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Sat 29 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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Not just energy’s problem

Green cities are a hot topic, but where are we going wrong?

Not just energy’s problem
Not just energy’s problem

On receipt of an invitation to the World Future Energy Summit,
I initially put it to the bottom of the priority list. The four-day event was probably
going to be the same as any other, unlikely to generate any ground-breaking construction
news, just more of the usual “use-my-eco-friendly-product” exhibition stands.

The green cities session changed my mind. With urban areas currently
responsible for almost 80% of the world’s carbon emissions, the pressure on both
the developing and developed world to establish green cities is increasing.

And the situation is inevitably only going to get worse as three
quarters of the world’s population adopt an urban lifestyle before 2050. Based on
the way cities have developed in the past, we should expect this to put huge stress
on communities and system capacity, whilst inducing a culture of waste, inefficient
building and high levels of carbon emissions.

In truth, urbanisation isn’t just energy’s problem, it is construction’s
as well. With such a massive role to play in creating new urban areas and retrofitting
old ones, the building industry needs to take a leading role, not just in the construction
of green buildings, but in the development of green cities and centres. Developers
should be working together with governments to develop whole communities; architects
should be inspiring developers by generating more innovative designs for green living
spaces, and even contractors and consultants could play a part by submitting tenders
with green building and sustainable technologies at heart.

In the Middle East, the interest
is there and the technology is available, but while developers remain inhibited
by heavy initial investment and contractors fear losing out to cheaper bidders,
the capacity continues to be directed in the wrong way.

Then there are the flawed business models and rating systems
which continue to narrow the definition of green building and keep the industry
preoccupied with individual buildings and minor changes. LEED, for all its benefits,
is far too focused on singular projects, and demands limited effort and collaborative
working.

Hence, why sustainability experts critique it. From architect
Frank Gehry’s remark that ratings are awarded for bogus add-on features, to engineering
expert Nick Lander’s comment that LEED is a marketing tool used to tick a box and
avoid being left behind in the property market. The truth is: while the industry
remains hung up on LEED, city-wide sustainability will be put on the back burner.

In sharp contrast, the really good examples of green building,
Masdar City and KAUST, are making energy and water
savings of more than 50% and serving whole communities. This is because they bring
public and private together; they push the boundaries in relation to design, infrastructure
and transport and they continue to revise plans to ensure optimum sustainability
at all times. In short, they never take the easy option, and it pays off.

Of course, the regional construction industry has at least started
on the road towards green communities, otherwise the likes of Masdar and KAUST wouldn’t
have been contemplated in the first place.

But something tells me that these projects could be one-off trophy
developments. For every KAUST there are hundreds of glass towers flying up, and
it’s unlikely that governments are going to stop them. Places like Qatar and Saudi
in particular are counting on fast-paced city development to attract tourism and
reduce their reliance on oil and gas reserves, and, while they might care about
going green, they not going to let it get in their way.

What the industry really needs is to redefine the notion of ‘green
building’, so that it no longer denotes the addition of simple features to stand-alone
structures, but refers to big, collaborative steps towards the development of eco-friendly
cities communities and wider public spaces, through the use of the best technologies
and expertise for a far-reaching impact. Clearly, this will take some brave steps on behalf of the construction
industry.

Elizabeth Broomhall, is the Reporter of Construction Week.

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