The past three years have seen a significant change in attitude in the Gulf to the importance of minimising the environmental impact of its construction projects. Over this time, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) has introduced green building regulations, Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council (UPC) has launched its Estidama (sustainability) ratings system and Qatari Diar has established a Sustainable Assessment System. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that consultants and contractors are reporting a growing interest in sustainable designs and environmentally efficient technologies.

In the first half of 2010, Dubai has launched the second phase of its green building regulations, while in Abu Dhabi UPC has introduced a prescriptive green building assessment accreditation called the Pearl Rating System.

“The new green building regulations released by Dewa will have a great impact on the design and operation of new buildings, and address fundamental environmental issues related to resource efficiency, mainly energy and water,” says Carlos Amaya, sustainability manager for US consultancy Parsons Brinckerhoff.

“They will be complemented by the Dubai Municipality codes that cover issues of site selection, materials used in construction, indoor environmental quality as well as waste management.”

Developers are free to use any methods they choose to meet the standards laid down in the new regulations, including using international green building rating systems. The most common of these are the US Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed) system and the UK’s Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method. Both systems award credits and then a rating for environmental performance, and both are expected to be used more widely as the region strengthens its requirements.

However, in Abu Dhabi developers are also encouraged to use the region’s first sustainable development rating system, which will see buildings earn ‘pearls’, depending on their green credentials. Projects to be assessed under the Pearl Rating System, launched in April, fall into three categories – buildings, communities or villas. Each assessment is split into design, construction and operational phases.

The rating system itself is voluntary and falls within the government’s wider Estidama development system. However, UPC has also introduced a compulsory element to new developments in Abu Dhabi and all projects will have to satisfy some sustainability criteria as they go through the development review process. “It is now a mandatory requirement to consider and document sustainability aspects, such as energy budgets, water budgets and materials selection from project inception,” says Fiachra O Cleirigh, function manager – environment, at Hyder Consulting Middle East.

Ratings confusion

“But this is not the Pearl Rating System. Rating systems by their very nature are voluntary,” says Richard Smith, director of sustainability at UK consultant Atkins. “The biggest mistake everyone makes is to get the systems confused and think that [systems] such as Pearl are law.”

Under the Pearl system, seven environmental variables are assessed and credits can be earned against each criteria. For example, under the ‘precious water’ category, points are awarded for reducing potable water demand and improving water efficiency. Project developers can use any method they see fit, such as the use of grey-water, water recycling, monitoring usage, preventing leakage and installing water-efficient landscaping.

The introduction of new regulations and rating systems is also pushing the construction industry to design more efficient, climatically appropriate buildings, and this means bringing back in traditional construction methods.

“The whole Middle East has traditionally had pretty good, sustainable designs. The way it was 30 or 40 years ago, when not everyone had electricity, is that buildings were designed to be appropriate to the environment,” says Saeed Alabbar, sustainability consultant at UK engineering consultancy Halcrow. “The streets were very narrow to make the most of shading, they used materials with very high thermal coefficients, and high thermal mass, which are able to store cool night air for release during the day: And they often incorporated wind towers, which harness sea breezes and circulated them around the building.”

Such methods do not require lots of additional expenditure, but do require an awareness of sustainability principals from architects and engineers. “You can achieve high levels of energy and water reduction without the need to invest in expensive technologies. It is something that is being adopted by most major clients in the region at the moment,” says Alabbar.

However, to apply sustainable principals requires the project team to act early. “There are indirect gains to be obtained by simply putting more effort into up-front design studies, thereby minimising the use of construction materials, construction waste and operational energy. The small increase in up-front costs is far outweighed by the cost savings, and naturally reduces carbon emissions and resource consumption,” says Anthony Feigl, manager for environmental services in the Middle East at engineering and development consultancy Mott Macdonald of the UK.

Identifying some general guidelines in terms of things such as building orientation and cladding strategy is one way of ensuring sustainable principals are applied. “We were recently working on a project in Abu Dhabi where the client wanted to achieve good levels of sustainability, but at a minimal cost, as it was actually in an industrial area. We produced general guidelines for buildings so we might specify the amount of glazing, optimise orientation, encourage the use of courtyards and limit the amount of windows on the east and west facades, that are exposed to high solar gains,” says Alabbar.

Beyond passive design techniques there are also more active measures being introduced, from onsite renewable energies to low-water-use fixtures and fittings, as well as low-energy lighting.

“The solutions in terms of technologies and materials in this regard are very wide and evolve quite rapidly. The use of solar photovoltaic [PV] and solar thermal technologies is contributing to reduce the UAE’s carbon footprint,” says Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Amaya.

A firm that certainly knows a lot about the potential for solar energy is local solar power developer Enviromena Power Systems. The firm has developed several PV projects in the region including PV car-park shade structures at the Masdar interim headquarters and PV cells on Shams Tower at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

Its largest project is the installation of a 10MW PV power station consisting of 87,777 polycrystalline and thin-film modules supplied by China’s Suntech and the US firm First Solar at Masdar City, also in Abu Dhabi.

“The new green building regulations attribute points to the use of onsite energy generation, so we are seeing some iconic structures adopting onsite renewables. Solar electricity generation can be very aesthetic and act in a multi-purpose manner,” says Sami Khorebi, chief executive officer of Enviromena.

“High-profile tenants require green buildings and for the most part it is not something you see here. With onsite renewables, such as solar, you can install screens in the building lobby to show how much energy is produced. Clients are realising that such developments increase the value of the building to tenants. There is an initial investment that requires a payback period, but electrical savings and higher rental premiums save clients money in the long term,” he says.

Buildings in the Middle East have harnessed solar energy for thermal generation for decades, but installation of PV technology has been rare due to the high capital cost. But the worldwide growth of the industry has inevitably led to economies of scale. “Just three years ago, the price for PV was $7 a watt, but today it is $4 a watt,” says Khorebi.

With developments such as Abu Dhabi’s Masdar pioneering these technologies, it is not surprising that industry professionals point to achievements at Masdar as areas where the region is making great progress on sustainable developments. Consultants working on the scheme say that this goes beyond simply using renewable energy and minimising water consumption.

“Having worked in Masdar for more than a year, I think it is becoming the benchmark when it comes to designing and constructing sustainable and green buildings,” says Amaya. “For example, one of the biggest successes is the fact that more than 99 per cent of the construction waste generated over the past two years or so has been diverted from landfill.”

Waste management is a key issue for the region, with most waste currently sent to landfill. Many materials used in the construction of buildings are also imported, meaning that they have a high level of embedded energy use.

But by considering the life-cycle of materials and products, Masdar has worked with the supply chain and encouraged contractors to source and use more sustainable, locally available materials. Consultants say this is a developing area for suppliers.

“One of the key challenges at present is sourcing sustainable building materials. This is generally related to the root source of raw materials and their properties, but in the Middle East it may include the impact of long-distance transport. Reliable certification of sustainable building products is in its infancy in the region and internationally; there needs to be greater engagement with suppliers on this issue,” says Mott Macdonald’s Feigl.

Changes ahead

Aside from Masdar, there are other examples of what can be done with some early planning and good intentions. The Pacific Controls Green Building in Dubai, has a Leed Platinum rating – the highest possible. It incorporates PV panels, which are used in the lighting of the offices, and a large solar hot-water system used to run an absorption chiller to cool the building.

“What is interesting from this project is that about 40 per cent of the energy demand is supplied by renewable energies. If all the buildings in the Gulf would have the same approach as these projects, our efforts to combat climate change would really be a fact,” says Amaya.

Although the region to date has a poor record when it comes to sustainable development, it is clear that things are changing quickly, driven by regulation and leading examples set by government clients. Looking ahead, sustainable design techniques and active technologies, such as renewable and water recycling, are set to become commonplace providing a boost, not just to environmental statistics on construction sites, but also to economic growth in new technologies.