x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Switching on to a greener future

Feature Solar, recycling, eco-friendly: these are the buzz words associated with green buildings.

As local developers can tell you, there is much more reward to building environmentally friendly towers than the feel-good factor. The savings even from just turning off lights and computers are significant. And now is as good a time as any to start, writes Angela Giuffrida Solar, recycling, eco-friendly: these are the buzz words associated with green buildings. But simply switching off a light can be the first step in turning an energy-draining commercial tower into a sustainable office of the future.

When TECOM Investments, a company owned by Dubai Holding, decided to go green the plan could not have been easier to understand. Switching off a light or computer was drilled into the psyche of every member of staff working in the company's offices. "We wanted to make sure every employee was aware of their role in the bigger context of climate change and what they can do to actually assist the process of delaying it, while at the same time improving the company's profitability," says Sougata Nandi, the director of TECOM's Sustainable Energy and Environment Division (SEED) and Enpark, a free zone for companies involved in clean energy and sustainable development.

SEED was set up to help the company save money by reducing energy and water use, and to become more responsible towards the environment and society. It followed the efforts of Pacific Control Systems, an automation solutions company with a head office in Techno Park that was one of the first buildings in the Middle East to be certified by the US Green Building Council. All of the energy needed to light and cool the five-storey building comes from solar power, while there is also a sewage treatment plant and vapour absorption system, minimising water waste.

SEED was established in 2006, when there was more emphasis on building fast than building green. Towers were getting taller, there were more man-made islands, and one of the world's hottest cities was hosting an indoor ski resort. Investing in green buildings was, therefore, the furthest thing from the minds of most developers. Before SEED was launched, the challenge was convincing people that sustainability was critical for any organisation to be profitable, not just financially but in terms of its impact on the environment and society, Mr Nandi says.

The move has already paid off. TECOM saved Dh7.3 million (US$1.9m) last year through water and energy conservation, and hopes to save Dh12m this year. The measures, which included fine-tuning the company's electromechanical systems, last year helped to reduce energy consumption in the firm's main office by 10 per cent, and water use by 16 per cent. The firm aims to raise the energy-saving target to 25 per cent within the next two years, and water savings to 30 per cent by next year.

The achievement earned TECOM's headquarters in Dubai Internet City the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council. But improving the building's performance has so far not cost the firm anything, says Mr Nandi. Instead, the money made is invested in other sustainable initiatives that require a capital outlay. For example, Enpark, which is also owned by TECOM and is still in the masterplan stage, will be an entirely green development.

Although the Dubai Green Building Code, which has yet to be enforced, will make it compulsory for developers to build with sustainability in mind, encouraging them to take the initiative during cash-strapped times is another matter. But Mr Nandi says a recession could be the best time to start. "Profitability gets hit but if I can reduce my costs, then my profitability improves." But Douglas Kelbaugh, the executive director of design and planning at Limitless, a developer owned by Dubai World, says the cost of sustainability is often underestimated.

"It's not painless. It does require more capital up-front," Mr Kelbaugh says. "And with most companies in recovery mode, capital is more crucial." Developers need to be tactical with their green strategy, he adds, warning that it is crucial that they take the steps now to avoid landing in an even deeper hole in the next economic slowdown. "It's no time to forget this at all; we need to be vigilant, even though it means trade-offs," says Mr Kelbaugh. "If we're going to spend more money on reducing energy, we're going to maybe spend less on luxury materials. But frankly, I think the public is ready for that. In some ways we've been on a rather extravagant period in architecture. The world wasn't as rich as it thought it was - this bubble is a correction that was needed and is bringing us back to reality."

Comparing the cost of constructing a traditional building with that of a green one is difficult due to the location and the building schedule. But there are quick, cheap ways that the first steps towards sustainability can be achieved. They include shading the building, changing the thermostat settings and changing the shape of the building. "The first 20 to 30 per cent reduction in energy consumption is very inexpensive, if not free, but we have to get beyond that and that's when you have to start investing in things like solar, photovoltaics and solar thermal, and that requires up-front capital expenditure," says Mr Kelbaugh.

As more energy is conserved, companies will also have to invest in ways to store it, he adds. Even so, the long-term savings far outweigh the initial outlay. "It's all about reducing long-term costs," says Mr Kelbaugh. "And the more expensive energy is, the more people will think about these long-term savings." Developers such as Limitless and Sorouh Real Estate, an Abu Dhabi company, are placing more emphasis on sustainability during the downturn.

"Sorouh has adopted sustainability as a major corporate challenge to ensure the product has quality and longevity to it," says Gurjit Singh, the chief operating officer. "The slowdown has put the focus on quality issues and product." Mr Singh is also convinced that incentives from the Government are needed to give some developers a start: "Some companies are doing it, others need to be pushed." Mr Nandi disagrees, but says the Government needs to help firms by allowing them to sell the surplus energy they generate and connect it to the main electricity grid.

"I don't need the Government to tell me to do the right thing," he says. "And I don't need to wait for regulations to come into place to start today. I need the Government to allow me to connect my solar panels to the grid and pay me for the energy that I'm creating." Kevin Hines, the chief executive of the US property company Integral Group, says the worst performing buildings use up to three times as much energy as sustainable ones.

Local governments have been drafting their green building codes to battle this. New buildings in Abu Dhabi will soon have to meet energy efficiency standards that could cut residents' annual power bills by 70 per cent. The Emirates Conservation Code is expected to be enforced early next year and will aim to reduce energy consumption through better insulation and cooling systems. "We haven't had this kind of system here to date," says Matthew Plumbridge, a consultant for environmental and sustainability planning at the Abu Dhabi Department of Municipal Affairs.

"The codes we're rolling out are the minimum standards - they are based on world best practise minimum standards, which must be complied to. "Essentially, when you design a building you have the cost of the fabric and the cost of the systems. If you ensure the systems are not oversized, this will save you money. Similarly, if you design the building to be efficient, that will save you money." @Email:agiuffrida@thenational.ae