Abu Dhabi's Urban Planning Council and the developer Sorouh have unveiled the first villa in their green Al Ghareba complex, highlighting the promise and challenges of sustainable living.
Sustainable homes see green building take shape in the UAE
Amid the sand dunes deep in the desert outside Al Ain, hundreds of labourers are hard at work on a project the Abu Dhabi Government hopes will change the face of living in the emirate.
As cars roll down a track past hundreds of partially completed sand-coloured mansions, one of Abu Dhabi's first environmentally friendly Emirati homes looms into view.
The 1,022-villa Al Ain Ghareba scheme, being built by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) and the developer Sorouh, is part of the first Emirati housing project designed to comply with the Government's environmental Estidama standards.
"With the Estidama villa prototype in Al Ghareba we are implementing principles that are imperative for sustainable community development," says Mohamed Al Khadar, the executive director for development review and Estidama at UPC, at the new villa's unveiling.
"We know that existing residential areas in the emirate use a substantial percentage of Abu Dhabi's energy and water resources.
"By building sustainable homes that comply with the Estidama Pearl rating system requirements, we not only create healthier, resource-efficient, comfortable and environmentally friendly communities, but villa owners may see a better return on their investment."
Fahad Al Ketbi, the chief commercial officer at Sorouh, points out some of the innovations in the building.
"The natural ventilation capacity of this house is 25 per cent better than the average," he says, standing in one of the villa's ample living spaces. "There are thermostats in each living area and bedroom to optimise the use of air conditioning and reduce energy consumption."
Certainly, two years after Abu Dhabi's Estidama green building scheme became mandatory and nearly a year after the Government announced a swathe of new publicly funded environmentally friendly Emirati housing, the prototype villa can boast some pretty green vital statistics.
All the homes in the development will be built to Estidama Pearl level two. This means that as well as improved ventilation and more energy efficient air conditioning, the villas also benefit from increased natural daylight.
That means much less floor area needs to be illuminated by artificial light during the day. Water usage is 30 per cent lower than average due to the use of low-flow taps, while energy performance is 20 per cent lower than average due to more efficient window fittings and a solar water-heating system that produces about 80 per cent of the overall hot water needs.
Moreover, the developers say all the insulation materials are free from ozone depleting materials, 20 per cent of construction materials are procured regionally and 50 per cent of construction waste will be sent for recycling. Al Ghareba has been designed so that each villa will be located within a maximum of 350 metres walking distance to parks and community facilities to promote exercise, while open spaces and paths are shaded to encourage residents to walk and cycle even in the hot summer months. Bicycle racks are to be installed in each villa as standard.
It's impressive stuff, although when The National was shown around the prototype villa, despite it being broad daylight outside, all the lights were on.
Still, as UPC officials freely admit, developers are coming at environmentally friendly building from a fairly low base."One of our biggest achievements here is that half of all construction waste goes to be recycled," says Edwin Young, the Estidama programme manager at UPC. "Last year we would have dumped that in the desert. "
Abu Dhabi's Estidama system has five levels of compliance with Al Ghareba's Pearl level two rating the second to lowest. So why, on its own projects, does the Government not insist on developers building to the maximum standard?
"Building to a higher Pearl rating would cost a lot more," says an official who does not wish to be named. "Also the whole Estidama system is very new, so it's a question of baby steps."
Future Estidama levels are likely to include more stringent requirements for energy saving and could include measures such as smart systems that reduce air conditioning automatically when homes are less than full.
Despite the emphasis on thinking green, officials agree that Al Ghareba and other national housing projects exist mainly to increase the supply of affordable homes for Emiratis and to provide public-sector work for property developers hit by the global financial downturn.
For Abu Dhabi's two largest developers - Sorouh and Aldar, which is in the process of handing over 4,857 villas at Al Falah near the capital - such public sector works form an increasingly important part of revenues.
Sorouh said this month that net profit was up 55 per cent in the third quarter compared with the same period last year. "Revenues from national housing projects increased to Dh607 million [US$165.2m] from Dh68m" in the third quarter last year, it said.
Aldar's third-quarter net profit rose 43 per cent to Dh206m.
From UPC's point of view, such schemes provide the perfect opportunity to implement its fledgling green guidelines.
In the end, of course, there is little the developers can do to ensure occupants of these villas stick to the environmentally friendly way of living that UPC and Sorouh hope to encourage.
"Nobody's ever done an Estidama village yet," says Mr Young.
"Next year they will all come on stream so eventually we'll see what the real behavioural pattern is. But I would love to see somebody walking to school rather than being driven. I would love to see people walking to the mosque. That's what it's all about."
One of the teething troubles for developments such as Al Ghareba is that a number of other green measures proposed by the Government have not yet been initiated.
In 2008, the Centre for Waste Management was created to "establish a world-class sustainable waste management system to divert polluting waste away from landfill disposal and maximise resource recovery", according to the agency's website. But the developers recognise it is a long road to fulfil that vision.
"The bins we've got outside here are bins for the future," says Mr Young. "We've future-proofed these bins because the Centre for Waste Management [systems] aren't there yet.
"So what we do is we leave space for three bins. So in the future when recycling becomes more prevalent here, people will be able to separate out composting waste as well as the recyclables like glass and cardboard they already separate.
"It doesn't exist at the moment but in two or three years it will."