x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Engineer asks: Where are the green buildings?

Mario Seneviratne uses facts and figures to raise awareness about the environmental need to construct green buildings.

Mario Seneviratne, a Dubai based engineer, is behind the UAE's first green building, the Wafi City district cooling chiller plant.
Mario Seneviratne, a Dubai based engineer, is behind the UAE's first green building, the Wafi City district cooling chiller plant.

Many environmentalists prey on people's emotions to remind them of their moral obligation to adopt "greener" lifestyles.

But that is not how Mario Seneviratne approaches the task. At green conferences, his presentations are delivered in a calm voice and are filled with figures and phrases such as "cost-effective measures" and "return on investment".

Yet the Dubai-based engineer and entrepreneur's contribution to green causes speaks for itself. He was behind the UAE's first green building, the Wafi City district cooling chiller plant, certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed).

Developed by the US Green Building Council, it is the world's most widely used system for evaluating green design and uses criteria such as energy and water savings and sustainable materials.

Mr Seneviratne helped develop the rating system in the late 1990s, while he was living in Canada, and is teaching engineers from this region how to integrate it in their designs.

The 58-year-old is pragmatic about green design. Most of the UAE's hunger for energy is due to lighting and cooling needs. Methods and technologies that can reduce energy consumption are readily available, but are not being deployed fast enough, he said.

"If you can build the highest building in the world, why can't you build a Masdar?" Mr Seneviratne said. "We have the technology and we have the money, it is just that we do not put the money in the right place."

What drives the Sri Lankan is an interest in mechanical systems and how they can be made as efficient as possible.

"From a young age, I had a passion for things that moved," he said.

As a university student in mechanical engineering, he specialised in cars, but in a country with no car industry, circumstances forced him to a more secure path.

In 1972 he got an apprenticeship at the engineering department of the Ceylon InterContinental, Sri Lanka's first five-star hotel. He found some parallels between cars and the systems that would provide a large hotel with air-conditioning and warm water, for example. A car would have a radiator and a hotel would have a boiler, and the scale was bigger. "If you did something wrong, you could blow the whole place up," he joked.

Mr Seneviratne came to the UAE in 1977 as a member of the team building the Metropolitan Hotel in Dubai, near Al Safa Park. Three years later he left for the US to obtain a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama.

After graduation, he spent the remainder of the 1980s in Sri Lanka, where he spent several years implementing water and energy conservation measures at the hotel where his career started, and Dubai.

In the early 1990s, he moved to Canada with his wife, Ramani, and their two daughters. When Mr Seneviratne arrived in Vancouver, engineers in the US and Canada were already discussing how to evaluate best practices in green building design. He became a committee member and witnessed the release of the system's first edition in 1999.

In Dubai, as managing director of Green Technologies, an engineering and sustainability consultancy, Mr Seneviratne's most recent completed project is Mirdif City Centre, which received a Leed gold rating in 2011. Later that year he was made a Leed fellow, one of only 34 in the world to earn the title marking top expertise in the system.

Although the past few years have been difficult for developers Mr Seneviratne said green innovation could held differentiate a company from its competitors. "The business community here always wants the best. The concept to improve has always been there," he said. "Dubai is always moving; if you are a static person, you cannot survive in Dubai."

Techniques such as allowing daylight into buildings to reduce demand for artificial light, as well as installing efficient electrical systems, should by now be the norm in all buildings, he said.

"The plus side is, it is happening, but it is happening slowly," he said. "By now we should stop talking about green buildings. All our buildings should be green."