George Kenich interview: Master developer

Aldar head of infrastructure and MEP on the developer’s role in the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030
George Kenich
By Gerhard Hope
Sat 18 Feb 2012 09:26 PM

Construction Week spoke speaks to Aldar head of infrastructure and MEP George Kenich about the developer’s role in the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, and the challenges facing sustainability in the region

The term ‘master developer’ is a woefully inadequate description of Aldar’s remit and responsibilities, says head of infrastructure and MEP George Kenich. It is a major challenge to create new urban communities from scratch, he says, as these are constantly evolving developments that need to grow and adapt as their populations increase.

“I prefer the term ‘live city creator’ rather than master developer,” says Kenich. “A developer is someone who can build a 100-villa compound, for example. However, when you are talking about creating a live city and all the accompanying infrastructure from the barren desert, it is different completely different.”

Aldar is behind some of the most recognisable developments in Abu Dhabi, and indeed the entire region, from the landmark Yas Island, and its distinctive Ferrari World theme park; to Central Market, the new urban heart of Abu Dhabi; the Al Raha Beach mixed-use project; the Trust Tower, designed by Sir Norman Foster; and a range of social infrastructure from Cleveland Clinic to the Al Falah national housing development. Equally distinctive is the circular Aldar headquarters building near Al Raha Beach, which seems a fitting emblem of the company’s innovative drive.

Aldar CEO Sami Asad has said that the developer’s “immediate focus is on delivering our existing projects.” These range from the completion of schools in Al Bateen and Al Ain to the first residents moving into Al Zeina. Towards the end of last year, the public beach at Yas Island was opened to the public, while the Al Falah national housing project is on track to have 1,000 villas for Emiratis completed by Q1 2012.

Construction is ongoing at the 382m-high, 88-storey Domain residential building, part of the Central Market development, which will have a total floor area of 80,000m2 and 474 one- to five-bedroom apartments. The 1,407 villas of Al Raha Gardens are on track for an August 2012 handover. The 364-bed, 22-storey Cleveland Clinic on Sowwah Island is expected to open in 2013, while the 296 apartments and 75 villas and townhouses of Al Bateen park will be handed over in Q4 2012.

Aldar’s novel approach to its role as master developer is rooted in a particular understanding of sustainability – which is all the rage in the construction industry at present, along with ‘green’ building, but the concept is defined too narrowly and reduced to a narrow specialism, which reduces both its effectiveness and applicability, argues Kenich.

“When it comes to sustainability, everybody involved talks about saving water resources and energy. However, this is only a small portion of sustainability. The social and communal aspect is entirely separate. Saving energy and water is not enough, and neither is it the main focus – it is but a single element of the overall goals of sustainability,” argues Kenich.

Asked to define his ideal community, Kenich points to the high-rise towers of Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai as examples of modern master-planned developments that have valiantly attempted, but ultimately failed, to reconcile the social and built environments. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that the predominant community-development style favoured by Dubai hearkens back to the Eastern European trend of tall buildings with narrow windows and imposing façades.

Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, has been eminently conscious of its role as “a sustainable Arab capital city,” and has carefully aligned its 2030 Vision with this ambitious goal. At the vanguard of the Emirate’s developments has been strategic players like Aldar, which “focuses on the creation, ownership and operation of sustainable communities, delivering quality residential, commercial, retail, leisure, hospitality, medical and educational facilities for the people of Abu Dhabi.”

Kenich defines Aldar’s mandate as the creation of “attractive, modern, efficient and sustainable built-environment communities to high quality standards that balance the needs and well-being of users with the sustainability of the environment, while maintaining the unique heritage and culture of the UAE.”

He comments that the 2030 Vision aims “to change the face of the city itself. The broad aim of this urban transformation is to increase the prevalence of green spaces within the larger urban framework, as well as to integrate communal and social spaces with transportation and related infrastructure like schools, healthcare, mosques, shopping and entertainment. Kenich argues that, in the benchmark sustainable Arab capital that Abu Dhabi is striving to become, all residents should enjoy easy access to all the facilities they need to live and prosper. It is an ambitious goal, but the Emirate has already made significant strides in this direction.

“Masdar City is automatically associated with sustainability, and has been a great success for the Emirate and the region. The next step was to establish the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters there. That was another big success. Also, Estidama and its Pearl rating system will ensure Abu Dhabi retains its leading role in sustainability for the forseeable future, as well as helping it realise its 2030 Vision,” says Kenich. For example, all new government buildings have to have a Two Pearl rating.

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While LEED “at the moment is the leading force in the implementation of sustainability,” Kenich points out that the Pearl rating system  “is the framework for sustainable design, construction and operation, and appears more aggressive than LEED and BREEAM.” This is because it is a local standard that takes into account local conditions, both climatic and social in terms of less tangible factors like culture and heritage.

Kenich outlines some of the specific initiatives that Aldar has taken in terms of sustainability. One of the main ones is the judicious use of natural resources, specifically power and water, across the whole life of a development, from planning to design, construction, asset management and refurbishment. Kenich points to Yas Island and Al Raha Beach as examples where Aldar has implemented this policy.

Then there is encouragement of our supply chain to continually improve their sustainable performance and to support the local economy, followed by creating a balance between development needs, effective conservation of nature and enhancement of the local ecology. An example of this is the mangrove plantation at Al Gurm. The mangroves act as a natural carbon sink, “the kidneys of the coastline”, as well as controlling erosion.

Kenich points out that Aldar is a founding member of the Sustainability Group of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) since its establishment 2008, which shows it is deeply committed to sustainability, and not just merely paying lip-service.

Is the industry changing and becoming more quality-conscious? “Everyone claims that,” notes Kenich. However, he stresses that sustainability as a framework needs to be localised in order to achieve maximum effectiveness. “Do not forget that the bulk of professional accreditations is LEED AP, with few specifically Estidama accredited until now.”

Another problem is that a LEED Platinum-rated building, for example, can end up consuming far more energy than a conventional building if it is operated incorrectly. “One of the critical elements of sustainability is education. Educating the end users on how to use the building is very important,” says Kenich. “You cannot buy a Ferrari and then use it like a truck.”

Commenting on the major sustainability challenges facing the region, Kenich says: “From an MEP point of view, passive energy saving, proper use of renewable energy, water saving and smart control systems are the major issues. The regulations are mostly need to be updated. In addition, the industry has to provide better materials and solutions, while a lack of experience and knowledge on the latest technology is also a problem.”

Kenich says that MEP engineers, in particular, need to be involved upfront. “MEP engineers should be part of the team from the conceptual design stage. Energy modelling of a building is essential at the early stages.” In most cases, the design is carried out initially from only an architectural and civil point of view, with the energy model left to such a late stage in the process “that opportunities to use it to guide design decisions have been lost, and it becomes merely an after-the-fact record-keeping exercise.”

Kenich returns to the issue of cultural sensitivity or local adaptation as a major challenge. “One of the biggest challenges to growing LEED internationally is building a culturally-sensitive framework for each region’s standard. Hence there has been a growing recognition by Abu Dhabi to create a UAE-centric rating system that reflects the local green scene.”

For example, Kenich points to the Dubai Green Building Code and Qatar Sustainable Assessment System (QSAS) as examples of regional rating systems developed for specific markets. “I do believe everyone has their own unique position in terms of heritage and culture, but it is important to bear in mind that the Gulf shares the same roots, climate and heritage.”

A major effect of the downturn has been the impact on district coolig as the most viable option for the region’s cooling needs, due to declining numbers of residents and subsequently over-designed cooling plants.

Kenich maintaints that district cooling is a solution that can reduce electricity consumption by about 30%, reduce the peak electrical load by 20%, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases and conserve natural resources. For big developments such as shopping malls, it is ideal.

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