GCC's modern technology and ancient building techniques

07 December 2007
Gulf developers are meeting the challenge of climate change by combining modern technology with ancient building techniques.

With the UAE alone producing more carbon dioxide (CO2) per person than any other country in the world, the Middle East is a major contributor to the amount of the greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. One of the biggest factors in the regionís poor CO2 emissions performance is its modern architecture, characterised by exposed, heavily air-conditioned glass buildings, using enormous amounts of electricity and depleting precious water supplies.

Over the next seven years, the amount of energy required to power buildings in the Gulf will double, as more than $500bn worth of planned development reaches completion, creating an extra 300 million tonnes of C02 a year.

"This level of growth is not sustainable," says Sultan al-Jaber, chief executive officer of UEA-based developer Abu Dhabi Future Development Company (Masdar). "Unless we change the energy, water and waste consumption rates of developments, we will undoubtedly choke the planned capacities of utilities and damage the environment."

There are signs that the warning is being heeded. Dubai will introduce a sustainable building code on 1 January. There is also a growing belief that the leaders in the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar are serious about responding to the challenge of tackling climate change now, rather than paying the consequences later.

Harsh climate

Paradoxically, perhaps, the region's harsh climate is its biggest advantage in terms of the potential to generate renewable energy to power buildings. "There is so much energy falling on the Middle East in terms of solar energy, it could power it a thousand times over," says Richard Smith, regional director of technology for the Middle East and India at UK consultant Atkins.

"So there is an argument that the hot countries of the world are the only ones that are going to be sustainable in the long term, which is an interesting thought."

Developments designed to harness this raw energy will be built over the next few years, mainly in the UAE. These will provide models for reducing the carbon footprints of future Gulf architecture.

In Abu Dhabi, the Masdar initiative aims to be the first zero-carbon, zero-waste city in the Middle East, and the three Central Market towers will feature thousands of solar panels and roof slats, which will open to let the cold night air flow through the building to reduce the need for air-conditioning.

At the Dubai International Financial Centre, the 66-floor Lighthouse tower will feature wind and solar power facilities, with 4,000 solar panels on the facade and three 29-metre-diameter wind turbines - cutting typical energy consumption for a building of its size by 65 per cent. In Bahrain, the World Trade Centre features three enormous wind turbines between its two towers.

With sustainable offices becoming an obligation for international blue chip companies, 20 per cent of developers in the UAE, including Masdar, Aldar Properties and Abu Dhabiís Tourism Development & Investment Company are embarking on such projects.

"Developers here realise they have to change if they want to attract international companies that have already developed strict corporate social responsibility policies related to the environment and have signed the Kyoto Protocol," says Jeffrey Willis, associate director at the Dubai office of UK consultant Arup.

"Developers are starting to realise the products they sell, if not sustainable, will probably devalue in time," agrees Atkinsí Smith. "Or may not sell for as much as they could do."

An additional benefit of harnessing solar and wind power is the potential to substantially decrease running costs. Energy bills can be reduced, on average, by 35 per cent, says Robert Latham, market sector director for the UAE at engineering consultant Halcrow Yolles.

Renewable energy

Sadek Owainati, Dubai-based director of Al-Naboodah Contractors, tells MEED the potential to cut running costs could be as much as 60 per cent, but says to achieve this renewable energy sources would have to be fuelling the national electric grid.

"To achieve high savings, the alternative energy supplied must be connected to the national electric grid, which is essential to provide a building with the flexibility required when demand exceeds the available alternative power and vice-versa," he says.

If this were to happen, the extra investment in renewable power sources could pay for itself in as little as three to five years, he says. "And as with any new idea, the cost of the new technology would be reduced once the technology is widely used."

However, about 50 per cent of developers appear to require the stick of building legislation, which Dubai, with its high carbon footprint, is already poised to wield.

Under a recent decree by Dubaiís ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, from 1 January 2008 all buildings will have to be designed to sustainable standards, which are yet to be announced.

The sustainable building code is expected to be similar to the USí Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (Leed) standard. When using the Leed system, building developers gain credits for implementing environmentally sustainable practices. There are four levels of certification that can be awarded, depending on the number of credits gained from a maximum of 69 points.

These levels are certified, silver, gold and platinum. It is thought that the UAE system will require silver standard compliance - between 33 and 38 points. The not-for-profit Green Building Council, formed in June 2006, is developing its own standard based on Leed, but with criteria more appropriate to the local climate and culture.

The local code should focus on how buildings are orientated to make the most of sunlight but offer shade as well, says Gerard Evenden, a senior partner at UK architect Foster & Partners, which is involved in the Masdar initiative.

"People like to talk about all the active systems," says Evenden. "But unless you address issues around orientation and passive systems, you will never generate enough power to support the development in a sustainable way."

Reducing glare

The latest technology in glass facades, for example, will enable natural light to fill interiors but insulate them from the heat, while reducing glare, the need for artificial lighting and air conditioning.

"If you design a building here in the same way as you did in the past 10 years, the percentage of total electricity from renewables would typically be no more than 3-5 per cent," says Arup's Willis. "If you reduce the energy load through things such as better external shading and quality facades, this can rise to 10-15 per cent immediately."

Another major factor for architects designing in the Middle East is to maximise water recycling. Much water in the region is desalinated, which is an energy-intensive process, says Willis.

At Masdar City, the aim is to cut the use of desalinated water by 80 per cent, by using domestic wastewater for irrigation, and also through repurification.

The use of photovoltaic (PV) cells on the buildings or thermal tubes to harvest heat from the ground to power the air-conditioning are obvious solutions, but fitting PV panels and solar collectors is a challenge that architects are still grappling with because of the large surface areas required.

At the proposed Masdar walled city development in Abu Dhabi, the solution will be to separate the solar energy generation from the building itself by building solar collection farms on the edge of the city.

Wind energy is a potentially good source of renewable energy in coastal areas, but it is inconsistent and only really appropriate for taller buildings, which can harness the stronger winds higher up.

It is hoped that the three wind turbines on the 240m Bahrain World Trade Centre, designed by Atkins, will provide up to 15 per cent of the buildingís energy requirements.

One approach to sustainability, which Foster & Partnerís maintains was the winning feature of its proposals for Masdar, is to return to traditional Islamic building techniques, keeping buildings cool without the benefit of modern air-conditioning.

"For Masdar, we did a lot of research on ancient Arabic cities and found that the narrow streets and buildings of three to four storeys reduce the sunlight through shadowing but still allow enough sun to get through," says Gerard Evenden, senior partner at Foster & Partnerís. "The older buildings have courtyards with colonnades around the edge that shade the building but allow daylight to filter through for working functions."

Traditional design

Traditional Islamic buildings are relevant today because the original designers were inspired by the Quran to be sustainable, says Al-Naboodah's Owainati. "The subject of waste and not squandering resources is deeply rooted in religious teaching, which confirms the objective of a sustainable environment.

"There are various verses in the Quran that specifically praise the value of water and trees, the two main pillars supporting life and sustainability on earth."

Many of these techniques need further refinement to become viable, but the research needed to get to this stage is likely to come from the Middle East, says Evenden.

The concept of the Masdar walled city is based on developing a university town to produce world-leading research into tackling climate change. The Masdar Institute of Science & Technology has already set up agreements with MIT in Boston, Imperial College in London and the Tokyo Institute, which will bring in world-class teaching and research expertise on carbon-cutting building design.

"They are already talking about exporting some of the green products they develop," says Evenden.

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