The UAE has named 2023 the Year of Sustainability. With the Cop28 climate summit looming, the government and the private sector are accelerating their low-carbon growth strategies in line with the nation’s 2050 net-zero target.
As part of this, there is an increasing need to adopt sustainable practices in the design, construction and operations of building projects.
For engineering firms and contractors, this entails reducing their environmental impact during the construction phase.
One pioneer in the area of sustainable construction is Dubai-based general contractor Khansaheb. It launched its SustainAbilities agenda a decade ago as part of its contribution to greener building practices.
The programme has led to a significant improvement in efficiency and successful project delivery.
“Projections are that the built environment produces 39-42 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions,” says Jason Sams, general manager – construction at Khansaheb. “Of this, at least 28 per cent comes from operational emissions and 11 per cent from materials and construction.”
One example of Khansaheb’s multifaceted sustainability efforts is its introduction of prefabricated site offices, or EcoKabins, into project environments. This has helped to address the critical issues of waste and resource consumption.
“These cabins are essentially plug-and-play. They come pre-wired and are designed for repeated use, setting them apart from conventional, single-use project office complexes.
“Our present fleet of approximately 256 units is designed to reduce operational costs and wastage,” says Sams.
In addition, contractors are often looking for solutions to turn wastewater into a reusable resource. Wastewater treatment systems from Bionest offer high-performance water purification using a simple, efficient and durable technology.
The on-site treatment system employed by Khansaheb consists of an extended aeration, fixed film reactor, designed to treat high pollution levels in water.
“The treated water can then be used for irrigation, backfilling operations, dust suppression and site washing activities, helping to reduce dependency on imported clean water by almost 30-50 per cent,” explains Sams.
Aiming to power its site activities using a carbon-neutral energy source, Khansaheb has integrated solar panels into its construction sites, establishing a solar-diesel hybrid power generation system.
“These panels can supply up to 15 per cent of the total power demand, reducing the reliance on diesel for electricity.
“This not only reduces upfront carbon emissions, but also holds the potential to save up to 700 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions annually,” he says.
Photovoltaic panels have also been installed across Khansaheb's staff accommodations, along with effective cooling systems. These installations have significantly contributed to decreasing the firm's overall electricity usage.
In addition, Khansaheb has deployed on-site battery storage to power essential equipment such as tower cranes, resulting in an 85 per cent drop in diesel power use.
This change is expected to cut 130 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year.
“The idea now is to explore whether we can use battery generators to power more than a single plant," says Sams.
Khansaheb contractors also recognise the role that technology plays in tackling the sustainability requirements of a project.
“As technology presents us with opportunities, we are trying to grasp as much as we can,” says Sams.
“We are constantly looking for innovative solutions to drive down overall costs and the cost of building, as well as to find alternatives that help reduce carbon footprint, all while being environmentally astute,” he adds.
With over 300 vehicles used in its operations, the contractor is shifting from a largely petrol- and diesel-driven fleet to a more sustainable one. The firm has initiated a trial phase by introducing its first six electric vehicles, with the goal of transitioning a significant portion of its fleet to battery-powered vehicles.
These initiatives have resulted in significant reductions in fuel, electricity and water usage. Diesel and petrol consumption has fallen by almost half over the past five years, and equally positive results are also projected for power and water usage.
Despite the success of these initiatives, managing waste production remains the most significant challenge for Khansaheb.
“The biggest difficulty we have is mixed waste that comes out from offices and particular waste streams,” says Sams.
“While segregating waste is one aspect, the real challenge we are still working on is preventing waste from reaching the site in the first place. There are various avenues to explore, such as examining suppliers and specifications.”
Introducing government initiatives
While Khansaheb’s efforts have been driven internally, Sams says that for many companies, only government mandates will encourage them to adopt these kinds of initiatives.
“I think there is legislation starting to come through,” he says. “The introduction of new waste regulations by the municipality, mandating the use of building information modelling systems across construction projects, encourages contractors to drive sustainability into projects.”
In October, the UAE launched an initiative to advance decarbonisation efforts in waste management and the circular economy.
The Waste to Zero project aims to strengthen the country’s position at the forefront of global action and contribute to the global goal of reducing the industry’s emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. The initiative will play a key role in delivering the UAE’s climate commitments and achieving its Net Zero by 2050 target.
The introduction of green building codes is another example of the regulatory push.
“The majority of the projects done by Khansaheb are motivated by client requirements for a Leed [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Gold or Leed Silver certification, emphasising sustainability,” Sams says.
Leed certification is the most widely recognised green building rating system and provides a framework for efficient and cost-effective green buildings.
Other prominent codes in the UAE include the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s Estidama rating system and Dubai Municipality’s Green Building Regulations. Both place more scrutiny on how projects are designed, constructed and maintained, and the systems are expected to become more commonplace as clients demand cleaner and less energy-intensive buildings.
“The general perception among contractors is that sustainable buildings are more expensive,” says Sams. “This needs to change.
“Many currently focus on upfront capital investment as the cost driver while overlooking the project’s life cycle benefits.”
For instance, sustainable construction and greener buildings can lead to better social and communal outcomes.
Sams says that when it comes to reducing consumption and waste across construction processes, companies must strive to be efficient and must also understand that efficiency comes in many forms.
Working together with suppliers to adopt environmentally friendly practices in the packaging and transportation of goods is key. For example, efforts can involve focusing on centrally procured materials or replacing timber shutters with more durable metal shutters.
Suppliers are also encouraged to package items in stillages instead of individual boxes. The introduction of reusable plastic pallets in place of wooden pallets is another measure that can be taken to reduce waste in the construction process.
Sams also recommends engaging contractors in the early stages of a project for ease of planning and resource allocation.
“Contractors must invest in energy efficiency. Design is key but can only follow if developers and clients are prepared to consider life cycle and upfront investment in more efficient buildings,” he adds.
Moreover, while integrating smart building technology could initially be expensive, it has the potential to reduce emissions by nearly 50 per cent throughout the duration of a project.
“This aligns with our goals of repurposing, reusing and refurbishing, making it not just an option but a necessity,” Sams says.
“In everything we do, we would like to be at the forefront of contracting and contribute as much as we possibly can.
“Globally, we have about $4tn of built environment to look after, so recycling and introducing all the available smart technology into buildings will help,” he concludes.
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