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Sat 4 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

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Defining the future: what does sustainable development mean to the construction industry?

The need to think hundreds of years into the future may not come easily for most of us, but for the Middle East construction industry, the ‘sustainable' debate has started to force companies to design and build for the long term. In an effort to unpack the concept, Christopher Sell looks between the lines and finds that it may all be down to interpretation.

During the last 12 months, the concepts of sustainability, efficiency and green building have infused the construction industry. From token acknowledgements, they are becoming issues that have gained greater emphasis as international concern over global warming and climate change have grown in volume.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth revealed startling statistics about the state of the earth - eight of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred in the last 10 years and 90% of world's glaciers are in recession.

Considering that globally an estimated 60% of all materials go into the construction industry (60% of global timber products and 90% of hardwoods end up in building construction) and 60% of the world's energy is used to heat, light and ventilate buildings, it has been argued that focus should turn away from the automotive and aerospace industries as the main contributors to global warming, towards man's approach to construction and buildings, and where possible sustainable development should be considered on all projects.

Is what we are seeing really green? Green doesn’t mean sustainable and doesn’t address energy issues as it should.

But the first major sticking point is how to define sustainability. Just what does it actually mean? The literal definition is ‘(of economic development or energy sources) capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing ecological damage'. However, it isn't as straightforward as this, since the question means different things to different people, and the answer or answers lie across a broad spectrum, from technological innovation and a change in construction methodology to basic common sense.

Mohammed Dulaimi of the British University in Dubai says: "I see it as the sustainability of business organisations within the construction industry, where the environment is an important part. A lot of people are still using a 20-year-old definition for sustainability that says something like: ‘providing solutions today without compromising tomorrow.'

"Lets unpack this; what does it mean? In my view, yes, there is the environmental issue, along with social and economic targets, but, in terms of construction, that needs to be a sustainable solution for the client; a solution that enables the client to continue using the product effectively and successfully over a long period of time."

Another question is: what is it that people want? Is one building enough? Should construction companies and developers not only consider the materials, but energy use? To some, sustainability comes down to efficient design.

Efficiency, while often attached to construction, is more often a spurious label because the industry has never really managed to become an efficient process like manufacturing. In fact, it is often suggested that construction has never had its ‘Henry Ford' moment and is fundamentally an arcane industry.

Craig Gibbons, director, Arup, believes this approach can be addressed in the future, and suggests that a factory-orientated approach is one way of streamlining the building process and adhering to a more sustainable approach to construction.

"I am a great believer in large-pod construction for high-rise developments," says Gibbons. "Apartment buildings, where key components of the structure - flooring, partitions and finishing - are actually pre-installed into a pod prior to delivery to the site. Clearly, there is potential for such systems that ensure most of the construction takes place away from the site."

By maximising off-site fabrication, Gibbons explains, the waste ordinarily generated from construction can be dealt with more effectively, and reduces the risk of fire hazard and the number of labourers on site. However, this is not a concept that can be considered as an afterthought; rather it should be considered from the outset.

"To me, efficient design is not coming up with something modular," says Gibbons. "The challenge to designers is to use these modular principles in coming up with ways, which challenge the conventional. And doing it safely, clearly has to be a priority in defining efficiency." Al Naboodah Laing O'Rourke is employing such a system on the Atlantis project on the Palm Jumeirah.

But sustainability doesn't have to rely on the latest technological advances to embrace sustainable design. Kenneth Turner, principle designer, KEO Consultants, explains that sensible design principles can achieve a great deal through the use of passive design. And it is worth remembering, he adds, technologies developed for Europe or the Far East may not necessarily apply to the Middle East.

"We are talking basic, fundamental sustainability design principles. We are not necessarily trying to keep heat in; we are trying to stop heat getting in." To address this, Turner says factors such as wind, sun and orientation of buildings, site lines and access points all have to be considered. Shading of sites and incorporating roof-top gardens will create public amenities, he adds.

Shaun Killa, head of architecture, Atkins Middle East, agrees: "Passive design is paramount. Utilise orientation and insulation, because no matter what you do, you have to reduce energy loads." Atkins, which pioneered wind turbine integration in buildings with the Bahrain World Trade Centre, continue to implement this technology as it is currently by far the most cost-effective renewable available. Solar energy is currently four times more expensive.

While there is a genuine desire by most to drive forward these plans, there are concerns that the proliferation of developments under the ‘green' or ‘sustainable' banner is counter-productive to its authenticity, diluting the impact. Khaled Awad, director, property development, Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (MASDAR) says: "Green is overused, misused and abused. But is what we are seeing really green? Green doesn't mean sustainable and doesn't address energy issues as it should."
What is needed, Awad says, is an emphasis not on green buildings, but green cities. The reason being that to build one green building is uneconomical and insignificant in the wider scheme. However, a move towards this thinking is better than nothing. "It is definitely the right direction to start looking at design to reduce energy consumption and increase efficiency, but again the question is, how economic is a green building? The life-cycle costing is still controversial."

For a building to be sustainable, Awad believes it has to be able to accommodate future changes. "An essential part of sustainability is durability. It is one thing to design these buildings, but how can you check whether the materials to be used are sustainable."

Peter Sharratt, divisional manager, WSP Energy, agrees: "I think this is a key issue; you never know what technology will be invented and technology is changing so quickly, you don't want to be a hostage to fortune. You want flexibility, and room for growth."

Economics drives sustainability as well. Awad asks why the world's fourth largest oil exporter - with stocks expected to last another 50 years - would be interested in future energy concerns? "We recognise that energy markets are evolving and we are seeing that by 2030, oil will not be enough to supply energy requirements, and by 2100, it has been recommended 50% is derived from renewable sources," he says. It is clear therefore, that Abu Dhabi is looking to capture and maintain share in the sustainable energy sector and is an opportunity to expand its energy portfolio and diversify its economy.

For that to happen, however, investment in R&D will have to be increased as the Arab world lags behind the Western world in this field. Currently, the US and Japan spend 3.1% of their GNP on R&D, with the UK and Germany 2.4%. Arab regions, however invest just 0.2%. There is evidence this will change, with Abu Dhabi hosting the World Future Energy Summit from January 21-23 2008.

Ahmed Moubarak, design director, Sorouh cites the need to look more broadly at the problem. Implementing design changes at an early stage which actually have benefits to the overall development, he says, while considering the everyday, lower-profile projects will be more beneficial in the long run. Moubarak's work on the Shams Abu Dhabi central park project, demonstrates this approach.

This 8.3ha development, due to be completed in 2011, implements simple, sensible design approaches, notably the ‘wadi effect' which offers passive cooling strategies such as flushing cold sea-water through the canals to reduce the heat build-up, that will enable the public to use the park throughout the year.

"Iconic schemes account for less than 10% of the world's construction. To be truly sustainable, you have to look at simple construction projects, which will make a real difference on a global scale." While Dubai has made some inroads with this - the US LEED rating for example has a strong presence within the sector, there is already profound change in Europe, which highlights what can and needs to be done in the future.

Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which is mandated by law, means all buildings must have an energy performance certificate by the end of 2008. According to Sharratt, over the next 13 years, building rates and energy codes will reduce carbon intensity of new building stock by 63% in the UK.

"People who say construction cannot respond to change haven't got that right," he says. "I think the perception here [in the UAE] is that there is an opportunity, which is unique worldwide to do something fundamentally different. There is the leadership, will, money and drive, and there is the opportunity to actually create new templates for creating eco-cities." Minimising cooling loading could be achieved by adopting more traditional street plans, for example, which would provide more dense buildings, providing more shade.

And it is clear that there is a drive to change. Recognition of need is arguably half the battle. But it is just a case of re-learning what has gone before and applying it to a city, even one which is developing at such a rate as Dubai. "The answers have been solved before, we have just forgotten how to do it," concludes Sharratt.

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