Seeing green

Increasing interest in environmental issues prompted Pacific Controls to build the region's first certified green building. Eliot Beer reports on the firm's ambitious project.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  August 13, 2007

Environmental concern has not, traditionally, been a core part of Middle Eastern business practice - in the same way that it is in Scandinavia or Germany, for example. The region is by no means alone in this - up until recently the American attitude towards issues such as climate change has been to import another barrel of oil to power the extra air conditioning.

But the same drive that is forcing US consumers to switch their gas-guzzling SUVs for efficient hybrid cars has now reached the Middle East. The realities of climate change and declining oil resources - along with the image problem that pollution-ridden countries are now acquiring in the West - are driving regional enterprises to look again at environmentally-friendly business practices.

With the current construction boom throughout the region, and especially in the GCC states, a relatively easy and attractive way to implement environmentally aware practices is to build them into a new development. Not only does this enhance an organisation's green credentials, but it also provides very tangible returns in the form of lower running costs - a significant factor over the lifetime of a building.

While enterprises and governments throughout the Middle East have shown increasing interest in sustainable building techniques, knowledge and experience levels in the region are negligible. The vast majority of traditional contractors have little or no experience with ‘greening' a project - leaving a hole in the market.

Automation specialist Pacific Controls is one company that has taken the plunge. For its Dubai base, it took the decision to build a fully-certified sustainable building, which would act as both an effective and efficient regional headquarters, and a showcase for the potential of sustainable buildings - buildings which are designed from the outset to be energy-efficient and have a low environmental impact.

The firm set out to attain Platinum certification from the US Green Buildings Council - and succeeded. To achieve this certification, Pacific Controls built in features such as solar power generation, sewage filtration, water conservation, and advanced insulation. All of this is backed by an integrated IP network, which serves all the facilities in the building.

The site, near Jebel Ali to the south-west of Dubai, sits in an isolated patch of scrub, part of a larger industrial estate. From the outside, the Pacific Controls building looks very normal: covered in glass, with a red trim, the building could easily sit in one of Dubai's Free Zones - or in the graphic renderings of Saudi Arabia's Economic Cities.

Entering the lobby, the air is a pleasant temperature - but conspicuously not the over-cooled gust which often greets visitors to buildings in the Middle East. The reason for this is psychological, explains Nigel MacKenzie, chief technology officer at Pacific Controls: "If it's too cold in the communal areas, but warmer in offices, people turn down the temperature in the offices - increasing the load on the air conditioning. If it's warmer in communal areas, the offices seem cooler."

Much of the building's green credentials come from policies and intelligent planning, rather than technology. Timed light switches ensure communal areas are only illuminated when in use, while motion sensors in offices detect if someone is present - and switch off the light if the room is empty.

None of the green technologies used in Pacific Controls' site are exactly new, although it is relatively uncommon to see all of them in use together in one site. Perhaps the most innovative strategy the company has adopted is to put all its building systems onto one IP-based backbone, instead of disparate, proprietary networks.

This allows much tighter integration of the building's facilities, and control not just from PCs throughout the building, but also from IP phones and, through the internet, potentially external machines. Being able to control and monitor these systems to the extent possible through the network makes optimising the building for low energy consumption much easier - although MacKenzie is quick to point out that the IP integration does not form a direct part of the building's green strategy.

"The idea of converging your systems is that you reduce the number of cable structures you have in the building, and you also bring it on to an IP platform, where you can share information with anything on the network - and integrate everything to a much higher order," says MacKenzie.

"Data from any sensor - a thermostat, for example - can be taken up to the enterprise level, where the information can be routed to the people that need to get it. Technical alarms will go to one group, an e-mail to another - a text message to another person. The aggregated information would be sent to finance. The information would also be displayed to the executive management on real-time dashboards, where they can see how much their enterprise is consuming hour by hour," he adds.

Beyond the IP network, though, there is some heavy-duty green technology at work. The roof of the building is covered in photovoltaic (PV) panels - these power the building's lighting during the day, switching over to grid power after sunset.

The other key system at work also relies on solar energy, but - counter-intuitively - uses it to drive the air conditioning. Instead of using PV technology to generate electricity, Pacific Controls uses an absorption chiller system. It uses the sun's heat to power a chemical process which produces cool water to run the air conditioning system. The system is common in locations with large amounts of excess heat, such as manufacturing or chemical facilities.

In Pacific Controls' setup, it runs water pipes through a solar array, heating the water to around 90C. This is pumped back to the chiller, which then uses the water to run the air conditioning system. The absorption chiller drives around a quarter of the building's load - the rest is taken up by high-efficiency screw chillers.

As with everything else, the chillers are all IP-enabled - once fitted, all the Pacific Controls staff had to do was connect them to the network. The philosophy driving the facilities management in the building seems to be: if it can be connected, connect it. "Although it's a small building, there's around 120 devices deployed as part of the air conditioning," explains MacKenzie. "Each of these boxes has around 20 parameters - 20 pieces of data. So that's 120 times 20, in a small building like this. When you take that and gain access to all this -then you can manipulate it. By connecting these devices to the IT infrastructure, you can then appoint someone who can have access to all this data and make something of it."

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