x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Slowly, green buildings get a footing in the UAE

Green design may still be a niche sphere in this part of the world - but that could all be changing.

A lot of thought went into the building hosting Gundeep Singh's business- it took 30 months to design his showroom and 18 to build it.

That is because his aim was for it to qualify for the highest certification under an international accreditation scheme for green buildings - the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design benchmark.

Now it looks like the 5,110-square-metre showroom will obtain the certification in about three months.

"It has not been awarded yet but we are quite confident we will get platinum," said Mr Singh, founder and chief executive of The Change Initiative, which sells sustainable consumer goods - everything from food and cosmetics to paints and bathroom fixtures.

The showroom is fitted with solar tubes that allow sunlight to penetrate and when artificial lighting is needed, it is provided by efficient LED lights.

About 40 per cent of the energy used in the building is produced by photovoltaic systems on the roof that transform sunlight into electricity. The building also uses water heated by solar power.

Overall, the building employs 2,000 sustainable technologies and its water and energy footprint is half that of other facilities of similar size.

"We invested heavily in this," Mr Singh said, although he would not divulge the exact cost, joking that doing so would "scare people".

The Change Initiative is one of an increasing number of Dubai-based companies for which sustainable premises are important. But the movement in Dubai has yet to reach a critical mass, unlike in Abu Dhabi, said Holley Chant, corporate sustainability director at KEO International Consultants.

"I have yet to see any client in Dubai demanding anything close to the rigour of Estidama," she said, referring to Abu Dhabi's mandatory building scheme.

While the lack of Government mandate in Dubai means green design remains a niche market, in Abu Dhabi the Urban Planning Council's Estidama scheme has transformed the construction industry.

Estidama was made compulsory in 2010, with all new buildings in the emirate having to meet minimum requirements to earn one pearl under its rating system, out of a maximum of five. Government projects have to earn at least two pearls.

"What is happening here is actually a unique example globally," said Ms Chant. Besides improving the new building stock, the scheme has created a market for green construction materials and for design and construction expertise.

"As contractors have come to understand the market, prices have dropped and they see it as a competitive edge," she said.

Among the projects KEO is working on are detailed designs for several new schools in Abu Dhabi. They will have features such as photovoltaic panels to produce electricity, and solar hot-water systems for the swimming pools and shower areas.

Sophisticated air-conditioning systems, shading and other techniques will ensure that the schools have an energy profile of about 140 kilowatt hours per square metre.

The average for such facilities in Abu Dhabi is 200 to 250 kilowatt hours per square metre, said Irene Montserrat, an associate at the firm.

The project is part of a collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which dates to 2009, when KEO was a winner in a design competition. The contest was part of Adec's Future Schools Programme, which aims to build 100 public schools by 2019.

Eighteen new schools are already up, with others on the way. In 2011, Adec was awarded design ratings of three pearls for 10 schoolsunder construction - the first in the emirate to achieve three-pearl ratings.

"If you look at the buildings before 2005, they were dark, they were ageing very quickly and they were very expensive in terms of water and energy," said Alberto Treves, senior manager of educational facilities design at Adec.

The rationale behind sustainable schools was less about a concern for buildings than a concern for people.

The programme is part of the New School Model, an effort to modernise Abu Dhabi's public-school system. To support the new educational model, a new type of building was needed, said Mr Treves. "The most important thing about the schools is that they are educationally appropriate," he said.

For Ms Chant, this example is important in showing the wider benefits of green buildings. Besides energy and water savings, they can promote the well-being of occupants.

"It is now quantitatively proven that a sustainable school produces a better educational result," she said.

vtodorova@thenational.ae