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Wed 4 Aug 2010 04:00 AM

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Khampun PlangthaisongThe green bottom line

Green buildings are not only more energy efficient, but are also healthier and improve worker productivity, which impacts directly on a company's bottom line. MEP Middle East speaks to Buro Happold principal Kevin Mitchell.

Khampun PlangthaisongThe green bottom line
Khampun PlangthaisongThe green bottom line

Green buildings are not only more energy efficient, but are also healthier and improve worker productivity, which impacts directly on a company's bottom line. MEP Middle East speaks to Buro Happold principal Kevin Mitchell.

Mitchell began his career in the UK with a general MEP engineering consultancy. "I was really lucky as a young engineer to get involved in a broad range of projects, from healthcare to education, spanning large new-builds to very small projects. I spent part of the first eight months of my life as a consulting engineer on-site, so I got to see everything hands-on and exactly how things all fit together." Mitchell recalls, as a 21-year-old, learning some very pointed lessons from a 60-year-old foreman who said: "This is what 8˝ pipework looks like; you have drawn it ten metres in the air. How am I going to get it up there?".

"From my graduate training I went into the R&D side. I was really fortunate to work under Terry Wyatt, ultimately one of the presidents of CIBSE in the UK, for about five years." Mitchell says his research focused on technologies such as chilled beams and displacement ventilation, which at the time had only just been introduced to the UK market from Scandinavia. Similar to the Middle East, where this technology is only now starting to make inroads, it was faced with a different set of climate and humidity challenges.

"There was reluctance from many users and building owners, and especially developers in the UK, to adopt this technology into commercial office space. How do you rent the space? How will the market and the tenants react?" says Mitchell. His research on chilled beams and displacement ventilation focused on the potential of weatherproof, comfortable environments to boost business productivity. "If your employees are sick 15% of the time, and you can reduce that rate by 5%, you add 5% to the bottom line of your business."

Mitchell was then introduced to multi-disciplinary engineering and the concept of integrated design, a key component of green building, an area that the Middle East market is focusing on at the moment. An important element of integrated design is engaging with "the user groups who are ultimately going to utilise the facility" so as to ensure their specific needs are met. This lead to a stint of healthcare and scientific-type projects for large pharmaceutical companies, such as laboratories, R&D centres and Greenfield hospitals in the £200 million bracket. "I guess this is where my heart lies, in the holistic design side of the industry," concludes Mitchell.

Subsequently he worked in Canada from 2001 to 2005. "Culturally and business-wise I found it much more focused and very much more direct. The best way I can describe it really is that the Canadian market is a mixture between that of the American and the English. You had the North American commercial approach that was direct and task-focused, combined with the UK approach of analysing and prototyping. Importantly for me, it also was a multi-disciplinary, holistic design approach," says Mitchell.

During this time he became involved in client relationship management. "As we all do in the course of our careers, we move from the technical side towards more client interaction. I picked up a couple of quite large-scale client relationships in North America. Again a particular cultural characteristic of this market is that it is very strong on relationships. If you tell your client you are going to do something, it is a personal commitment, and you certainly never let your client down," says Mitchell. This is also highly relevant for the Middle East market, he adds.

Mitchell then returned to the UK market as key account manager for various transportation clients, for projects such as runway and lighting system refurbishment at major airports, which posed particular logistical and safety challenges. Three years later he was ready for the next challenge ... "What was going on in the Middle East at the time, and still is to a certain extent, was quite fascinating.
"What brought me here, quite honestly, were the fabulous projects and the great challenges associated with them. I guess for all of us in our lifetimes there are going to be certain career opportunities and certain hotspots in the world, and for me, as I am sure for lots of other people, the Middle East presented an opportunity I could not resist," says Mitchell. "What excites me is the big challenge - be it technical, relationship or logistical."

That is when he made the move to Buro Happold, a major player in the  Middle East for 30 years  with a name built on  strong relationships, "and of course a great reputation for delivering quality engineering solutions on really exciting projects as well. The combination of the lure of the projects in the Middle East and working with a practice like Buro Happold was really exciting for me."

Mitchell has been in the Middle East for two years now, but is not ready to leave just yet ... "To be honest, with the excitement of the projects here and the long-term future for all of us in the Middle East, I cannot see myself moving for a long time. I do not think boredom will set in any time soon." Interestingly, his initial research interests are now standing him in good stead in this market.

"My MSc in Energy Engineering was developed from the MSc in Building Services Engineering. I completed the degree from 2004 to 2006 under the direction of Professor Tim Dwyer, who is also a director-at-large with ASHRAE. The course focused on the impact that MEP and building design has on energy usage, and the influence we all can have on energy consumption and conservation in the built environment, which accounts for such a large proportion of global energy use. We looked at energy use from a built environment perspective as well as from the macro or global scale. This was not nearly as hot a topic then as it is now," says Mitchell.

"Personally I am really encouraged at how receptive the Middle East and our clients are to new technologies and innovations. There are obviously some technical concerns, especially with chilled beams and the high humidity levels here, but those issues can be engineered around through good design, and good maintenance and control systems especially. So I think we are seeing a pick up in those technologies.

"Certainly the benefits to the occupants are global, regardless of the location of the facility. Occupants in general will have a far more comfortable environment and, I believe, because of this productivity will be boosted. Certainly I believe the flexibility of the space will be far greater, which will benefit landlords as well." An added advantage of chilled beams in particular is that the technology can be easily retrofitted to existing buildings, with reduced noise levels and less maintenance as added benefits.

"Post-handover and maintenance are key issues. Again it is good to see a lot of clients and designers focusing on these aspects of design and construction, together with lifecycle costing. It is not just a first-cost consideration anymore - maintenance, running costs and ultimately refurbishment and renewal have to be taken into account as well. This has meant there are some fantastic developments taking place at the moment," says Mitchell.

"Here where you have everything from the tallest building in the world to giant land reclamation projects such as Wadi Hanifah, which we recently completed, a constant challenge is innovation and embracing new technologies. The climate also poses particular challenges in terms of MEP engineering, especially for sustainability.

"A lot of outsiders say it is not sustainable to build here, but they have not had the opportunity to live and work in the Middle East and see all the good things going on here," says Mitchell. This also extends to the ongoing investment in infrastructure for the public realm, which is particularly prevalent in the region.

"The focus on investing in infrastructure - social infrastructure as well as highways, etc. - is fabulous, with the overall aim of making communities and the entire society more attractive and habitable throughout the year. We are currently working in conjunction with the Municipality of Jeddah on the Jeddah strategic plan. The city is set to double in the next 20 years, but we are supporting the city to develop and implement a set of strategic planning tools to manage the city's growth in a sustainable way."

One of these new opportunities is an increased focus on sustainability. "The launch of Estidama and the creation of the Pearl rating system in Abu Dhabi have provided an excellent focal point for sustainability, and I am sure Dubai's green building regulations will follow suit." Mitchell says a particular benefit of Pearl is that it can be adapted to local conditions, "rather than trying to supplant another rating system onto the region, which is always a tricky fit." Mitchell says sustainability also poses particular challenges in terms of power and water infrastructure.

"Obviously we are coming up to full summer now, so the main infrastructure systems will be under tremendous strain. Abu Dhabi, for example, is creating awareness by installing water-saving devices in villas. With great challenges, comes an even greater opportunity for innovation as it really forces the issue. The necessary investment for nuclear power generation has been committed, so there is a great mix of short-term, interim and long-term initiatives at the moment," says Mitchell.

A good approach to inculcating a policy of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle' is "through better design of facilities and the systems that service those facilities, as well as better control and management.

"How are those systems used in reality? I believe post-occupancy, again, is a huge opportunity for us an industry in the region." This touches on the highly relevant topic of renewables, which Mitchell says is an important growth area.

"There are huge opportunities here for harnessing solar power, both at a local and macro level. Take solar water heating: such a large proportion of our residential building stock use electric water heaters, which place a huge demand on the power infrastructure. A gradual phasing-in of solar water heating for residential use will make a huge difference," says Mitchell.

"This is where I think the MEP sector really has an opportunity - I would say almost a responsibility - to make headway here. We have service providers for district cooling, but it would be great to see power generation at a community level, utilising solar or related applications. For example, we have a huge landfill space problem, so there is potential for waste-to-heat and ultimately using that heat to generate electricity."

However, Mitchell cautions that these myriad opportunities need to be channelled properly for maximum effect. "The challenge for community, society and ultimately government is how to co-ordinate all these efforts. I think the UAE and the Middle East as a whole has a great opportunity in this regard. A lot of these measures are not being implemented unfortunately, and we as a profession and the MEP sector have to work as hard as possible to encourage this and to demonstrate the benefits."

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