In May 2016, the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy launched a drive for Energy Intensity Mapping of buildings in the emirate. The objective was to unify consumption and building data to find a method of analysing and monitoring consumption levels. Speaking on the occasion, H.E. Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, Vice Chairman of the Council, said, “This will find a solution to limit Dubai’s high levels of energy use, and supports the demand side management strategy to reduce overall demand by 30% by 2030.”
In the same year, the Emirates Green Building Council and the Council resolved to undertake a ‘Benchmarking Project’ of 100 buildings in Dubai to assess their energy performance, under the Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA) programme.
The two bodies invited hotels, malls and schools to participate in the project, which they said would serve “as a referral point in driving forward the energy efficiency of buildings in Dubai”. Speaking on the occasion, Saeed Al Abbar, the then Chairman of EmiratesGBC, said: “The Benchmarking Project is a major step towards mapping the energy use efficiency of existing buildings in Dubai. The findings will not only help in undertaking relevant retrofitting measures but will also support policy making in relation to sustainable buildings.”
Cut to September 2020. In faraway New York City, Jeremy McDonald, a professional engineer with New York-based Guth Deconzo Consulting Engineers, raised a call for the need for building tracing to audit and certify the Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) performance of buildings.
If at all anything, in 2022, in a world chastened by COVID-19, which though downgraded from a pandemic to an endemic and still threatens to cut loose and unleash its destructive potential, the call is still valid – to protect building occupants not only now but also during future possible pandemics. As Dr Iyad Al-Attar, Kuwait-based independent air filtration consultant, puts it, “The pandemic has proven that enhancing IAQ is not philanthropy, but is a core survival ingredient.”
McDonald, reflecting on what he said in September 2020, says he would still strongly recommend building tracing for IAQ performance and rating them accordingly for general public awareness. “Based on our experience, many building occupants would be horrified if they knew the state of their IAQ, and building owners would undoubtedly fix their systems.
Dipak Shelke, Sales Manager – Energy Solutions, Daikin Middle East and Africa, sharing a similar sentiment, says an IAQ performance mapping would allow the UAE to achieve better visibility on the current levels of the indoor air environment in various building types across the country. “The outcome of IAQ mapping can be helpful in setting the benchmark for improvements and provide a clearer measure on Indoor Air Quality,” Shelke says. “The process can help drive towards setting a local IAQ standard, or a certification process, which can be used as a KPI by healthcare facilities, commercial spaces, hotels and schools.” Weighing in, Dustine Stanley, Chief Technology Officer, Netix Global, says building tracing and certification for IAQ is mission critical. “We are too late if we haven’t done this yet,” he says, adding that buildings need to be categorised based on air quality scores and the ratings need to be published, so that people are aware of the condition of the surroundings they live in, and property owners can take necessary measures to improve and maintain the air quality levels. This, he adds, will not only benefit the health and safety of the people but also maximise the real estate value.
Building tracing for IAQ is easier said than done. It is widely believed the task is an onerous one. Given the layered structure of the building and MEP industry ecosystem, tracing and certifying require cooperation and coordination among stakeholders, in particular building owners.
Indeed, the consensus is that getting a buy-in is not easy. Speaking from a US perspective, McDonald says: “We are seeing a shift, ever so slightly. Clients are definitely interested in the various technologies but are reluctant to invest actual capital dollars. Typically, this is because of uncertainty about the future and also scarcity of capital. Clients are mostly investing in low-cost or no-cost fixes, such as BMS optimisation, fixing dampers and improved filtration.”
McDonald says there is definitely a greater understanding of the importance of IAQ. However, most clients feel improving filtration and making sure ventilation systems are “working” are enough. “There needs to be a recognition that IAQ needs to be an ongoing effort,” he adds.
Speaking from a GCC region and air filtration perspective, Al-Attar says air quality and filtration have experienced several challenges, ranging from shifting HVAC commitments, incomplete maintenance programmes, unfulfilled filter upgrades, broken guideline-adherence promises and lost objectives amidst the other built-environment challenges.
Some of the broad challenges McDonald addresses in a US context resonate strongly in the GCC region. The underlying message, as applying to the United States or to the GCC region, is crystal clear – there is a compelling need for a structured approach to building tracing and certification for IAQ, one that is all-encompassing.
For building tracing and certification to succeed, there needs to be a city-wide buy-in. In Dubai, home to over 120,000 existing buildings, for instance, every building would need to be audited and certified on IAQ performance in a homogeneous manner on the basis of established standards, to compel building owners to act and to provide options to occupants, if renting the property.
It is challenging to undertake building tracing and certification of 120,000 buildings for IAQ, though. Shelke says it would be good if the audit would at least cover heavily occupied facilities, such as schools, healthcare and commercial spaces.
McDonald opines that if a building has a sophisticated Building Management System, it would not be as difficult. “The key is to determine what variables need to be reported,” he says. “Obviously, the more data points, the more expensive the implementation will be. CO2 monitoring can be quite affordable. Measuring ventilation on a space-by-space basis can be quite expensive.”
For smaller buildings, for example independent restaurants, the standard may have to be limited to make the implementation affordable, he says. There are low-cost monitors on the market, he says, several under USD 1,000 each, which can be networked into a kiosk.
But prior to implementation, it is important, even essential, to make a business case. Circling back to the need for buy-in, it is important to present a viable business model, to establish funding mechanisms for a resource-heavy task as building tracing and certification for IAQ. McDonald says the best business case is creating a desirable place to work, live and enjoy life. No one wants to go to work or a leisure activity and get sick, he says.
McDonald believes that as far as funding is concerned, the government needs to get involved. “I believe in carrots and sticks,” he says. “There should be basic funding for upgrades – that is, an allotment for air-cleaning technologies and IAQ monitoring that can be partially funded based on rebates and incentives.”
McDonald raises an important point – of government intervention, which he says is crucial for the success of a building tracing programme. Shelke wonders if regulations can mandate every building to obtain a certification assuring an acceptable IAQ level and ensure a periodic validation of these certificates.
Echoing the two views, Dr Al-Attar says it is important that GCC region governments legislate appropriate laws and regulations to raise the bar on air quality and the relevant maintenance practices, which would ensure built-environments are sustainable. “The government can seek advice from experts concerned and technical entities to establish the expressive terms to legislate on how to attain better air quality, not just keep it within acceptable limits,” he says.
McDonald says there are laws on the books that needs to be enforced, or perhaps slightly adjusted, he says. For example, in the United States, he says, buildings are required to demonstrate they meet minimum ventilation code at the time of occupancy. However, there is no requirement, post initial occupancy of the building. “Perhaps if there is a requirement for yearly testing and demonstration of minimum standards, then buildings will be compelled to meet the intent of the law,” he says.
McDonald says a case could be made for significant government funding. “In our efforts with clients, even an investment of USD1-USD2/sq ft can drastically improve IAQ,” he says. “Recognising the cost of most buildings – USD100-USD1,000/sq ft, depending on use and complexity – a few dollars a square foot seems reasonable, recognising how destructive the pandemic is, and improvements associated with improved air quality.”
When it comes to implementation, the consensus is that data that is collected – be it minimum reporting of ventilation, CO2 levels or VOCs – should be in native form and auditable. Speaking from an air filtration point of view, Dr Al-Attar says it is important to quantify the air quality our respiratory system is exposed to. “Aerosol monitoring is a perfect tool and an ideal start to quantify what we are up against both outdoors and indoors,” he says.
Though specific guidelines are available to report on ventilation, CO2 and VOC levels, the task of reporting itself is challenging, and here’s where the government could consider outsourcing the work of measuring and certification to third-party private agencies. McDonald recommends a model that is similar in nature to an ESCO model. “The government should develop the measurement standard and allow the private sector to implement,” he says.
Seconding McDonald’s recommendation, Shelke says he, too, would place his faith on the ESCO model. “We have seen the development of the energy performance contracting market in the UAE,” he says. “Various ESCO companies accredited by Dubai RSB are contributing towards building energy optimisation.”
It is believed that when it comes to specifics of implementation, monitoring for variables is difficult. McDonald believes the measurement model ought to be based on monitoring for technologies that would work in relation to ventilation, CO2 and VOCs and other primary variables based on what the building is trying to accomplish. “Ventilation is key, and I consider this the base improvement,” he says. “Filtration is also quite rudimentary. Humidification and dehumidification are also important but can be costly. Recognising how deficient our infrastructure is, air-cleaning technologies, such as bi-polar ionisation and UV may be the most cost-effective improvement option for a number of buildings.”
Physical monitors for measuring, McDonald says, are reasonably priced, and most monitors have an IT output. Dr Al-Attar points to how handheld devices and desktop devices are inexpensive to acquire. The consensus is to recommend a standard kiosk for reporting, so users can recognise the data, which should be reported in real time, along with trending from previously defined intervals, perhaps a few days to a week, McDonald says.
Taking the IT route further, Stanley speaks of the availability of automation and intelligence to control the ventilation in occupied spaces, of sensors to monitor the quality of airflow and of AI for actions based on feedback. These, he adds, provide visibility to our smartphones or handheld devices about the quality of the space while being away from the location. Dr Al-Attar adds that it is essential to follow up on harvesting the data in a structured manner. “The name of the game is what we do with the readings and data acquired from these devices,” he says. “Feeding air quality data to an adaptive HVAC system would help respond to the variation of the inlet air quality and make the best decisions possible.” Stanley says the route exists to act on the data.
There are a few third-party recognised certification standards, such as WELL, UL and ISO 14001 related to air quality and environmental status, he points out. Many property management firms are either already certified or pursuing these certifications, he says, adding that IT platforms are capable of providing real-time visibility to the air quality from the sensors on site. Data collection, he says, is easy for auditors to inspect and provide the necessary approvals for certification and also continuously monitor and control the quality using condition-based algorithms and AI feedback to assets.
Building tracing and certification for IAQ performance is not a straightforward shoo-in. It comes with its complexities and the formidable challenge of never having been tried before. “Certainly, it’s challenging,” Shelke says.
“However, every initiative towards IAQ monitoring is a step closer towards the objective of a pollutant-free indoor environment and a healthy community. The current advancement in building controls and remote monitoring capabilities, prove that it may be possible to achieve it.”
Q&A: JLL on building tracing
‘Better IAQ can present huge savings with minimum investment’
Louise Collins, Head of Project & Development Services UAE and Head of Engineering & Energy MENA, Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), in conversation with Charmaine Fernz of Climate Control Middle East, about the importance and effectiveness of building tracing in the region
What would it take to undertake a building tracing programme in the GCC region?
Building tracing programmes would need to be conducted on the back of a legislative programme that enforces the right usage of air within buildings. This could be done as an incentive or compliance programme. With a lot of GCC region countries having heavily subsidised power, the energy savings reductions alone would not be incentive enough. If there was a star-rating programme, wherein residents could report the IAQ against occupancy and building type, building owners would be forced to operate at an optimum level.
What permissions would be needed to audit buildings for building tracing? Is access limited or denied? If so, would the exercise have to be government-mandated?
There would be mandated permissions required to make it effective. In the case of older and less efficient buildings, regionally owners and operators would generally not comply with a good level of IAQ.
What would it cost to audit the buildings? What would it cost to implement changes in the buildings?
JLL recently carried out some surveys at a very low cost to building owners and found some small changes that can help build efficiency. It is noted that up to 30% of the conditioned air can be lost through unsealed buildings, as it is not mandated to smoke-test buildings to ensure low infiltration. Other issues, such as air control, air recovery and good commissioning of buildings can present huge savings to clients for minimum investment.
Have technologies evolved to such an extent that IEQ can be improved without impacting the quest for greater efficiency?
The technology certainly exists, and there is an initial CAPEX for installation of these systems. However, payback periods are more likely within 3-5 years than anything longer. IoT systems, including sensors, BMS and occupancy systems controlling how air is efficiently controlled and monitored is already in use in some of the most efficient buildings in the region. All that is needed is to demonstrate the value.