Construction Week Newsletter 30th October 2004

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By  Eudore Chand Published  October 30, 2004

Editorial Leader|~||~||~|

Shutters to shatter

One thing that I noticed this summer in Italy was the shutters on the windows of the hotel my family and I were staying in. In fact, all the buildings in Milan, except possibly for the railway station, seemed to have shutters on the windows. It is very common in most continental European buildings. I was told that installing shutters, especially wooden ones, was a practice that has continued from the days of the Roman Empire. Why did they strike me as unusual? You do not see many shutters in the Gulf. Having lived in this region for more than 15 years, I had forgotten that a window could have any adornment other than steel or glass on the outside. Seeing the shutters in Milan brought back memories of my childhood in India. I remember visiting the old buildings left behind by the British. Those stately homes and low-slung bungalows, if I remember correctly, all had wooden shutters. They would be pulled closed when it was hot and sunny, shutting out the sun; but still allowing ventilation. It is for much the same reason that the Europeans have used shutters all these years, from the time of the Roman Empire; they keep out the sun but allow ventilation. This was a purpose fulfilled in the Gulf by that favorite of Gulf architecture, the wind tower. Today, the shutter might be a requirement of European planning laws, which it is, but it would not do much good as an air conditioner in the Gulf’s climate. Even the wind tower has given way to the heat pump. Shutters in Europe are also an outward sign of the European Union’s deep commitment to insulation. Standards of insulation for all buildings are built into the building codes of the countries that make up the EU, and the states enforce them. The use and conservation of energy both to heat and cool buildings is a political issue that helps to get presidents and prime ministers elected. EU dedication to the subject is understandable. The EU is not blessed with the energy resources of the Gulf, and it has to work hard to access the energy that it imports. Most countries in the EU also observe a duty to the rest of the world to cap the production of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is produced when fossil fuels are burnt for energy. Today, Germany and the UK generate some 10% of their electricity requirement from alternative sources. Not all the Gulf has the pressing economic reasons to follow the EU example. But it does have a duty to use the energy it has in a responsible way. Some of the schemes that are under way are to be applauded. The production of electricity and water together is a great efficiency; district cooling schemes are gathering pace, and these too are a more efficient way of cooling buildings. But they are grand schemes and come in at a high capital cost. What about the shutters, speaking figuratively? What about improved insulating standards built into a building code of practice? Have we properly examined the properties of the buildings that are currently being created, which seem mostly to be built of glass and steel? Are there buildings standards that specify glasses that do not transmit heat through to the building, except in a controlled manner? Is a percentage of shading specified, perhaps to compensate for the glass? Engineers and architects build to the owner’s specification, and both are working to a budget: specifications have been known to slip in the quest for profit. It is then left to the air conditioning in the building to deal with the heat gain and to make it comfortable to live and work in. Every tonne of air conditioning that could be avoided means less strain on production of electricity and power. It is unnecessary waste. I have been told time and again that one of the largest – if not the largest – cost on the budget of large facility management in the Gulf, is that of utilities. The Gulf may be oil and energy rich, but conspicuous waste is unforgivable. The limited efforts that regional municipalities have undertaken so far are just not enough. Energy is a precious resource for all mankind and it should be conserved. And the only way that will happen in the region is through tough building standards enshrined in law and policed by municipalities with the teeth to enforce them. No building should be above the law.||**||

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