This month will bring the unveiling of one of the first green-building ratings -systems to be developed in the Gulf, and one that will put the UAE among the leaders of the global sustainable building movement.

Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council, through its environmental initiative Estidama (sustainability in Arabic), is due to publish the first parts of its Pearl Design System ratings method for green buildings.

The ratings are voluntary and will only apply to new projects, but it nonetheless sends a message to all those involved with designing and building projects in Abu Dhabi that official attitudes to sustainability have changed in one of the world’s most important projects markets. Abu Dhabi is pushing ahead with one of the largest project programmes in the Middle East and MEED estimates that up to $700bn worth of new schemes are due to start in the next 10 years.

The Urban Planning Council’s role is to ensure that Abu Dhabi’s urban centres develop in a sustainable way. Estidama’s activities in particular are aimed at raising environmental standards, and will encompass the school curriculum, the way the emirate’s sovereign wealth funds invest their money, the development of the emirate’s infrastructure, the protection of its natural environment, and how food and water is sourced.

Best practice

“Estidama is the symbol of an inspired vision for governance and community development that constitutes Abu Dhabi’s contribution to the international dialogue on the issues of sustainability and best, responsible practices,” says Falah al-Ahbabi, general manager of the Urban Planning Council.

“The ultimate aspiration is to set a new global sustainability benchmark that will eventually be embraced by other forward-thinking nations around the world.”

Estidama is focusing first on the built environment. The initial step was the launch in February 2009 of the Estidama Integrative Design Process, a guide on how to prepare for a green-building project.

The next step will involve defining the rating system itself. In May, Estidama issued a methodology for new buildings and is soon to publish a design guide for them. The methodology covers residential developments of more than two homes, as well as office projects, retail schemes and mixed developments. It is already being used in pilot products and a revised version is due out in October.

A ratings methodology and guide for larger developments of new communities was released in July, and an accompanying design guide was published in August. This community rating methodology will be applied to three project types: urban infill, where the site being used is close to existing developments; suburban/exurban, which is effectively a greenfield site; and conservation projects, on sites with significant natural resources and environmental sensitivity.

A third rating methodology, and the one that will prove the greatest challenge, will be for existing buildings. After that will come ratings and design guides for resorts and hotels, single-family residential buildings, and the interiors of commercial buildings.

To complete its suite of green-building standards, Estidama is also working on application guides for schools and parks, although these will not have ratings systems.

The Pearl rating standard allocates points to activities in six areas: site selection and other issues related to the original environment; buildings; water use; energy consumption; materials; and innovation. To reflect the needs of the Gulf, a relatively high proportion of the scoring relates to water use.

To get a Pearl rating, a developer will first need to register its project with the Estidama team at the Urban Planning Council. The council will then appoint an assessor to work with the project’s design team, who will advise and guide the developer on preparing its Pearl rating submission.

Estidama will then award a Pearl rating from one to five, depending on a credit score calculated by the assessor.

The lowest rating of one Pearl will be allocated to any new building developed under Abu Dhabi’s new building code, which is expected to come into force in January 2010. This code will incorporate many basic green-building principles as mandatory.

More environmentally friendly practices will trigger additional pearls. A rating of four pearls is designed to correspond to the highest rating available under any existing rating methodology. According to Estidama, the highest rating of five pearls will only go to projects with the highest sustainable standards, which produce more resources than they consume. This implies that buildings with five pearls will have to include renewable-energy production capacity.

Wider potential

“Estidama goes beyond any other sustainable development model,” says Saoud al-Junaibi, director of urban planning at the Urban Planning Council and a senior Estidama spokesman. “It introduces an overarching, region-wide solution to sustainability issues and has the potential to be embraced by countries in the region.”

However, Estidama is launching its rating system into a crowded market. There are more than 200 environmental rating systems for buildings around the world, including the British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (Breeam) standard used in the UK, Leadership in Environmental Design (Leed) ratings developed by the US Green Building Council, and the Green Star system of the Australian Green Building Council.

But Estidama’s system is groundbreaking in its own right, as it is the first that has been designed to address the challenges of building in the Gulf region.

Estidama says it is keen to work with the other main international ratings bodies.

“It was recognised early on that significant industry knowledge and capability has been created around widely adopted green-building programmes such as Breeam, Leed and Green Star,” says a spokesman for Estidama. “Rather than create a new programme, the Pearl rating system is striving to harmonise the criteria within these programmes, so developers and their consultants can draw upon programmes with which they are most familiar in the pursuit of a Pearl rating.”

Estidama has been welcomed by Gulf green-building advocates.

“Estidama goes beyond any other sustainable development model. It introduces a region-wide solution”

Saoud al-Junaibi, urban planning director, UPC

“I would be in favour of anything that reduces the confusion among people about what they should do,” says Jeff Willis, associate director at the UK’s Arup, who was elected chairman of the UAE’s Emirates Green Building Council in July.

“This must eventually lead to a common standard. The discussions between Green Star, Leed and Breeam about how they link together will be useful. But if Estidama develops along the right way, I don’t see any reason why people should not adopt that.”

Estidama says it is aiming for “alignment” with many of the criteria and reference standards in the most popular rating systems.

“The remaining criteria will be unique to Estidama, and hence the Middle East, making a Pearl rating a higher level of professional standard, and more responsive to the cultural and resource issues of the region,” says the Estidama spokesman.

Although its ratings are not compulsory, Estidama is one of several initiatives that are increasing the pressure on developers and contractors. The final responsibility for overseeing most developments in the UAE capital rests with Abu Dhabi Municipality, which works closely with the Urban Planning Council, and the municipality is itself developing a compulsory building code that will include green criteria.

The conclusion is clear: if you want to develop projects in Abu Dhabi, you will have to act sustainably.

The three stages of Pearl ratings

Estidama will rate projects in stages. For new buildings, there will be three: design, on completion and after the project is occupied.

The first rating, called the target rating, will be used to confirm that a proposed project’s design and supporting strategies are consistent with Estidama’s goals. It can be awarded when or after a project secures planning approval from the Urban Planning Council.

The second, certified rating will be provided once construction has been completed and after final approval and inspection. It will be valid for a limited period, possibly two years.

The final rating stage for new buildings, known as the Pearl living rating, will be made after a project is occupied.

For larger, community developments, ratings will be in two stages: on design and after a quarter of the proposed development is built and occupied. How this process will work in practice is being tested in pilot projects.