Putting energy into designing

WS Atkins is well known in the UK for sustainable engineering designs, but how well do these techniques translate to the Middle East market? Atkins Middle East’s technical director Richard Smith and head of mechanical engineering Keith Hill explain the issues to Alison Luke.

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By  Alison Luke Published  October 28, 2006

WS Atkins is well known in the UK for sustainable engineering designs, but how well do these techniques translate to the Middle East market? Atkins Middle East’s technical director Richard Smith and head of mechanical engineering Keith Hill explain the issues to Alison Luke.

Atkins Middle East technical director Richard Smith and head of mechanical engineering Keith Hill. As a firm, WS Atkins & Partners has been in the Middle East region for around 30 years. A multi-disciplinary engineering practice, its Middle East division typically has about 45 live projects at any time, accounting for around one million m2 of real estate.

Richard Smith, technical director of the division, and head of mechanical services Keith Hill began their careers in Dubai on the Burj Al Arab, a project that remains one of the firm’s most celebrated in the Emirate. Having returned to the UK on its completion, it wasn’t long before they both felt the desire to return to the region.

“It’s the scale, the variety and the fact that about 90% of what we design we actually see built,” Hill explains. “Whereas in Europe and the UK you can work a lot on schemes and you may not see them get built perhaps in your lifetime.”

Smith agrees: “90-95% of what we design we build. That’s our role really – to produce good buildings – and if it becomes an academic exercise, you’re not fulfilling your role.”

Despite the variety of buildings, one of the surprising factors in the region given the obvious architectural freedom afforded to the construction market is that this scope for creativity has not stretched to the MEP services yet.

“We’re quite constrained here in building services,” states Smith. “Budget is always a constraint; the actual unit cost of a building here is very low compared to Europe, and its not just to do with the cost of labour. To make business cases work you have to drop the costs down. And this region has become incredibly good at doing that. We produce very sound, robust designs, but they are not over-sophisticated.”

This need for simple MEP designs appears to also stem from two other factors: a lack of good facilities management firms and the availability of products. “It’s true to say that with the scale of projects that we have now, the fm is not quite keeping up with the design of the buildings,” states Smith. “It’s always been the weaker link in the Arabic world.”

“Maintainability is a big issue for us, that’s why we try to design as simple as we can,” confirms Hill. “If its simple then someone can maintain it in the long-term.”

There is a downside to this need for simplicity: “It does cause an issue when we’re trying to bring in more renewable technologies and raising the understanding of how these work as an integrated system,” states Hill.

Historically the issues of energy efficiency and renewable sources of power have been low down the agenda in the Middle East, but this is changing. Smith notes that to some degree the region has traditionally produced sustainable buildings, without them actually being recognised as such.

“I went to Oman in 2001 and [energy efficiency] wasn’t an issue then at all. Your success was judged by the number of litres under your bonnet to some extent and the more the better,” he states. Despite this culture, he found that producing a sustainable design in the Sultanate was a straightforward task.

He cites government control over the low-level architecture style and an active Ministry of the Environment as factors. “We didn’t realise it in the beginning, but the style of architecture in Oman is by its very nature sustainable,” he explains.

Oman is an exception in the region in that high-rise glazed building are virtually unknown and it’s this fact that has kept it ahead in the sustainability stakes, but the emphasis is now moving towards Dubai and Bahrain.

“The vernacular architecture in the Middle East is sustainable, but modern architecture is going through an evolution in that respect,” states Smith. “The holy grail is a zero emissions tower.”

The signing of the Kyoto Protocol by the UAE in 2005 is one obvious sign that the Government is serious about its environmental obligations and legislative changes are expected to ensure that these are met. “Its a function of awareness,” states Smith.

“Education about sustainability and how much of a vital subject it is for the planet isn’t in the heads of most Emiratis or Arabs. It will come, but it took an awful long time in Europe – it took about ten years for it to sink in. Most countries make it happen with legislation and that hasn’t arrived yet.”

Legislation is beginning, as Hill explains: “There’s examples like DM Decree 66 for the insulation of buildings, which we have to comply to in Dubai. They have been legislating it as well – they test and check your calculations to make sure you are applying it,” he assures.

Until full legislation is in place, acceptance of the need for change must come across the board in projects for any notable difference and to date this is not happening. “The general developer is not really that interested [in sustainable design] because they believe it costs them money,” explains Smith.

He is quick to point out that this is not the case and with good design, sustainable measures can actually save money. “There’s been two eminent studies done that indicate that the Green building costs about the same as a normal building, but no-one believes the results!” exclaims Smith. “Basically if you reduce the load on a building you don’t actually have to put as much engineering in it to cool it, so there isn’t a net increase in cost.”

“We’re very keen to see a building benchmarking system introduced to the Emirates,” states Smith. “Making that happen is hard because really the Government has got to do it, but it can be promoted privately and it was in Hong Kong very successfully.” “It would provide an immediate awareness [if people could say] ‘my building is B-rated, yours is an A’,” adds Hill.

A change in attitude does seem to be starting in the region however: “Generally across the Emirates we’re starting to see a raising of standards,” states Smith. “Some of the big developers realise that buying cheap isn’t necessarily buying best and we’re seeing some encouraging signs of an improvement in standards.”

Atkins itself is playing a key role in raising the awareness of environmental design. The firm was a founding member of the Emirates Green Building Council and is also closely involved with the recently introduced Environmental Design of Buildings MSc at the British University in Dubai, a course in which Hill is among the first students.

“We’re very conscious of our ecological footprint; that is the amount of biologically productive land that has to exist to sustain each of us,” states Smith. “The UAE has the world’s highest ecological footprint according to the World Wildlife Fund – 10-10.5 hectares per person (100,000-105,000m2). So for every person that comes through that terminal as an ex-pat, somewhere we have to find 10.5 hectares of biologically productive land.

“Atkins is enormously aware of this situation and it’s driven us internally to have an aggressive sustainable design policy. Because it’s only a question of time before the world starts pointing fingers in this direction,” he warns.

Subscription to the MSc is running at a healthy 15 students, with Hill reporting that an encouraging proportion of this number are Emiratis. The firm is keen to see a growth in these figures though if the course is to make a real impact in the construction sector.

“It’s one of the disappointments that we’re not getting overwhelmed with people wanting to go on the course,” states Smith. “And it’s largely to do with the fact that Dubai’s too busy and people can’t be spared to do this sort of education. It’s about time.”

The speed of Dubai’s construction programmes is clear to anyone driving around the city, as buildings seem to appear from nowhere in a matter of months. This pace is true for all stages of a development. “Where a project in London would take two years to design, it would take nine months here. It’s not just a bit quicker, it’s orders of magnitude difference in design time,” stresses Smith.

The lack of time for training also comes down to a shortage of staff. “ It seems that almost every discipline you look at now there is a world shortage,” stresses Hill. “It amazes me how the contracting industry is responding,” he adds. “They are better at responding than the designers. The issue is finding good design professionals; there is now a world shortage, which is almost unprecedented.”

“As an industry we haven’t trained. It’s never been romantic to be an engineer, yet for us it’s the best thing in the world; we use mathematics, physics and art to create solutions that no-one else has ever thought of sometimes. And to me there’s no bigger gratification,” Smith states.

The worldwide nature of Atkins as a firm and the location of its Middle East division mean that it benefits from a very cosmopolitan workforce, with 35 nationalities employed in its Dubai office. “Because they all come from different engineering and cultural backgrounds, they’ve all got something different to offer,” says Smith.

“If we employ someone from Australia they bring some new thinking to the process because they are ahead of us at the moment in sustainable design. Our colleagues from India, where it’s probably the more harshly competitive market in the world, have got tricks to make things more cost-effective.”

With the scale of projects in the region Atkins believes that a holistic approach is the way forward. “We’re talking about single structures that are the size of small towns in the UK and that is not scalable,” stresses Smith.

“We’d like to see the future of these mega-projects moving towards more of a partnering arrangement. We’d like to work with contractors more and get their input at design stage.”

“The scale of projects and technology available is beginning to encourage collaborative working early on,” adds Hill. “We have the tools to do it now.”

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