x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Green villa planner launches online

Villa owners and small developers that are struggling to adopt the capital's new Estidama building code can now follow rules laid out in an online program.

ABU DHABI // The Urban Planning Council is urging villa owners to use a new online tool and ensure their homes are built in line with the capital's green buildings code.

Officials at the UPC hope the "e-villa configurator" will help villa owners and small developers to meet the standards of the Estidama Pearl Rating System.

Many have struggled to understand the rules since they became mandatory in September 2010.

"Last year was very important for villa-owner education," said Aysha Abu Shahab, a planning manager for Estidama. "It's one thing to put a policy in place but it's another thing to get buy-in."

Accessible through a link on the UPC website, the programme demonstrates the categories of the code that are relevant to villas, such as "Precious Water", which offers design measures to reduce water use.

When users click on a category, they can learn how it will affect their final design and what the environmental benefits will be.

Villa owners and small companies put forward most building-permit applications, said Nader Al Awlaqi, the development review and Estidama director for the UPC.

Edwin Young, an adviser for Estidama, said: "We should not underestimate that. That is one of our main focus points this year, to help them understand."

The Pearl Rating System promotes buildings that are environmentally friendly through a system of required credits and extra points. Projects are ranked from one to five pearls, the latter being the highest.

The UPC oversees all applications seeking two or more pearls, and a handful of one-pearl applications. But every project must be approved by one of the emirate's municipalities, which issue the building permits.

All new projects must achieve a rating of at least one pearl; government projects must achieve at least a two-pearl rating.

"We receive thousands of applications," said Yasmeen Sami Saadah, the acting director of municipal regulations at the Department of Municipal Affairs.

Villa owners and local companies still need help, Ms Saadah said.

"I'm not saying the local consultants are bad," she said. "They are not very familiar with the initiative because for them it is new … it will take time."

But large developers and consultants have become accustomed to the pearl system.

"The second, third time, they're mastering the process," said Rahim O'Neill, an associate planner for Estidama.

Because of the complexity of the permit process it is difficult to determine how many more proposals are being approved now, compared with when Estidama began.

Between November 2010 and the end of last year, Abu Dhabi Municipality received more than 1,500 building permit applications. The municipality approved less than one third.

For more than a fifth of them, the developer or consultant did not submit the forms necessary for Estidama review.

However, there is no "tracking system" that accurately reflects the percentage of proposals that do not meet the Estidama guidelines, Ms Abu Shahab said. Building permits could be rejected for reasons unrelated to sustainability.

Ms Saadah estimated the project approval rate stands at about 50 per cent.

Late last year, the municipalities and the UPC simplified the requirements for villa owners. The UPC also began offering training sessions for villa owners and created a manual providing them with step-by-step guidance.

Officials also emphasised "face time" with owners, Mr Young said. It once took applicants between four and six attempts to get through the process; now the UPC aims for two.

"We're not opening the door in any way, we're just giving them more direction," he said.

vnereim@thenational.ae