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Mon 8 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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Worlds apart

Green design has found an unlikely new home in the east, but is China or the Middle East in front? Alison Luke reports

Worlds apart
KAUST has established itself as poster child for green buildings in the Middle East.
Worlds apart
China’s Vanke Centre was completed earlier this year in Shenzhen.

Green design has found an unlikely new home in the east, but is China or the Middle East in front? Alison Luke reports

As two regions known either for oil or a sprawling population, China and the Middle East have both had a tough time persuading the world of their commitment to sustainability and environmentalism.

And in 2010 that task is far from over. China’s bad behaviour at the Copenhagen summit didn’t win it any friends on the global sustainable stage, while the problems of car-centric cities and epic water wastage in the Middle East are well-publicised.

At the same time, the field of green design has found an unlikely home in the east, with a number of eco-cities under development and recent sustainability legislation in the UAE and China growing stronger every day. It is telling that the growth of LEED registered projects in China and Dubai outpaces that of any other non-US country.

A lot of the legislation in both China and the Gulf follows international guidelines such as the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, with variations included to suit local conditions. In other cases, such as Abu Dhabi, legislation has been specifically written for construction work in the regions.

“The Government of Abu Dhabi is leading [in the Middle East] through the Urban Planning Council (UPC) and its Estidama initiative that it is rolling out in a professional manner,” explained Richard Smith, technical director and group chair of carbon critical buildings at Atkins.

“Many other governmental organisations are developing new policies and standards that have been implemented to varying levels,” he added.

The Estidama initiative was developed by the UPC in response to the need to properly plan the design and operation of sustainable developments within the emirate. Central to Estidama is the Pearl Rating System, a framework for design, construction and operation that is specifically tailored to the environmental conditions in Abu Dhabi and includes three documents covering communities, buildings and villas.

A key component of Estidama, the Pearl Rating System deals specifically with the built environment and its performance in relation to economic, environmental, cultural and social aspects. One pearl signifies entry level, with five pearls signifying the highest level of achievement. In September 2010, it became mandatory for new buildings and villas to also meet the Pearl Rating System requirements.

New legislation has been coming thick and fast from the Chinese authorities too, culminating in the ‘Three Star’ rating system. Like LEED this is a credit-based system; it has standards for residential and public buildings and the rating takes place one year after occupancy.

“China is lagging behind but is catching up very quickly. The government has put a strong bias on low carbon design, whereas the Middle East is addressing the wider agenda of sustainability,” explained Smith.

But while the scope of legislation in the Middle East may be wider than just buildings, it has some significant challenges too. In Dubai, legislation is complicated, with several different sets of regulations according to which area or free zone in which the building is to be constructed.

Woods Bagot project architect and LEED AP Monica Palmer explained: “Unfortunately in Dubai there are many different jurisdictions, which makes [applying sustainable design] more complex, then Abu Dhabi has prepared its own green rating system, Estidama. If there was one system in place it would make it easier for everyone,” she added.

The quality of legislation also varies “from fairly basic to among the best in the world”, said Smith. Further changes are expected in the future that are likely to make them more stringent than present. There is also likely to be stricter enforcement of the legislation on architectural design, with the Abu Dhabi authorities among those that have already begun to make this move. “You have to follow the standards to get your building permit – it’s mandatory,” said Palmer. “You cannot build without a permit, so to get the site going you must meet the regulations.”

With little previous enforcement of legislation, the question is what incentives developers and architects have to build sustainably. “When we were booming there were preferential land deals for sustainable developments,” Smith said.

Despite such deals all but vanishing, other benefits remain. “Recent studies are showing that in developed countries green buildings are achieving 30% premiums compared to business as usual. These premiums are much more than expected,” said Smith. “Also, it is inevitable that stimulus funding will be linked to low carbon projects in many countries, but possibly not the Middle East.”

Despite such obvious benefits, developers are hesitant in some cases to commit to green buildings, despite the efforts of architects and engineers. “There is an option [for architects to implement green initiatives], but it all depends on the projects and of course on the client’s will to invest in these technologies,” explains Tilke & Partners project manager Kai Miethig. “Most clients when they start [new project design] are very keen to follow LEED, but after a while they don’t want to follow through and you end up with a weakened version of LEED that clients want to implement,” said Palmer. “In the end this is because of cost as you need to put in more design and effort to achieve sustainable credits,” she added.

Such weakening of the original design has become more common during the recent economic crisis as construction costs are cut across the board. As a result, many of the buildings that were claiming high-profile LEED ratings at the design stage are being constructed without the materials and technologies that would gain them the credits needed and in some cases they will operate to much lower levels of efficiency.

Ironically, the actual design of green buildings is relatively simple, making them user-friendly is a bigger challenge. “Once you have worked out how to design and construct a green building you will discover that it is not that technically challenging,” said Smith. “It does, however, require behavioral changes by all involved in the process - therein lies the challenge.”

The natural resistance to changed behavior, both in construction and use of buildings is one area where the enforcement of green legislation can help.  “It’s generally not the architectural community that is lacking the will or the capability to design these [buildings], you have to have a client who has these aspirations and certainly government regulations and incentives are helpful,” said Richard Tomlinson, managing partner, SOM.

“You can only take the design up to a certain level, and the local design institutes take over and complete the projects,” explained Tomlinson. “Some developers are actually competing to exceed in a positive way, and that’s a good thing. But I can’t say that every client has [such] aspirations.”

On the whole, it is clear that significant improvements to new building stock have been achieved in both regions. “Compared to countries in Europe the buildings are medium [in sustainability terms], but compared to those underway five or six years ago here they are much more sustainable,” said Palmer. “The problem is that the builders still want to make them as cheap as possible; if the owner is using the building they’d rather spend more and save in electricity costs later.”

 As expected, some buildings include only the most basic systems and technologies to improve their sustainability, while highly innovative solutions have been applied to others to optimise their efficiency both throughout the construction period and their whole life.  Top of the list at the moment are initiatives such as solar passive design, water reduction products low-emissivity glazing and efficient engineering.

“Passive design doesn’t cost more, but can save on electricity; if the building is designed to keep direct sunlight out, then users will need less air conditioning and power,” explained Palmer. “Masdar is a good example of urban planning, with shading an important part of the design: the buildings are close together and shade each other, while providing shaded pedestrian areas that can be used all year.”

“[Green design solutions are] not always a premium,” said Tomlinson. “There are things that one can do with no premium that are just basic good design practices. [The choice of systems] is really a matter of payback as opposed to just pure cost.”

“If you’re looking at a payback of two years that’s one thing, but if you look at the world in a longer view and you’re an owner that’s going to have ownership for a five to ten year window, then things look different,” he added.

With China and the Middle East home to some of the highest polluting cities in the world, it can be argued that any change at this stage must be good news. But there is scope for further improvement in the future.

“We have to start sooner rather than later to make a difference, but eventually [the governments] will have to look at the existing building stock as there are so many buildings that are over five years old and are not energy efficient,” said Palmer. “With architects’ involvement, even the oldest buildings can be made to operate more efficiently following renovation. “It’s possible to include a better façade system for example, in collaboration with the client.”

“The good thing is that [green building] is evolving in the right direction, both in the Middle East and China,” said Tomlinson.

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