Walking the long path to sustainability

Environmental building design is slowly taking an upwards turn as awareness grows of the need to behave more sustainably. In response to the WWF’s Living Planet report, Christopher Sell assesses how the industry is reacting.

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By  Christopher Sell Published  December 2, 2006

|~|148featureenv200.gif|~|The Bahrain World Trade Centre (left) has been designed with three wind turbines, which could provide about 10-15% of the building’s power needs. And in a recent announcement, Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park (right) has revealed that all of its buildings will be built to meet LEED standards.|~|Expansion of the kind currently being witnessed in Dubai is not unique in urban history. But the speed of construction and compressed nature of development within the emirate certainly is. This timeframe has placed undue pressure on those trying to attain some sort of parity – between both the landscape and those living on it. In its latest Living Planet report, the WWF claims that the world’s population is living far beyond the planet’s means – its ecological footprint has more than tripled since 1961, exceeding the world’s ability to regenerate by about 25%. And the UAE has the biggest per capita ecological footprint of any country in the world. People in the Emirates need the equivalent of almost 12ha per person of productive land or seas to provide the natural resources they use, and to re-absorb their waste, the WWF claims. The global demand is 2.2ha, far above the available supply of 1.8ha per person. As of yet, the future impact of such a construction boom cannot be measured, but if the increasing murmurs alluding to the environmental impact of this process is anything to go by, the population of Dubai is gradually waking up to the issues, and the collective responsibility to head-off potential environmental damage that could have far reaching consequences. And growing awareness leads to inevitable questions on what can be done to reverse the damage. A number of conferences and talks have been held over the last few weeks in the emirate that have focused on the issues that must be faced, and highlighted possible solutions. While not a complete paradigm shift, at least they demonstrate a move up the agenda for the environment. Keith Clarke, CEO of Atkins, the largest engineering consultancy firm in the UK and third largest global design firm in the world, recently spoke at the British University in Dubai. He voiced concern over rapid development of the Middle East, coupled with the emerging environmental sensitivities of urban development, and championed sustainable building designs that not only have a reduced ecological footprint but are successful in terms of both the human and economic aspect of design. “The debate is changing,” says Clarke. “It is no longer; ‘is climate changing?’ But ‘by how much and what impact will it have?’” He adds, however, that Dubai’s economic boom goes a long way to justify its ecological footprint, but for the US to be second on the list (in front of a developing Kuwait) is inexcusable. A number of improvements are being looked at to temper the impact and augment environmental change, Clarke explains; namely passive design, construction materials and microclimates, together with better engineering and the increasing use of renewables such as photovoltaic panels, solar air conditioning, wind turbines and biomass. This can be seen on the Bahrain World Trade Centre – the first building in the world to have turbines installed from the beginning of construction – and Iris Bay, also in Bahrain, which has been designed with environmental sensitivity in mind. Features include photovoltaic mesh that is integrated into the glass panel to harness the sun’s energy and provide shade to the façade, which is perforated to assist natural ventilation. “We may think we have been clever today, but we need to be twice as clever tomorrow,” says Clarke. It does raise the question though: In a city that has seen intense and compressed construction has Dubai missed a trick in not exploiting sustainable technology or renewable materials? “It is like when you buy a laptop, you can always wait for the next one to come out,” explains Clarke. “You can sit around waiting for the ideal world but that is never going to happen. You have to get on with it and not be afraid to make mistakes in the process. And the UAE is very good at not being afraid to make mistakes.” And Clarke does not believe that the dynamic of Dubai’s transient population will hinder future decisions on its environmental sustainability policy: “I don’t think decision makers are part of the transient population. We can work anywhere in the world now and this has in turn engendered a respect for the world. There is a changed perception about sustainability for many people – I liken it to drink driving. It isn’t just because it isn’t allowed, it is because it is deemed socially unacceptable.” Where has this change in emphasis come from? “The fact that we are debating this means things are changing and the landscape is maturing,” says Clarke. “But I think it’s a combination of extreme weather events, be it droughts or torrential rain in the UK, Europe or US that has added to underlying scientific and journalistic input. The idea of the seas rising 1cm – no one is going to care or notice. It is when you see things going on around you that people start to sit up and take notice.” Habiba Al Marashi, chairperson, Emirates Environmental Group, agrees: “The private sector is beginning to realise the gravity of the situation and is takings its first constructive steps towards a sustainable environment. The UAE’s rapid growth is beginning to cause serious threat to the environment.” It is all well and good pontificating the merits of environmentally friendly construction methods, but the reality is that such changes will be costly, and Al Marashi is convinced that such solutions shouldn’t come at economic cost. “Environmental protection should never be a hindrance to economic development; do that and there is nothing for future generations,” she says. This is a point that Wael Abu Adas, vice president, development, with Damac also makes, pointing out that the start-up costs of a green building could be higher than a conventional building. “To be practical, environmental performance must be balanced against economic performance. We need to identify building materials that improve environmental performance with little or no increase in cost,” says Adas, adding that, as yet, no economies of scale can be applied to environmental investment. One idea Adas raises is a government programme that offers incentives, and a programme to assist installation and implementation. He says that an environmentally sustainable building offers lower operating costs, reduced turnover, better work productivity due to healthier environment and a raised property value. The environmental issues that Wael says should be considered, are alternative energy, energy efficiency, green buildings, water conservation and recycling. Green buildings can include materials chosen for their environmental performance, minimum impact and waste, motion-sensor lights, recycled-content products and energy-efficient appliances. They should avoid building materials with volatile organic compounds. But such measures will not be implemented themselves, they need a platform. For this, Adas singles out LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a green building rating system that promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability. It works by recognising performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. Just recently, the Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park has revealed that all of its buildings will be built to meet LEED standards. Overall, the industry feeling is that it’s the commitment from the developer that makes the difference. Architects and developers know what must be done, and it has to be pushed to the top of the agenda. But there is a distinct difference between knowing and doing, and as Dubai moves into 2007 – with no sign of construction abating – the sooner environmental solutions can be implemented the better.||**||

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