Green building ratings systems have proliferated in the Gulf in the past five years, but the feasibility of applying such systems in the region is the subject of much debate.

Key fact on green buildings

It is estimated that a green building costs 20 per cent more to design, build and maintain

In April, Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council launched its green building Pearl Rating system, which requires all new projects intended to accommodate more than 1,000 residents or users to be built to a minimum level of eco-friendliness. Residential projects must achieve a one pearl rating, while government-owned buildings including schools, mosques and public institutions must achieve a minimum of two.

Consultants pointed out that achieving a one pearl rating requires little more than conscientious design

Abu Dhabi’s system has been considered the most stringent in the region by some in the construction industry, yet consultants at a June summit on sustainable design in Riyadh pointed out that achieving a one pearl rating requires little more than conscientious design.

Political will

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Sultan AY Faden, architect and founding member of the Saudi Green Building Council, says the region’s multitude of ratings systems is unhealthy for the industry.

He says most of the Gulf’s ratings systems are confusing because they are too similar and fail to fully address the environmental issues present in the region. In Saudi Arabia, Faden says a further challenge is the relatively low-profile sustainability has on the kingdom’s political agenda.

In Qatar, Issa al-Mohannadi, head of the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) recently lauded the Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS), but also admitted that the country is not quite yet ready to embrace fully the green building movement. QGBC’s biggest initiatives over the next 12 months include raising awareness and altering the status of the council to extend and promote membership. Simply put, the QGBC is planning a lot of preparation but very little action.

According to Al-Mohannadi, QSAS is a laudable private-sector rating system developed by the Barwa Qatari Diar Research Institute (BQDRI). But he conceeds that the government has yet to pass legislation to make the grassroots initiative mandatory.

But there is hope for QSAS. Qatar’s Public Works Authority (Ashghal) agreed in late-May to adopt, apply and develop all of its future projects to QSAS standards. The agreement was signed by the heads of Ashghal, BQDRI and Lusail City. It represents the first government affirmation of the QSAS ratings.

Paying premiums

The case for green buildings in the Gulf is well-documented. Electricity and water consumption in the region has grown exponentially over the past five years.

By 2030, it is estimated that buildings will use 40 per cent of the world’s energy and be responsible for 33 per cent of all carbon emissions, according to Jeff Willis, chairman of the Emirates Green Building Council in the UAE.

But given the right technology and legislation, the energy and water consumption of buildings can be reduced by as much as 30 per cent. There is, however, a question of accountability. According to Abdel Khan, sustainability consultant at UK-based Faithful & Gould, the problem has not just been that the region’s governments have failed to support such ratings systems, but that the contruction industry itself has lacked enthusiasm for the green agenda.

The trend is to increase one’s portfolio through winning as many projects as possible

Shahbaz Tufail, Dar Engineering

According to Khan the green building message has become lost in a circle of blame: customers say they would be glad to pay a premium to live in a green building, but contractors are not building them. The contractors say that they would be happy to build energy efficient properties if more developers would specify them; while developers say they would like to build eco-friendly buildings but investors are unwilling to pay for them. Meanwhile, investors say they would finance more green buildings if there was a steady demand for them and occupiers were willing to pay a premium.

Some construction experts fear for the future of the ratings systems in the current economic climate, in which Middle East firms are now focused on cutting costs to maintain profits in an increasingly tough market.

Cutting margins

Intense competition from local and international partners has meant reducing margins to be competitive, says Shahbaz Tufail, technical operations manager at Riyadh’s Dar Engineering.

“The general trend is to increase one’s portfolio through winning as many projects as possible, at the cost of nominal margins, which in the long run may be detrimental,” he says.

Senior executives from some of the region’s top construction firms agree. At MEED’s Arabian World Construction Summit in Abu Dhabi in May, officials from Dubai’s Al-Habtoor Leighton Group and US-based CH2M Hill confirmed they have begun making cuts internally to make up the narrowing margins.

With much of the industry still reeling from the credit crisis or squeezing margins to stay competitive, most building professionals are focused on little more than maintaining a healthy bottom line. They certainly are not seeking to add to their initial spending on developments.

It is estimated that a green building costs 20 per cent more to design, build and maintain. Experts often explain away the additional costs by spreading the deficit over the life-cycle of the building. They also insist that potential occupiers will pay a premium to live in a building that is environmentally responsible.

The rent premium in the GCC can be as high as $122 a square-metre, says Jerry Yudelson of US green building consultant Yudelson Associates.

In the current market, neither buyers nor builders are prepared to pay a 20 per cent premium on a project because it is the right thing to do ecologically. That is why it has become incumbent upon Gulf governments to make green building regulations mandatory.

But a common trend in the Gulf has been to turn to popular models like the US’s Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (Leed) or the UK’s BRE Environmental Assessment Method (Breeam) when considering a green building strategy.

Qatar and Abu Dhabi continue to take great strides in finding an appropriate green buildings ratings tool

Leed and Breeam are legitimate ratings systems, but they were created for a certain geographical and climatic context. These are criticised in the Gulf by some design professionals because they often fail to consider the extreme heat, destructive sandstorms and shortages of energy and water so prevalent in the region.

Despite concerns, there are more than 500 construction projects in the GCC registered under Leed. Abu Dhabi alone has 45 Leed-registered projects.

The region’s governments have also made serious attempts to build green. The UAE’s Pearl Ratings System and Qatar’s nascent QSAS are the region’s best attempts to create an assessment tool that is both environmentally-responsible and Middle East-friendly, which should give developers more incentives to build green.

Identifying needs

Estidama is a green buildings initiative developed and promoted by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council.

It was created in 2008 with the aim of building a society around the precepts of environmental, economic, social and cultural sustainability. It has become a key component in Abu Dhabi’s 2030 masterplan.

Estidama, however, is not a green building rating system. It is merely a collection of ideas. The announcement of Estidama’s Pearl Rating System in April this year, however, transformed theory into practice.

The system is built on a system of credits, or pearls. Pearls are awarded to projects that meet – to some degree – certain environmental criteria. The degree to which a project meets and exceeds these goals determines the number of pearls it achieves. Because the system was designed for the Gulf, almost 50 per cent of its points revolve around the use of electricity and water. It awards projects for their appropriateness and ability to be eco-friendly in a Gulf context. The emphasis on water, energy use and indoor environmental quality deal directly with the biggest challenges in Gulf buildings.

Al-Mohannadi, chairman of the QGBC, considers Abu Dhabi to be well ahead of the rest of the region in terms of using green legislation to dictate construction.

QSAS appears to be gaining momentum in Qatar. It does not enjoy the full endorsement of the government, but those on the ground in Doha think it is only a matter of time until the rating system becomes law.

Ashghal’s recent commitment to consult scholars from BQDRI and use QSAS guidelines in all of its current and future projects is also a step in the right direction, as is its commitment to focus on water and energy efficiency. In addition, material selection, improved design, construction, operation and maintenance were also highlighted as areas of concern.

Finding favour

“The adoption of QSAS will allow Ashghal to take the lead in addressing strategic issues related to preserving Qatar’s natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, minimisation of ecological impacts, and assurance of environmental quality,” says Nasser Ali al-Mawlawi, president of Ashghal.

The stated objective of QSAS is to create a sustainable built environment that minimises ecological impact, while addressing the specific regional needs and environment of Qatar.

It is premature to talk about points or credits with QSAS, but the ratings system has taken a page out of Abu Dhabi’s book and combined best practices used by established systems including Leed, Breeam and Estidama.

While weightings have not been assigned to each criteria, QSAS contains eight of nine categories found in Leed, Breeam and Estidama. But unlike the others, QSAS rates the cultural and economic value of a project.

It seems Leed and Breeam have found little momentum with the authority responsible for building schools, mosques and government buildings in Qatar. In addition, QSAS categories include urban connectivity, energy, water, materials, indoor environment, cultural and economic value and management and operations.

Defining goals

Each category consists of criteria that further define the goals of the category through specific objectives and measurements that are performance-driven and objective. These criteria have been developed by scholars at BQDRI and the University of Pennsylvania’s TC Chan Centre.

A score is awarded to each criterion based on its degree of compliance. QSAS scores range from minus one to three, depending on the building’s impact on the environment.

Once a building achieves a basic score, it can be certified to show how well it complies with a certain criterion. Certification can only be achieved when a building’s final score is greater than or equal to zero. It then goes on to earn a rating of one to six stars. The highest score a building can achieve in QSAS is three and the highest certification level is six stars.

Leed and Breeam, even in their most flexible versions, are inadequate assessment systems for green buildings in the Gulf critics say. But Qatar and Abu Dhabi continue to take great strides in finding an appropriate, Middle East-friendly green buildings ratings tool.

Countries including Egypt, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia have all created green building councils. The problem say critics is that they are all based on the US Green Building Council, which has been shown to be inappropriate for the region.

The green agenda is not going to abate anytime soon and Gulf countries would do well to pay attention to what happens in Qatar and Abu Dhabi as their own green ratings systems may well be based on legislation being passed there right now.