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‘Intention is key to sustainable cities’

Dr Saad S Al-Jandal, Research Scientist, Energy and Building Research Center (EBRC), Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), in this interview with Hannah Jo Uy, speaks on why intention is key to unlocking the potential of sustainable cities and how a creative and holistic design approach leveraging existing technologies and renewable energy strategies can enhance efficiency and mitigate urban heat island effect. Excerpts…

| | Sep 15, 2019 | 9:53 pm
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Dr Saad S Al-Jandal

Are net-zero-energy buildings a pipe dream or a reality? What considerations should be taken into account that would help us realise the dream?
It’s not a new idea, net-zero-energy, but it’s not about a building, it’s about net-zero-energy living. Net-zero-energy buildings arrived from the thinking that we have to decide what sort of building we want – the purpose for the building. Every building has to have a purpose and has to be operated according to that purpose. Right from the beginning, with the design, the building has to be considered a net-zero-energy building, even though architects have freedom on building materials, including glass. I see around the world really efficient buildings that are all glass.

It doesn’t have to be building materials like bricks. The architect has to take into consideration that they want it, without any active energy systems. Air conditioning, heating, lighting – these are active systems that you introduce later. But right from the beginning, the building orientation, shading – they play a part. They will take up to 30-35% of the energy consumption. Then, when it comes to selection of building materials – glass, bricks or a mixture – if you optimise them, it goes up to 30-60%, and maybe 10% goes to how you operate the building. You are not introducing any active systems yet, like air conditioning, fans, HVAC systems. Then, you start to introduce renewable energy to meet the rest of the demand.

Are building projects, by and large, taking a holistic approach to design, construction and installation? In the Gulf, how serious are we in tackling energy efficiency in buildings?
We are pretty serious in the Gulf. We developed energy codes for the conservation of energy in buildings in Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia. In fact, we progressed to have it as a GCC Code of Practice. There are codes that married all codes from each country along with the international codes. The GCC Code is being implemented now.

All the events we see are all more concentrated on energy efficiency and energy conservation aspects of buildings, as well. Now, we have grown further, focusing on factories and large commercial buildings – they have to be really energy efficient, and they get certification for that. So, yes, there are serious efforts.

Would you agree that a debate on energy use in buildings is incomplete without properly addressing the need for specialised and well-qualified MEP designers and installers across all building types?
Definitely. Again, it’s about the awareness among architects, because they are putting the first brick in the building and in the design. They have to be trained and certified. Firms now all employ architects that are certified LEED associates. There are certain courses offered, certification and exams, and they have to pass all of these and progress to full certification to be really professional. It is an absolute must, because we are using so much energy from that point of view.

Do you believe developers need to look at a broad-based renewable energy strategy, including energy-storage systems, to lower the use of fossil fuel-generated power in the developments?
Yes, they have to integrate renewable energy. Now, it’s all available. The GCC Code covers this. We have R6 and R7 regulations, where commercial buildings with load above 100 tonnes of cooling require storage. Now, there are two types of storage: latent heat and sensible heat. Latent heat, you use ice basically for storage, and the other one is using chilled water. This brings us to another subject, which is District Cooling. With District Cooling, you can introduce storage, and with that you reduce the energy consumption even further. District Cooling is very successful in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. District cooling in Kuwait started in the 1940s. It’s not a new technology, but it’s improving, and now the storage aspect makes it even more promising – it’s all about energy management.

Considering the options available, is it up to policymakers to push the button for transformation?

That’s an issue that is really important – to have incentives for building owners to use photovoltaics in buildings. If you have what we call a distributed system, then you have integrated systems within a building; that, plus architectural features, should at least pay a good portion of the electricity bill. But the centralised system, which is like a remote area centralised power station, is a different matter. If you have an area, like an empty parking space, you could cover it with PV panels. You could then inject it into the network, and the network and buildings take the energy. But, at the same time, if you take it even further, the building itself can produce its own electricity, so the prices will be different. The incentives can be designed accordingly.

There is no ideal model, because different cities have different management systems. It’s about how you make use of your resources. In some countries, they have mountains, so they cannot all follow the same framework, but a financial model, for example, could be of a long-term policy that is achieving energy production and producing renewables inside the city.

There are complicated financial models in America and in Europe, but here we have not yet reached that stage of producing and selling to the grid and buying from the grid. With the integration of the smart meters now, that’s an area that offers good opportunity as a model for enhancing energy efficiency in buildings. For example, a company can come and invest in installing smart metering and really share in the profit, plus they can install PV panels and all of that.

This would offer significant payback to both the building owner in addition to contributing to national targets, yes?

Yes. Now, the payback period with technology like PV is short, because the price of PV technology is getting very low. When you talk about centralised electricity production in remote areas and bringing it to the city through cables, then you have opportunity for Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). Now, there are opportunities for energy storage inside the cities. We haven’t come to the stage of storing electrical energy in batteries. Hopefully, with the technology of electrical batteries, there are huge batteries in the market that can be used to operate whole buildings. Technologies are there, and they are improving by the day.

While energy efficiency is seen as a vital aspect of building performance, are we not ignoring the equally vital aspect of good indoor air quality?
They complement each other, in my opinion. Once you conserve energy or enhance the building performance, you can use less energy, and with that you have less demand on power generation, and then you will have less pollution. If you reduce your demand during peak time, you use less fuel for the power generation. The power generation itself has to have an option of using different types of fuel, and some of the fuels have to be clean fuels.

It’s not only the pollution, it’s also the temperature, which brings us to the point of urban heat islands (UHIs). Now, we see the temperature is increasing between buildings. Air conditioning systems are also pumping condenser heat to the local environment. You have to look at the whole aspect – this brings us to urban design and city planning and how to improve air circulation for comfort and to avoid heat island effect.

In order to mitigate UHI, how much of an emphasis should be given to the existing building stock, many of which may not have been designed properly, or operate with older products that are no longer as efficient as new equipment in the market?
The whole idea is to reduce the cooling demand of the building and to reduce the heat gain from the environment. Even older buildings, they have to be retrofitted with new technologies, be it glass or air conditioning. Any active systems would be helpful, because the building already exists, and you can’t do anything about orientation, but you can improve the glass quality, integrate air conditioning systems that are more efficient, plus facilitate energy management in the building. It involves a lot of investment, and it has to do with the awareness of the building manager and the owner, and how much he is willing to invest on this.

Do you see the financial investment required for such energy-efficient measures as a hindrance?

It’s a matter of opinion and awareness. If they are aware that whatever energy they are using gets wasted and that if they invest a bit more on the building design, materials and in the operation of the building, they can achieve savings through enhanced efficiency, which will make them really more acceptable to the idea of energy conservation – and they are going to consume less energy.

We had a case in Kuwait, where one corporation, which had a beautiful building, told us, “We need to certify the building from an energy point of view.” So, we did a survey and analysis and told them they would have to replace certain aspects, especially the air conditioning system, the glazing. We further told them they would have to put together a strategy on how you operate the building during working hours.

They have had up to 35% reduction on the electricity bill, so there are strategies building managers have to take into consideration, plus, if also possible, we put PV panels on roofs and around the parking spaces to help take some of the load out.

So, it’s about creativity?

It’s about creativity, readiness and awareness of the problem and not losing the purpose of the building. You have to design the building with a purpose. You cannot have a normal residential building operated as a clinic, for example, that requires a different design. And a hospital has to be designed like a hospital, because the cooling load will be different. For residential units, the cooling load is 24 hours a day and mostly flat, but office buildings have off-peak demands.

How, then, do you view buildings that are not used and operated according to the initial purpose, which is often the case in the market? Is there still hope for them?
They must try to minimise the use of those buildings. Once again, the building has to be for a purpose and built for that. Energy efficiency and conservation are all about awareness, and it’s very hard to achieve them. There has to be an awareness campaign and a dialogue with building managers on how they should run the buildings. The building has to be operated efficiently by the building manager. It’s like any other thing in life – if you don’t operate it the right way, it’s going to cost you a lot of money.

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