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Sun 30 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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Building green

After attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi this month, CW looks at the growing problem of urbanisation, and what it will take to create greener cities.

Building green
Professor Roaf says environmental change is accelerated in the built environment.

In a region where cities shoot up out of nowhere and young
populations continue to expand, a trend of urbanisation is almost certainly
inevitable. The problem with increased city dwelling, as pointed out by
industry professionals at the World Future Energy Summit held in Abu Dhabi
earlier this month, is that with it comes high carbon emissions, inefficient
building and a renewed stress on communities and system capacity.

In a discussion on how to minimize the impact of climate
change, it is therefore equally inevitable that the issue of increasing urbanisation
crops up. While currently cities account for almost 80% of the world’s total
carbon emissions, by 2050, three quarters of the globe’s population will reside
in an urban area. In the Gulf specifically, cities will have experienced a 250%
increase in energy demand by 2030.

Making the situation worse, according to WFES conference
speakers, is the existing ‘business as usual’ approach to going green, with
only a small amount of effort to achieve LEED ratings – themselves flawed. What
needs to replace it, they say, is a city-wide approach, whereby architects and
developers work together to design and develop eco-efficient urban areas, or
‘green cities’.

“It is important in this part of the world that we are
honest, and that we come up with true solutions,” said Sue Roaf, a professor in
architectural engineering from the UK’s
Heriot Watt University.
“At the moment we do not have a handle on change, which happen nowhere more
quickly than in the built environment.”

Another recommendation is that we act now, rather than
later. With $350 trillion set aside for infrastructure projects around the
globe between now and 240, there are clear opportunities to reinvent cities,
and some obvious scope for developing a new culture of eco-efficient living. In
the Middle East, it will be important to
target this early. “Typically cities spend the most in the early years when a
lot of infrastructure is being built,” says Booz & Co.’s VP Nick Pennell.
“It is important to get small developing cities on the right track from day
one.” But what is a green city? And how
can architects, developers and consultants go about creating one?

A green city has several key characteristics. First, it
would be well-designed and based on good urban planning, taking account of
system capacity (ie: the region’s ability to supply the city with food and
water, and its resilience to natural disasters). According to Roaf, cities like
Las Vegas, which is due to run out of water in the next 20 to 30 years, have
been poorly planned, in sharp contrast with developments like Masdar City,
designed specifically to create a sustainable community.

Second, a green city would be filled with the right kind of
buildings in the right places. Roaf described the “right buildings” as those
which are durable and economically viable over long periods of time, located
next to the appropriate infrastructure, and which rely on renewable energy or
which run eco-efficiently using the latest sustainable technologies. By
contrast, she referred to buildings such as the Burj Khalifa, which use a large
proportion of Dubai’s
electricity, as ‘car-crash’ buildings, due to their lack of regard for
eco-efficiency.

Adding to the argument, other speakers said green buildings
should be prioritised in a green city, with green technology considered during
the design phase. “I view green buildings as one of the most essential elements
of sustainable cities,” said Thomas Braig, Bayer’s VP for the EcoCommercial
Building Programme in the EMEA region. “Buildings must consider
environmentally-friendly solutions at an early planning stage, as minimising
energy consumption requires an optimisation of the building design and the
right model for the building envelope. It also requires selection of
appropriate technologies.” Of course, it is not always possible to implement
sustainable technology at the design stage, as pointed out by Clay Nesler of
Johnson Controls. “There are a number of challenges with creating sustainable
cities. The reality is that a lot of buildings which will be around in 2030 are
already built or being built.” As a key player in the high-profile retrofit of New York’s Empire
State Building,
he recommended using a similar model to retrofit existing buildings.

Of course, there is the added complexity of deciding between
a building that is genuinely eco-efficient and one that is pretending to be.
Roaf argued that many LEED-rated buildings are actually not eco-efficient at
all, and that similar rating systems are often misleading developers. “Some of
the buildings being rated as LEED Platinum do not look like they could run on
solar energy. Again and again we are seeing rating systems that are leading you
up the garden path, so a six-star rated structure in Melbourne, which is
supposed to be the greenest building in Australia, when built actually turns
out to be using two to three times as much energy as an ordinary building.”
Examples of good green buildings, Roaf said, are those being developed at Masdar City.
Incidentally, she added: “These traditional buildings which run on renewables
come at a fraction of the cost of a big glass box.”

To create a green city or reinvent existing cities, it is
important not only to spend the funds set aside for such development wisely,
but also to be armed with a certain set of prerequisites. According to a study
conducted by Booz & Co and the World Wildlife Fund, there are three key
prerequisites that cities must take into consideration. First, they must adopt
aggressive energy reduction goals and best practice approaches to urban
planning if they are to reduce carbon emissions. Of course, this will require
ambitious and forward-thinking urban leaders, who can come up with realistic
solutions for change.

“The effect of urban planning on emissions is best
illustrated by comparing US and European transportation emissions,” said a
study summary report. “Since the 1950s, a period during which the US experienced
a high urbanisation rate, most cities have been planned to accommodate auto
transportation for every individual. In contrast, European cities were largely
planned before the widespread ownership of cars. As a result, transportation
emissions per capita are almost three times higher in the US than in most European countries, including Germany, the United
Kingdom, and France.”

Another prerequisite detailed in the report is that
countries will need to think of innovative ways to finance development.
Although green technologies can save up to $77trillion in the long term,
initially cities will require an additional $22trillion-worth of investment if
they are to achieve their aggressive goals. Thus it will be important to look
at public-private partnerships, as well as other financing strategies, wherever
possible. “Sustainable construction can be realised only with a minor increase
in investment using solutions which are commercially available,” commented
Braig. “If we consider that a building will have a sustainable lifecycle of 30
years or more, this will almost certainly increase competitive advantage.”

A final consideration, according to the study, is the
deployment of the best and latest ‘green technology’. By this, the study’s
authors are not simply referring to energy-saving lightbulbs or high-efficiency
air-con, but a new breed of technology with a global impact. “Incremental
technological improvements cannot provide the absolute emission reductions
needed given the rates at which our cities and consumption levels are growing.
The technological solutions that we seek must offer transformational levels of
improvement.”

Separately, Booz & Co. also has relevant ideas for what
is necessary when it comes to actually constructing these cities. “There needs
to be a focus on livability,” said Pennell. “Merely setting targets for CO2
reduction does not actually work; you have to focus on bringing the population
with you. Also, solutions have to be relevant to the local community. There is
no point installing solar in a country where there is very little sunlight. We
need to come up with different types of solutions for different types of
cities.”

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