building

Speaking from his experience, Anbalagan says that generally speaking, consultants, faced with time constraints, don’t check products for authenticity, unless there is a suspicion, which is mainly triggered by a tip-off from a competitor of the party that is misrepresenting product certifications. “Most consultants are given very limited or nil post-contract supervision and administration responsibilities,” he says. “So I will design the job, and it goes to the site, and it will be supervised by somebody else. So I don’t even know what they put. Even in jobs where we supervise, we have limited time, and so it becomes practically impossible to check all the materials delivered to site.”

Anbalagan says that when the scope of the contract allows it, his team checks the genuineness of the certification, by going online, but again, it is a sample. “We check to see randomly if it has a UL-sticker or not, but we cannot say whether the sticker itself is genuine, unless we receive a tip-off,” he says. “The time allotted, and the large volume of materials on site in large projects, pose a huge challenge to conducting a thorough check.”

Another layer of complexity to the issue emerges when contractors act in a highhanded manner. It is a point that Abusaa raises when he speaks about the structuring of contracts. It is a point that Anbalagan feels passionate about. In a particular project, Anbalagan and his team received a tip-off that the products being used were not genuine. Anbalagan sought to address the issue with the contractor, but when he discovered he was making no headway, he had no choice but to walk out of the project. In another case, he says, he confronted the contractor over wrongdoing. The retribution was quick – the contractor moved him out of the project. “This happens more and more with design-and-build contracts, where the contractor himself has to be the watchdog, and they have a bigger role to play,” he says.

Looking for loopholes in the fine print
There is perhaps an opportunity for the government to step in to address the issue, but the general view among the consultants is that a government intervention will be more of a deterrent than a prevention of malpractices. If the consultant is bound by a contract to check the materials on site, and is paid for the service, the government can move in and impose a penalty on the consultant or even blacklist him, if spurious products are used in the project. Again, this depends on the scope of the contract, because a thorough check of all the products involves resources and cost for the consultant. “If a consultant gets penalised, it is a big hit for him, because he is not there 100% of the time at a project, so they must include a supervision fee that is substantial,” Anbalagan says. “Typically, though, the supervision fee, depending on the type of the project, is only 20-25% of the engineer’s time. So there is a big loophole that needs to be addressed.”

The Middle East markets cater to fast-track projects as opposed to investigative feasibility studies

A loophole it may be, but the critics can be unrelenting in blaming MEP consultants for a lack of commitment when it comes to what they call negligence in addressing the vexing issue of misrepresentation of product certification. Likewise, the arguably phlegmatic attitude of consultants towards sustainable development and towards projects after handover may draw the ire of many. Typically, no matter the protestations of the consultants to the barrage of charges levelled against them, there will be those who will question the mindset of the consultant community as not being proactive in responding with their expertise to vision statements and multiple socioeconomic- and sustainable development-related initiatives.

Questioning the mindset is perhaps a simplistic reaction, though. MEP consultants strongly feel that the misperceptions related to how they execute their roles stem from their critics not understanding the compulsions they face on a daily basis. The mother of all maladies, they say, has to do with the deeply entrenched one-sided approach to the structuring of contracts in the GCC region, and the unfair hierarchy that is generally in place in the construction industry.

In a vast majority of the projects, the developer appoints an architect or a general consultant and, if at all, interacts with the MEP consultant through either of the two – and this system, the MEP consultants say, is exploited by either of the two. In effect, the architect or the general consultant controls the show, to the disadvantage of specialised MEP consultants.

General consultant or specialised expert?

Dr Marcus George

Dr Marcus George

Dr Marcus George, the CEO of UAE-based Engineering Consortium Consulting Engineers (ECCE), belongs to the other camp – the general consultancy camp. His is a company that offers architectural, structural and MEP services. He is of the firm opinion that there is no need for specialised, independent MEP firms, seeing as he does a virtue in a comprehensive in-house team, which he says, ensures a collaborative approach to designing a project. This approach, he says, allows for unparalleled coordination, saves times and minimises the mistakes and variations that often beset projects, large or small. More importantly, he says, the close-knit approach also allows him to speedily and smoothly acquire all municipality and civil defence approvals and also NOCs from all other related authorities.

Abusaa sees nothing wrong in the approach adopted by Dr George, as it embodies the much-vaunted integrated project delivery mechanism. At the same time, he supports the need for independent MEP consultants to handle the numerous specialised requirements of MEP work, which a general consultant may not have a grip of. Smart buildings and smart cities, for instance, need specialised, focused expertise, as do nearly zero-energy buildings. Which brings the issue to square one – of unfairly structured contracts and the lack of a level playing field, as the MEP consultants put it.

Money matters
Typically, the problem in such contracts, where the MEP consultant has no direct contact with the developer and has to go through either the architect or the general consultant, is one of lack of transparency – primarily involving payment schedules. MEP consultants talk of how payments due to them are routinely delayed. The architect or the general consultant, under the pretext of not receiving the payment due to him from the developer, holds the payment of the MEP consultant and, in some cases, pays only a fraction of what is owed. Anbalagan describes how he felt the brunt of this “unfair treatment” in the last decade, characterised by a construction boom, followed by a deep recession. “For a small entity like mine, the losses we wrote off during the period starting from 2006 to 2009 amounted to over AED 8 million,” he says ruefully. “Some of them bluntly said, ‘We will not pay’, while some said, ‘If I collect, I will pay.’ Some of them were very big projects.”

In another case, he confronted the contractor over wrongdoing. The retribution was quick – the contractor moved him out of the project

Anbalagan says he has learnt from the harsh lessons of the past and is careful about whom he works with. He has seen the contrast of working directly with the developer, where there is transparency in terms of payments, and chases projects that involve a direct interaction. But at the same time, he says he cannot solely rely on such arrangements and, in his quest for a greater volume of business, has to work with architects and general consultants. He adds that nevertheless, he is measured in choosing the projects he wants to work on. “We have trimmed down to working with select clients,” he says. “Earlier, we used to grab whatever came our way, but we did not get paid substantial amounts. That was a wake-up call, and we had to restructure. Now, though we are not doing something sensationally big, we are content.”

smart home_smart phone_uneditedDespite the due diligence he brings into play in selecting who he wants to work with, Anbalagan says he is caught out at times. “Even recently, I have suffered a lot,” he says, the crease-lines clearly visible on his forehead. “We delivered 70%, and we got paid 10%. I know they might have collected the money but paid a fraction. This put us in a very big cash-flow situation.” Such payment issues – be they delays, non-payments or partial payments – cripple the MEP consultants. In such circumstances, they say, they are constantly preoccupied chasing the money owed them. The distraction, they add, severely impairs their ability to deliver on projects and to infuse the projects with the quality they deserve. Abusaa puts it succinctly, when he says: “If you are happy, you will look to change the world for the better. If you do not have good income, you will look to fill the stomach of your family.” Such an atmosphere, he says, will delay the advent of a truly green culture. Under such circumstances, MEP consultants simply wouldn’t have the time to focus on offering top-notch sustainable development solutions. It is a matter of priorities.

Undercutting versus best practices
Dismally enough, there does not seem to be a solution in sight. In fact, the issue of a lack of a level playing field is getting aggravated further by the arrival of a new breed of consultants, many of whom are willing to work for even half the compensation that seasoned MEP consultants typically charge; this is appealing to the commercial instincts of many developers and general consultants. Faced with such circumstances, the long-standing MEP consultants are finding themselves in a situation where they cannot complain about delayed payments or take legal recourse. Given the increase in competition and the need to even more severely fight for projects, they find that they simply cannot burn their bridges, and have to resort to toeing the line.

For a small entity like mine, the losses we wrote off during the period starting from 2006 to 2009 amounted to over AED 8 million. Some of them bluntly said, ‘We will not pay’

Perhaps what makes the situation even more unpalatable for the seasoned MEP consultants is the knowledge that many in the new breed do not have the experience or exposure to properly deliver on projects. They get projects simply because they charge far less than what the senior consultants do. Seneviratne cites the case of an AED 10 million building-retrofit project, for which he charged AED 85,000 as his consultancy fee. The client’s response that he could get someone to execute the project for AED 45,000 startled him. “There’s a problem there, because you cannot finish the project in AED 45,000,” Seneviratne says.

Seneviratne’s voice is one of conviction, because his experience tells him there is much more expertise that goes into a project – and it comes at a certain price. Anbalagan brings it up, when he describes how he has made a substantial investment in acquiring the Revit software in a bid to enhance the conceptualisation process, and in training his team to use it.

Perhaps even more significant than acquiring a software is the legacy learning that consultants like Anbalagan have in their grasp. “As a company, our quality systems have improved substantially from the learning process we went through in 2008 and in the subsequent years, so internally we have better systems in place,” he says. “Thanks to the aggregation of knowledge, we will not repeat mistakes – designs that are highly oversized or specs that have been loosely put together.”

Abusaa says the current state of affairs has deep ramifications, not only for the survival and well-being of long-established MEP consultancy firms but also for the region’s socio-economic development and sustainable development aspirations, which are such an integral part of the various vision statements. After all, he says, the quality of the work is at stake, if an inexperienced MEP consultant is hired to execute a complex job, with the money he has quoted being the sole criterion on the basis of which he was selected for the job.

They probably sold cucumbers till not too long ago, but fabricated certificates that say they graduated 20 years ago

By way of elaborating on his point, Abusaa says that there needs to be tighter control in awarding someone a consultancy licence. “Unfortunately, in a lot of countries, the consultancy licence is given based on the year of graduation and the number of years of experience from the time the person graduated,” he says.

“There are engineers who can bring any certificate to the region, despite not having worked anywhere. They probably sold cucumbers till not too long ago, but fabricated certificates that say they graduated 20 years ago.” That is why, he says, it is important that we filter the licences and give them a grade.

Time for a paradigm shift
Abusaa says that he is heartened by the fact that in Dubai, the Municipality has a rigorous procedure in place to verify licences. Anbalagan adds to this by saying that the Municipality has become stricter when it comes to issuing building permits, which, in a way, keeps a check on the quality of consultant hired to design a project.

Both the senior consultants say they would like to see regulation covering other aspects, as well. For instance, they would like the government to intervene in ensuring that architectural and general consultancy firms show greater transparency over payment schedules.

Ultimately, though, the consensus among the senior MEP consultants is that the best way of resolving the problem is by ensuring that developers gain a deeper level of awareness of the benefits of directly working with specialised MEP consultants.

If local production can be encouraged, and they are given incentives, and those kinds of materials can be used in projects, then that’s the way to go forward

A deeper engagement with the developer will have a positive impact in addressing so many of the other issues that MEP consultants typically face flak over. For instance, the war-cry of those who say that the consultants ought to be less phlegmatic in their response to such path-breaking initiatives, such as nearly zero-energy buildings and entire smart cities, can be subdued, if the developer gains a heightened awareness of the benefits of aligning himself to the initiatives. It is, then, in the interests of the MEP consultancy community to ensure a more enlightened developer, and for this, they must seize the bull by the horns and support the cause of better awareness-building. A more receptive developer would, in turn, over a period of time, be instrumental in breaking the established thinking among consultants that it is not their remit to go past the developer’s brief. As Coombes puts it, in the new paradigm, the consultant would be emboldened to recommend to the developer to adopt nearly zero-energy principles and to even give a timeframe when the developer would start seeing the benefits of his investment.

Coombes adds that the time is ripe for a strong culture of innovative practices in the building industry and that the developer and consultant working in concert can achieve wonders. “The UAE is trying to position itself as a centre of innovation,” he says. “At such a time, incentives for innovation would be a great driver.”

The general view is that establishing a regimen of incentives for procurement, say, could probably help to bring initial costs down, which would break the barriers raised by cost-conscious developers. Says Anbalagan: “If local production can be encouraged, and they are given incentives, and those kinds of materials can be used in projects, then that’s the way to go forward. Such an approach will not hike up construction cost.” For that to work, he says, there is a need to look at the approval process, though. He cites the example of a project where he had proposed concrete cooling systems as a solution, but could not get through, though, for want of a certain flexibility in thinking. “The innovative system could not be approved, even when we said that adopting the solution would increase efficiency by 50%,” he says. “As a consultant, if I start to bring technology that is not approved here, I will go nowhere. Concrete cooling is mass cooling, which will bring down cooling costs. But if the approval process will be delayed by six months, I won’t have time, unless I engineer first and then get approval. The government can perhaps look at such technologies with a bit more open mind. Nearly zero-energy buildings, for instance, might need outlandish thinking, so a more open-minded approach in the approval process might help. Till then, I would rather go with convention, because we anticipate that nZEB might need very innovative ideas and thinking, which might not be prevalent in the region. But there is hope, because the VRV or VRF technology, which was resisted earlier, is now receiving approval.”

Mohamed Zackariah

Mohamed Zackariah

Coombes mirrors Anbalagan’s hopeful attitude and is optimistic that change will come about. He advocates a patient approach to bringing about change. “We have to remember that change does not happen overnight,” he says. “The government is putting initiatives now to push the envelope.” The same proactive approach and doggedness in engaging the developer community and in persuading the authorities is needed to push even green initiatives through, agree the consultants. Awareness is key to bringing about change, they add. Mohamed R Zackariah, Chief Consultant at Saudi Arabia-based Suhaimi Design-Protecooling, supports the proactive approach to engaging the developer. He strongly believes the best way to get the message across to clients is through awareness-building, provided it reaches the top-level decision-makers in the developer company. Zackariah talks of how his colleagues and he, in fact, insist on meeting the CEO himself or, at the very least, a General Manager. “It is our practice to undertake an energy audit as a first step to a green initiative in a building,” he says. “When working with a developer, we insist on a meeting with the top management to make a presentation on the benefits of conducting an audit, because a lower-level manager might not have the capacity to take the final decision or might not wish to disturb the status quo.”

If a consultant designs five projects and he visits all of them, he will spend 20% of his time just visiting. Who will pay for this?

In much the same way, there is a need for a decisive shift in thinking for addressing the other areas of concern – of ensuring that MEP consultants visit the project they designed after the handover process or that they play their part in catching product certification-related malpractices. The broad consensus among the consultants is that there is a need for a greater enabling environment – including some form of a government intervention – for them to be able to address the two issues. While government intervention is welcome, the consultants agree that enforcement measures should be balanced, so that there is no undue burden on the consultants. The biggest call among the consultant community is for a paradigm shift in approach. Coombes, speaking on the issue of post-project visits, suggests a model of incentives for consultants. For high-end consultants, who handle a limited number of projects and charge a premium towards their execution, the incentive would be the need to protect their track-record, but for the overall consultant community, he says, there is a need for something more. “I think there is a brilliant opportunity for incentives to encourage and to suggest that the performance of the building relates to reward to the consultant,” Coombes says.

He recommends a model similar to the Esco approach to retrofitting Existing Buildings. Through a clever structuring of design and construction contracts, a good consultant can get reward for increasing savings for the client. “We could follow a similar structure to the Esco contract for post-event visits,” Coombes says. “If the baseline is established fairly early in design, if energy can be predicted and if they can achieve their target, then there can be a financial reward for consultants.”

Suggestions such as those by Coombes and the others deserve a patient hearing. The region’s leadership is looking for extraordinary progress, as evidenced by the several vision statements. The aspirations coming to fruition will depend on a willingness on the part of multiple stakeholders to embrace extraordinary measures.


In October, Climate Control Middle East will be carrying Part 2 of the report, in which the focus will be on the MEP contracting industry.


(The writer is the Editor of Climate Control Middle East.)


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