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Wed 13 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Bright future

There's a growing political awareness that the Gulf's ecological footprint needs to be reduced.

There's a growing political awareness that the Gulf's ecological footprint needs to be reduced.

Ask most people to name two key attributes of the Gulf region and invariably the response will involve the scorching sun and the abundance of oil.

Gulf states have built their fortunes on oil over the last few decades but increasing awareness of the damage caused by carbon emissions is turning the black gold into the bête noire.

H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum's November 2007 mandate that all buildings constructed in Dubai must comply with LEED regulations means that, increasingly, architects are leading the charge by looking to the Gulf's other great natural resource: the sun.

LEED regulations require a reduction in a building's carbon footprint, which is achieved through the conservation and generation of energy.

With intelligent design and integrated technologies, architects can create solar-sensitive buildings that fulfill both these elements, and thus improve a building's overall LEED rating.

Back to basics

To start, good passive solar architecture can help handle the conservation side of the equation. "I think the more important thing here is conservation, so our windows and doors and systems are aimed at keeping the cool in," says Sam Brooks, Schüco technical manager.

Basic passive solar design can have a dramatic effect on improving the energy efficiency of a building for relatively little outlay.

Architects simply need to take into account the basic properties of the materials with which they choose to work.

For instance, selecting tinted glazing, rather than reflective glazing, will let as much light in as possible with a minimal amount of heat gain.

"You can have some specifications that allow 65% of the diffused light to go inside the space."

"With the luminosity that we have in Dubai, if you allow 65% to go inside, you can save a lot in artificial lighting because you won't need the same amount of luminosity of artificial lighting inside if you are allowing that amount of diffused light in," says Abdo Aoun, business unit manager for Somfy in the Gulf region.

Even with this information available, poor passive solar design is still a major problem in the region.

"One thing we're concerned with is the level of energy consumption and low levels of energy efficiency in buildings we're seeing in the UAE," says Andrew Machirant of Switchpower.

"The consumption of energy and the waste of cooling occurs through bad design."

Buildings that are designed to take into account the power of the sun and deal with it in a sensitive way-rather than relying on brute force air conditioning-will be more energy efficient.

To that end, there are several energy-driven systems that can be included in a building's fundamental design, which use minimal energy but increase overall energy efficiency.

The effect of the sun on a building façade varies both throughout the day and throughout the year, so a good architectural design will provide a degree of adaptability.

Several manufacturers provide automated louvres, shutters and blinds which allow a building to respond to the sun and reduce overall energy expenditure.

Such adaptable façades reduce thermal bridging, which reduces heat gain and results in a reduced cooling load.
Whilst installation of such systems might fall to a facilities manager after the architect's job is finished, the benefits of using dynamic solar design are best realised when the architect considers these factors from the very first design stages.

"If you want to make a sustainable building, you should integrate the solutions from the beginning."

"If you have a dynamic sunshading system on the façade, that can influence the choice of the glazing, the size and choice of HVAC system, and the choice, control and type of lighting system," says Aoun.

Interest and understanding in these concepts is growing in the region, especially in light of new development legislation in environmental trend-setting locations like Bahrain and Dubai.

"Before, the name of the game was developing a building that sells fast at the lowest cost possible...developers have to act differently now. They have to think of a sustainable design otherwise [the building] won't pass through the legislation," says Aoun.

Beyond sunblock

The abundance of energy produced by the sun is a double-edged sword. The challenge for architects is to prevent that energy from disrupting their design while also channeling it to benefit the building.

Solar thermal heaters have been used in Mediterranean countries and China for several years-with some countries having passed legislation dictating mandatory installation since the 1970s-and the industry is growing.

"We have operated in Dubai for the last four years and business has increased because now there's more focus on green energy," says Shahul Hameed Abubakr, technical engineer, Conergy.

"Four years ago it wasn't such an issue but we are finding that demand and interest are increasing all the time."

Solar thermal heaters are growing in popularity because they are relatively simple to operate. Powered by the sun's radiation, they can save on energy costs from conventional water heaters that rely heavily on fossil fuels.

"[Solar] radiation is freely available anywhere in the Middle East so it is a very efficient system," says Abubakr.

However, opinion is divided on the relative merits of such heaters. "Maybe for private villas it's not an option, but for high use installations like laundries it may be suited," says Brooks.

Brooks claims that solar water heaters are not necessarily economical when compared to conventional heaters, although other experts suggest that the payback period can be just two and a half years.

After all, architectural provision for installing solar heaters is simply a matter of providing a flat roof space that receives exposure to the sun.

However, client awareness is proving to be a particularly difficult problem. "We have to first teach people this is a good product and then they have to speak to their clients," says Abubakr.

While solar thermal heaters comprise a miniscule amount of the overall market, it is important to note that they are being placed in areas that will promote the technology.

Dubai is a place where people from across the globe visit as tourists or travel through en route to elsewhere. Therefore, the demands of global tourists can affect the demands of clients in the region.

"A lot of influence comes from the West and a lot of those customers will be looking for green compliance," says Abubakr.

"The Grand Hyatt recently installed a full solar water heating system because they know their clientele will ask for ‘green'...and I think very soon we will have a big demand."
Integration of solar systems into the architectural design of a building can represent considerable savings over the lifetime of the building, thus making the design more attractive to potential clients.

For example, Conergy have installed solar water heaters on the roof of a staff accommodation block for a major Dubai construction company.

It's estimated that in addition to the increased space created by the decision not to scatter conventional heaters around the building, by 2013, nearly US$ 300,000 of hot water will be generated by the sun.

Solar spending

Of course, the real interest in any solar-sensitive design has always been the iconic blue photovoltaic (PV) panel. Market research has shown that this can actually be to the detriment of other technologies.

For example, Schüco's core business is in passive architectural products it but also produces PV panels. At Dubai's Big 5 trade show in November 2007, it was reported that 90% of all enquiries were for PV rather than the basics.

However, such interest in PV panels is understandable and bodes well for the future. In a region that receives at least eight hours of sunshine per day, there is massive potential in the region for generating energy and improving sustainability.

PV panels are of particular interest because they can be used as building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). This means that they can be embedded in the cladding and roofing of a building, transforming what would otherwise be a dead surface into a means for emission-free electricity generation.

BIPV panels have already been used on high-profile buildings such as Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, and P&T's rotating Time Residences Building scheduled for construction in Dubai's Business Bay.

BIPV panels can have a major effect on the environmental footprint of a building. In fact, every major solar technology supplier who spoke to Middle East Architect welcomed the new green regulations as a major incentive to start taking solar-sensitive design seriously.

However, more work needs to be done before the concept can take off in the Middle East. Despite the popularity of the concept, expense of installation is the single most crippling disincentive to installing solar systems in this region.

Solar water heaters can cost 150% more to install than a good-quality conventional heater. Meanwhile, the outlook for PV panels is even bleaker.

"The interest in PV panels is enormous," says Brooks. "Unfortunately the expectations are very high as well."

The reality is that second-generation PV panels are expensive to manufacture and install, with some sources suggesting that the payback period could be in excess of 60 years for some installations.

In a region with such an abundance of sunshine, it seems ludicrous that architects would be dissuaded from using PV panels because they are considered uneconomical.

It is even more ludicrous that they prove to be an economically viable system in countries where sunlight is far more unreliable resource.

BIPV panels have been used extensively in Germany and continue to be a popular choice thanks to a combination of high oil prices, government subsidy, and a rewarding energy pricing policy.

"The government provides subsidies [for the panels] and they will buy back the electricity generated at a loss to the supplier," says Brooks.

Machirant echoes the need for incentives. "It's not enough to just say ‘all construction has to be green'," he says.

"There have to be corresponding policies. A grid connection would have to be made possible in such a scenario and certain monopolies would have to be dropped."
These are concerns that architects have little control over, and until these problems are solved, it seems unlikely that BIPV panel usage will prove desirable.

However, there is a lot of potential for the future. "The technology is developing, it will improve over the next five years and cost will come down," says Brooks.

Indeed, PV technology received an apparent shot in the arm in December 2007 with Nanosolar's launch of a new type of third-generation PV panel, which could replace the commonly used first-generation silicon wafer-based solar cells.

A major stumbling block for manufacturing PV panels is the high price of silicon around the world. Currently PV panels have to compete with microchip manufacturers for limited silicon.

However, the new Nanosolar panels use a new process involving aluminium foil and a specialised ink, which is designed to reduce manufacturing costs dramatically.

At this early stage, empirical data on the new panels doesn't exist, but if the product matches Nanosolar's claims, it could have huge potential to revolutionise the PV panel market and make BIPV a much more cost-effective option.

Bright future

In any case, integration of PV panels with buildings appears to be moving forward both in the Gulf and worldwide. Stockholm-based Switchpower and Enpark recently worked together to install a solar tracker at Dubai's Knowledge Village as a showcase for PV technology.

"There is convergence between the construction industry and PV manufacturers. [PV] modules are being integrated in the climate shell of buildings early on at the design stage," says Machirant.

Whilst LEED regulations are still somewhat open to controversy--environmentalists in the US are already questioning the ‘tickbox' nature of LEED certification in the UAE-solar product suppliers agree that effective sustainable design cannot simply be added to an existing project as an afterthought.

Somfy claims that dynamic façade management can save up to 60% of a building's HVAC energy requirements if the system is involved at the start of the design process.

Meanwhile, Switchpower, with architects GF/Norconsult, has developed a concept house which uses both BIPV and good passive solar designs to create a building that uses 80% less energy to provide cooling, with the remaining 20% being supplied by the BIPV panels.

"The integrated concept is quite important. There's no use installing PV modules on a building if there's a waste of energy in the rest of the building," says Machirant.

"If you want to do sustainable design, you need to put architects and engineers together from day one, from the first hour of discussion for the concept of the building," Aoun concurs.

Given that there is still no regional consensus on what makes a building ‘sustainable', it should come as no surprise that there is still a debate on how architects can best create solar-sensitive designs.

The high costs associated with trying out what is still considered experimental technology acts as a further discouragement to utilising the more revolutionary aspects of solar architecture.

Nevertheless, the current trend of building ‘glass refrigerators in the desert' simply cannot continue.

The UAE and Dubai are trendsetters for the region, and having already set a trend for energy inefficiency-the UAE has the third highest energy uses per capita in the world-it is time to set a trend for ‘appropriate buildings'.

With good architectural design, dependency on air conditioning can be reduced, and as the PV market matures, solar thermal heaters and PV panels can be integrated far earlier in the design process.

Machirant can see a future that requires both political and architectural willpower, but will offer one of the best chances to reduce a building's impact on the environment.

"There's a growing awareness amongst political decision makers that the ecological footprint needs to be reduced and emissions need to come down. Solar [energy] is an excellent way to do so."

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