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Wed 24 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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What's in a name?

Going green and shades thereof. The region's quest to build environmentally friendly properties. Alice Tapfield, senior editor, Bridge Media News reports.

Going green and shades thereof. The region's quest to build environmentally friendly properties. Alice Tapfield, senior editor, Bridge Media News reports.

Sustainability and the environment are hot topics around the globe today and the UAE is quickly catching up.

With building construction responsible for 30% of greenhouse emissions and generating 136 tons of construction waste worldwide, the government has realised the importance of maximising the environmental performance of its booming construction industry.

The UAE has the world's highest per capita consumption of energy, which is alarming when one considers the scarcity of resources in a desert environment.

Over the past year sustainability has been made a key target in its building programmes, with a series of initiatives designed to place the UAE at the forefront of green building.

The catalyst for change was the directive issued by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid in October 2007, mandating that builders and property developers in Dubai must comply with green building standards before the law comes into effect - possibly as early as 1st January 2009.

Momentum has gathered pace in recent months, but with no official standards yet published to define ‘green' and different shades thereof, and various international certification systems vying to be chosen, confusion reigns for real estate developers, FM professionals and the general public alike.

Which ‘green standards' should they be following? This article helps to shed light on the subject by clarifying the current status of the proposed legislature and examining the main certification systems in the running, and how the FM industry can best prepare for the changes ahead to meet requirements.

The legal landscape

In order to understand how UAE laws are made, it is helpful to have basic knowledge of the UAE legal system. Legislation on major issues in the country is reserved for the Federal Government, i.e. the Supreme Council of Rulers, which is composed of Rulers from each Emirate and headed by President Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The Supreme Council approves laws presented by the Federal National Assembly, and laws may then be updated by regulations.

Local authorities in the different Emirates are also authorised to issue decrees regulating local matters; although in theory this is only interim legislation, if no expiration date is specified a decree may be counted as de facto local law.

On 24 Oct 2007, Sheikh Mohammed issued a decree mandating builders and developers of commercial and residential property in Dubai to comply with green building standards.

This came into effect on 1st January 2008, and Dubai's Executive Council, headed by Secretary General Ahmad Bin Bayat, is responsible for ensuring its effective implementation.

In practice, a ‘green building' incorporates measures such as optimising the use of natural light, using renewable energy sources and district cooling systems, in order to enhance the comfort of building occupants in an energy-efficient and environmentally responsive manner.

But while the initiative postulates that all future building in Dubai be ‘green', it does not state in detail what specific requirements must be met by developers to comply with the decree.

What is considered green?

With the current absence of a formal law on exactly which standards developers should be following, numerous international standards are being considered to form the basis for a rating system specific to the region.

The two main assessment models so far vying for first place are the US LEED (Leadership of Energy and Environmental Design) system, and the British accreditation model BREEAM (Building Reseach Establishment's Asessment Model).

LEED and BREEAM

LEED is a points-based scoring system and has so far been predominant in Dubai. Developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), it defines green by providing a standard of measurement and has established guidelines for sustainable building, creating a recognised brand.

The Emirates Green Buildings Council (EGBC) launched a pilot programme to adopt LEED, which they are currently following until they issue their own. EGBC began negotiations earlier this year with their US counterpart, and these are due to be concluded in early 2009.

Part of the Working Buildings Middle East conference that recently took place in Abu Dhabi included a session entitled ‘Maintaining green buildings through operations', which provided an update on the current status of LEED certification regulations for the facilities management industry.

There has indeed been much hype over LEED recently, and from reading media reports, it would be forgivable to assume that this was the only system under consideration.

The EGBC is also looking at the British BREEAM rating system, which launched in Dubai last month and is also working on developing the standard for Gulf states.So far its presence has not been felt as much as that of LEED, but BRE is confident that its model is more tailored towards the particular conditions of the Gulf region and can be more easily adapted to take on local regulations than its US competitor.

EGBC is aiming to adopt the most suitable components of both LEED and BRE in order to develop its own system. Initially this will be for properties on Dubai World, but is then expected to extend to other Gulf countries.

Outside the Jebel Ali Freezone Association (JAFZA), Dubai Municipality is also trying to consolidate current information in order to develop its own standards. It is looking at LEED, BREEAM, and also Energy Star, an equivalent Australian version.

It should primarily be seen as the hurried reaction of a young real estate market constantly in search of new marketing arguments to sell the abundant amount of new properties in Dubai.

The Environment, Health and Safety board (EHS) is verifying that all JAFZA developments currently follow LEED up to A, the minimum ‘certified' category, until the EGBC redefines their guidelines.

Ever since the Dubai Ruler announced his initiative towards green building, many Dubai-based developers have actively sought to follow one green standard or the other, aggressively branding their developments as green.

Although this trend is generally commendable, it should primarily be seen as the hurried reaction of a young real estate market constantly in search of new marketing arguments to sell the abundant amount of new properties in Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed's initiative validates Dubai's priority to sustainable development, as outlined in the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015. It puts Dubai in position of first city in the Middle East to adopt a green building strategy and paves the way for the introduction of new laws, standards and guidelines for sustainable building in the UAE as a whole.

Dubai's green agenda is certainly developing at a rapid pace. Yet for policies to be effective throughout the whole UAE and bring buildings up to the same high environmental standards, consolidation is needed.

Different routes are currently being taken by other Emirates, to guide their own green strategy, Abu Dhabi for example has hired Australian consulting firm Mott Mcdonald who developed the concept of Istiqama (‘sustainability') and have the pearl rating system.

The Emirate is proceeding building-by-building, however, as opposed to Dubai's more holistic approach.

Signs of regional consolidation are apparent though, with new regulations on the horizon signaling a more integrated approach. In October 2008 for example, a federal law was proposed to streamline water conservation in the UAE. This is expected to come into effect in 2009 but details cannot be revealed until it has been approved by the Justice Department.

Whichever system is eventually implemented in the UAE, it will have to carry a regional signature. LEED, BREEAM and other systems originated at a specific time and within specific geographical, demographic, and climate conditions.

It is therefore essential for the region to develop its own standard rather than adapt a US or British model. Dubai and the UAE, having been at the forefront of the green building trend in the GCC, can lead the way for the region.

But there may be more pressing needs. The UAE has the world's highest per capita consumption of energy, which is alarming when one considers the scarcity of resources in a desert environment.

In mature markets, notably in the West, essential legal regulations that limits energy waste have been in place for decades.

Their vital contribution to saving the environment may seem less attractive as a marketing tool, but the affect of these regulations in reducing energy consumption is empirically proven and long-accepted.

In most of Europe, for example, building owners are legally obliged to allocate heating and water costs based on the exact consumption of each party.

Not only is metering in each unit compulsory, but there are effective systems in place for an exact and fair allocation of all energy costs that arise in common and shared areas, leading to an empirically-proven reduction in energy costs of 15-20%.

A development in the right direction may be the adoption of Strata Law, or "Law No. (27) of 2007 Concerning the Ownership of Joint Properties (Condominiums) in the Emirate of Dubai".

This came into effect on April 1st 2008 and in effect, this law hands financial control from building developers to owners, who may then decide jointly upon the most cost-efficient way to manage and operate communal areas.

It remains to be seen whether the upcoming by-laws and regulations for the Strata Law will ensure that all energy costs are actually allocated based on consumption and according to a detailed code that rewards tenants who save energy, instead of lumping them together with those who do not.

If one thing is clear from the abundance of new rules and regulations, it is that the government recognises the importance of standards to ensure sustainable construction and therfore investment in Dubai.

However, when the media dust has settled, there remains an absence of solid laws specifying how developers will actually have to comply with this green vision.

Therefore, confusion still reigns, leaving the industry to ponder its preparation for the next step.

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