The Middle East does not have a good reputation when it comes to the environment. It is the largest global exporter of hydrocarbons and has developed a culture of waste.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Abu Dhabi has the largest ecological footprint in the world, and the rest of the region ranks high in the ratings table of eco offenders. But the region is moving with the times. As environmental awareness rises, businesses across the Gulf are beginning to concentrate on improving their performance. In the MEED environmental sustainability survey undertaken in August, 96 per cent of respondents said operating in an environmentally sustainable way was either important or of critical importance.

Environmental impact

The building industry is no different. Construction has traditionally been a major contributor to the Gulf’s lacklustre performance. Projects are often launched with little environmental consideration. In extreme cases, work has started before an environmental impact assessment has even been commissioned.

But there are examples of how things should be done. If one project can be highlighted as leading the way for sustainable development in the region it is Bahrain’s World Trade Centre. The soon-to-be completed twin 50-storey office towers is the first project in the world to reduce the building’s carbon footprint by incorporating large-scale turbines to harness the power of the wind to produce electricity.

It was a major departure from traditional projects designed by the UK’s Atkins four years ago. ‘It was extremely radical for anywhere in the world, let alone the Middle East, to integrate renewables on a building of that scale,’ says Richard Smith, technical director at Atkins.

Not surprisingly, the concept caught on with the region’s developers – many of which are actively encouraged to think big when planning future schemes.

Earlier this year, Dubai International Financial Centre released details of its plans to build an estimated $136 million office tower, again designed by Atkins, which will have renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and 4,000 solar panels.

Energy Consumption

The tower has also been designed to reduce its energy consumption by up to 65 per cent and water consumption by up to 60 per cent. It will do so by using passive solar architecture, such as awnings, low-energy and low-water-use technology and recovery strategies for the energy and water used.

With more than $200,000 million of assets, the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), the client, could easily have chosen to build the world’s tallest tower several times over for its new headquarters building. Instead, its focus was on the environment. It has recently selected a design for a 220-metre tower, prepared by the local office of KEO International Consultants, which includes sustainable features, such as wind turbines and photovoltaic panels.

But the most ambitious plans are in Abu Dhabi, where the government’s Masdar initiativeis working on an entire city that will produce zero carbon emissions. Designed by the UK’s Foster & Partners, the 6-kilometre-square city will rely on cutting-edge renewable energies and environmentally sustainable technologies, together with more traditional design techniques, to achieve a zero-carbon and zero-waste community.

Foster & Partners has drawn up plans to use photovoltaic panels to harness the power of the sun to generate almost half the electricity required by the city. Other renewable energy sources include a field of mirrors to concentrate sunlight on to a specific point to create thermal energy, a wind farm and a small power plant that will produce energy by incinerating and digesting municipal solid waste.

But sustainable development is much more than just incorporating renewable energy sources. ‘There are about 90 different factors to consider when assessing the sustainability of a building,’ says Smith. ‘Only about 30 per cent of them involve carbon emissions.’

According to Smith, there are broad areas to consider when designing a sustainable building. The first is good passive design, as the orientation of a building can reduce energy costs by 15-20 per cent through better shading and insulation with little additional cost to the client.

The second is better engineering solutions. This includes more efficient light fittings, pipework and other services designed to improve the efficiency of the building.

The third is the recovery of waste and energy – using grey water to flush toilets, for example. The final area is renewables, which involves harnessing energy from the sun, the wind and the incineration of waste.

Although the region is energy-rich with vast hydrocarbon reserves, the case for conserving energy and utilising renewable energy sources is compelling. Efficient buildings are cheaper to operate, which means that although an energy-efficient building may be more expensive to build, it should produce savings for the developer in the long run.

It also makes sense for the broader economy. The shortage of gas for power stations and an almost complete reliance on desalinated water means that huge investment from the government is required to ensure the demands of the population are met. But sometimes they are not. Kuwait has experienced brown-outs and black-outs, while water supplies have run dry in Jeddah. Furthermore, establishing electricity connections in Dubai is frequently delayed as utility providers struggle to keep pace with development.

Carbon emissions

But sustainable projects remain the exception rather than the rule. Developers have experienced a 40 per cent increase in construction costs over the past three or four years, and many regard controlling construction costs as the top priority when planning projects. ‘Sustainability is not normally on the lips of clients, because many are still concerned about costs,’ says Smith.

In many cases, projects are launched with a wealth of sustainable features but these are stripped out in subsequent value engineering exercises with project managers and contractors. ‘We are working on a project with a client that has lots of new technologies and sustainable features, but I am sure once it goes to tender most of it will be cut out because it is too expensive,’ says a project manager working in Dubai.

This mentality will have to change. In 2005, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman all signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The result is that each of the Gulf states has mandatory commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the environmental performance of the region’s buildings will be a major policy tool for governments.

Emissions legislation

But until legislation is introduced to force developers to reduce emissions, incorporating sustainable design principles into a project will remain the client’s decision. In the meantime, several systems have been developed to encourage developers to build sustainably.

The Emirates Green Building Council is drafting a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (Leed) rating system that caters for buildings across the federation. The rating will be the seventh Leed rating around the world – and it is expected that the system will be adopted around the region.