Dated: 20-12-2012
The Green Building Dilemma – Why modern constructions are still short of the mark

Saeed Alabbar, Director of AESG discusses how modern buildings in the Middle East are actually less efficient than decade old constructions and suggests measures that need to be taken to address this 

Whilst the term ‘Green Buildings’ is relatively new to the region and is currently on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the concept itself has been around in the region for generations. In the early decades of the 20th century, building construction was extremely sustainable due to the lack of availability of centralised electricity and water supply and the use of only local building materials. Buildings were therefore constructed with a strong focus on using passive design measures to provide ventilation and daylight to the buildings, whilst keeping out unwanted heat.

Following the discovery of oil and the introduction of centralised power and water to the region, the design of buildings began incorporating air conditioning, electrical lighting and running water. However, during this era, building designs still maintain the passive design measures of local traditional architecture such as window set-backs and shading. This was mostly due to the fact that at the time electricity was still considered a precious luxury so designers and builders would instinctively develop buildings to suit the local climate with due consideration for resource scarcity. There are numerous examples of such architecture throughout the UAE, such as the World Trade Centre building in Dubai.

As the UAE entered the 21st century, globalisation bought with it many ideas and design concepts from the West and fully glazed, tall skyscrapers began dominating the city’s skyline. The use of fully glazed and therefore poorly insulated facades can be argued to be an inappropriate design concept for the climate in the region, however the concept was frequently used to showcase modernity in new buildings. Costly, energy intensive air conditioning technology was utilised to ensure that such buildings were able to maintain comfortable interior conditions despite the poor insulation. Recognising the need to improve building sustainability, local building codes began evolving during this time to incorporate some of the fundamental features of Green buildings, predominantly with a focus on insulation - for instance, Dubai Municipality introduced insulation standards for new buildings in 2001. Towards the latter part of the decade, local governments also began introducing more rigorous codes, such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System in Abu Dhabi and the mandating of elements of the United States LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating System for buildings within Dubai World’s jurisdiction. Furthermore, Dubai Municipality is also due to release its own Green Building regulations.

Whilst these steps are fantastic for the industry and local governments should be praised for the bold steps being taken to address the sustainability of buildings there are still fundamental issues that need addressing in the industry. Despite all these measures being taken we are still unfortunately in a position where buildings being constructed today consume more energy per square meter of floor area than buildings constructed in the 1970s. As an industry we are falling over ourselves to find the latest breakthroughs in technology to help save energy and there have been some incredible advances made in technology. Why then are we using more energy now than forty years ago? Surely engineering should be about progress shouldn’t it?

Unfortunately we as an industry are still not asking ourselves the fundamental question of how much energy does this building consume in real life compared to other buildings. Some fantastic work is being done at the design phase of buildings with building information modeling in order to simulate the performance of buildings before they are built. This is all incredible work and is a great tool for designers to improve building designs but shouldn’t we then pay more attention to what the building consumes in reality after it is built?

Furthermore, a lot of the analysis done at the design stage is in comparing the building to a theoretical baseline of ‘the same building built to code requirements’. Therefore if the fundamental design of the building is terrible the analysis that is required by the rating system will not reveal this. So what do we need to do as an industry? Here are my humble opinions:

Adopt a realistic approach

We need to start talking about a building’s energy use intensity, the energy consumption per square meter, rather than comparing buildings to theoretical baselines.

Set stringent quality control guidelines

Quality control in the integrity of building envelopes needs major improvement. Some fantastic analysis goes into building designs to select the right glass and insulation but quite often all this good work is lost during construction as insulation and facades are installed poorly with high levels of thermal bridging and air leakage. It is not only the contractors that are at fault here. A lot of building envelope designs done by architects in the region are very poor with enormous amounts of thermal bridging. There is really little use in specifying the top of the range insulation if heat is allowed to pass through all the exposed elements of the building. Major savings in energy can be made by addressing this rather simple issue, which would not cost that much to fix.

Focus on the operational aspect

We need to move the discussion of green buildings into the realm of building operation. There is a lot of talk about green design and green construction, but the objectives seem to stop once the building is completed and received its rating. Buildings do not consume energy while they are being built. They only consume energy when they are occupied so this should be the most important phase of a green building’s life and we need to pay more attention to the energy efficiency of building operation and begin reporting the energy use intensity of existing buildings.

Ensure proper utilisation of new

technology Before we try to outdo ourselves with the highest technology of systems in buildings, we need to make sure that those systems will be commissioned properly. Far too often, when we look at existing buildings we see the most expensive, highest spec building management system turned off because it is not working properly or the operators do not know how to use it. Bridging the interface between

construction and operation, through proper commissioning, is essential, particularly now as buildings are becoming more and more high-tech. Despite these issues, there is a lot of great change that has happened in the industry over the past few years and the government and private sector are both making great strides in the realm of sustainable buildings. However, we must not rest on our laurels and we must wake up every day and ask ourselves the fundamental questions of how we can really make our buildings better.