By Saeed Alabbar
In the early decades of the 20th century, construction was extremely sustainable due to the lack of availability of centralised electricity and water supply, and the use of only local building materials. However, as the UAE entered the 21st century, globalisation bought with it many ideas and design concepts from the West.
The use of fully-glazed, and therefore poorly-insulated, façades can be argued to be an inappropriate design concept for the climate in the region. However, the concept was frequently used to showcase modernity in new buildings.
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.
These include the Estidama Pearl rating system in Abu Dhabi and the mandating of elements of the US’s LEED rating system for buildings within Dubai World’s jurisdiction.
While these are steps in the right direction, and local governments should be praised, there are still fundamental issues that need addressing in the industry. Despite all the measures being taken, we are still unfortunately in a position where buildings being constructed today consume more energy per square metre of floor area than buildings constructed in the 1970s.
So what do we need to do as an industry? Here are my humble opinions: Adopt a realistic approach: We need to start talking about a building’s energy-use intensity, the 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 fantastic 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.
In many cases, it is not only the contractors but the architects who are at fault. There is little use specifying 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 the objectives seem to stop once the building is completed and received its rating.
Buildings do not consume energy while they are being built. They only consume energy when they are occupied, so this should be the most important phase of a green building’s life, and 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: Far too often when we look at existing buildings, we see the most expensive, 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 become more hi-tech.
Despite these issues, there is a lot of great change that has happened in the industry over the past few years, and the government and private sector are both making great strides in the realm of sustainable buildings.
However, we must not rest on our laurels, and we must wake up every day and ask ourselves the fundamental questions of how we can really make our buildings better.