By Sarah Blackman
The cladding industry has the strength to defend structures from wind and rain but what does it have to shield itself from environmental challenges and the economic downturn? Industry experts talk to Construction Week about the current issues surrounding the sector.
The cladding industry has the strength to defend structures from wind and rain but what does it have to shield itself from environmental challenges and the economic downturn? Industry experts talk to Construction Week about the current issues surrounding the sector.The façade of a building has many similarities with the human skin. Its main functions are to guard the insides from stress and strain by acting as an insulator and a temperature controller. They both provide a water resistant barrier and, in most cases, keep the weight of structural load to a minimum.
While these functions aim to protect, like our bodies, buildings can easily be damaged by UV rays and heat from the sun. And, with the ever looming financial crisis and growing concerns over the environment, one of the current issues the construction industry is addressing is how to keep a building cool, which will in turn reduce carbon footprint and air conditioning bills.
"Environmentally friendly cladding systems are being called for, more and more, in today's market," explains Multiforms commercial manager Mark Newberry. "Developers are moving steadily towards Leed certification; therefore as a designer and supplier of bespoke façade systems we are continuously reviewing and developing our systems to meet the client's requirements by increasing our in-house specification criteria for thermal performance of our systems."
When it comes to cladding a building, many materials can be used such as stone veneer, steel panels, aluminium and glass.
Rigidal Industries specialises in the manufacturing of steel and aluminium cladding systems. For years, the company has been aiming to provide developers with materials of the correct U-value, a factor which measures the rate of non-solar heat loss or gain through a substance. The lower the U-value, the greater a product's resistance to heat flow and the better its insulating rate.
"We were the first company to produce roofing and cladding systems with insulation in-built. Our aluminium composite, otherwise known as a sandwich panel, has a particular thickness of insulation available to provide the building with the U-value that the designer or the overall users of the building wish to have," says Rigidal Industries managing director Phil Ellerby.
"We [also] try to locally manufacture our products so, in terms of being green, it makes us carbon neutral because we don't have to transport our products across the globe. The cladding systems are of international standards but are actually manufactured in Dubai."
You only have to drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai or glance at the skyscrapers of Saudi Arabia to notice that glass is one of the most popular choices for cladding used by architects across the GCC. But, while it is visually pleasing, glass remains the greatest contributor to heat build-up inside a building and Emirates Glass technical consultant Athur Millwood isn't about to deny this fact.
"The heat doesn't come through the wall, the roof or the floor; it comes through the window so glass is critical," he says.
So why do so many architects choose this material as their choice of cladding system? According to Millwood, it all comes down to visual amenity.
"We all like day-light," he explains. "And, the fact of the matter is that, even today, the combination of aluminium and glass is still a very cost effective way to cover a building."
So is it green versus a glamourous, cost-effective system, or can we have the best of both worlds? Swiss Middle East, which handles the design of building envelopes, agrees with the latter.
"We should maybe reduce the use of glass [in a building's outer layer] to 30% or 40%," says Swiss general manager Mohammed Enany. "We like to use glass in our designs but not a huge amount."
But, Millwood argues that glass doesn't have to have a negative impact on the environment: "What you have to be sure of is that once you have selected your glass and you have paid a very good price for your cladding that the heat gain is not going to cause your air conditioning to operate at a very high level.
"Believe me, there are many buildings in this situation where they [developers] have used a very transparent type of glass and the people inside are suffering from overheating and high bills from Dewa."
Emirates Glass produces solar control glass called Emicool. The company applies metallic films on the glass that gives the surface a reflective property, so the amount of heat that passes through a building is reduced.
"We are concentrating at the moment on bringing our new Sputter coating line to production at the end of August, adds Millwood. "This is around about a US $49 million (AED180 million) investment."
When it comes to glass, Cladtech International is also following the green trend.
"We support our client in the design stage by providing them the proper solution for the materials to be used to decrease the energy consumption," says Cladtech president Henrik Christiansen.
"There are a lot of factors that might affect such a decision, starting from the conceptual design stage, going through the glass types and thicknesses, as well as the coatings, which will reduce the amount of heat transferability between the outer and inner sides of the building, eventually effecting the overall energy use."
Furthermore, Multiforms is marketing new environmentally friendly technological advancements.
"One development we are promoting is nanotechnology in paint finishes, basically an antistatic coating that cuts down on the thin layers of airborne dust etc that normally cling to the façade face," explains Newberry. "Another is Photovoltaic's, power technology built into the façade that generates electricity for the buildings use."
But, while green technologies are rolling out, the financial crisis is still lurking around every block. And, with the huge drop in building material prices and cancelled projects, cladding specialists in the Middle East are feeling the strain.
Many firms bought their materials when prices were at their peak and, now they have dropped, cladding companies have been forced to lower their rates.
"Aluminium-based envelope solutions are subject to the London Metal Exchange rate (LME)," says Ellerby.
"In around August last year, the LME peaked around $2750 per tonne and by the time we got to the economic crash, the western world was far more severely effected by the crisis than the Middle East was, so the LME dropped to around $1350 per tonne."
"This caused all sorts of other problems; if you were awarded a job in 2007 when the LME was $2750 per tonne, and it cancelled when the rate was $1350, you can use the metal somewhere else but not at the rate you bought it at," he adds.
And, Rigidal Industries is not the only one that has been stung by the downturn. "Since the LME dropped we have had to lower our prices," says Bemo Systems general manager Markus Koerber. "Our head office in Germany has around 500 tonnes of aluminium in stock that they have bought previously."
The financial crisis has also lead contractors to turn to their suppliers to renegotiate their contracts and according to some companies, they have no choice but to agree.
"With regards to renegotiation of projects, yes we are experiencing this considerably more at the present time as developers look at costs savings on every aspect of the construction procedure, but only on projects currently under tender, not signed projects," says Newberry.
"This is a trend I believe is being felt by all façade companies at present."
According to Ellerby, suppliers and manufactures are left in a no-win situation when it comes to renegotiating contracts.
"You can take the moral high ground and say no, but you will then have metal in your stock, that is valued at maybe 40% higher than the current available market rate, and you have no where to put it," he said.
"Or you can say yes, I will give you the discount and I am not going to make anything out of it - in fact I am going to lose 10% just for supplying you with this job."
The fall in glass prices has also had a profound effect on the cladding industry.
"We buy glass as raw material and those prices are certainly much cheaper than they were a year ago," says Millwood.
The construction industry has suffered an almighty blow from the economic downturn. That isn't news to anybody. But, does it have the power to pin the sector down to the ground or does the industry have the strength to pick itself up again? Many companies are now answering this question with a resounding no, and saying that the market is beginning to improve.
"Its not a question of reducing prices, the key question at the end of the day is- are we able to maintain an adequate and acceptable margin? And the answer is, by and large, yes we are surviving," explains Millwood.
"The bulk of our project cancellations were in the middle of October last year. We have still one or two that have been suspended but we are not really seeing the project cancellations that we did in the beginning stages of the economic pressures," says Ellerby.