Abu Dhabi's new building code

New code and Estidama to standardise construction

Abu Dhabi construction aims to be a benchmark for sustainability.
Abu Dhabi construction aims to be a benchmark for sustainability.

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The Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA) of Abu Dhabi has taken another step forward in standardising design and construction across the emirate with the introduction of its new building code from the beginning of the year.

This follows the earlier ruling that all new build will have to comply with a minimum One Pearl rating in terms of Estidama.

Commenting on the link between Estidama and the new building code, the DMA said that both formed part of an overarching strategy to achieve the Abu Dhabi 2030 Vision, with the new building code being the main enabling mechanism.

The latest development is the end result of a three-year process of adopting eight new codes from the International Code Council (ICC) of the US.

A user guide with ‘soft’ amendments was made available a while ago to familiarise the construction industry with the new code. This was revealed at last year’s Construction Week Abu Dhabi Conference by DMA building code consultant Imad Al Durubi.

The codes are Building, Fire, Energy Conservation, Mechanical, Plumbing, Fuel Gas, Private Sewage Disposal and Property Maintenance.

“The Abu Dhabi 2030 Vision demands world-class infrastructure and regulatory framework, together with greener, more sustainable buildings. We are adopting this set of codes to take into account local climatic requirements, and to improve quality of life,” said Al Durubi.

Consultant Matthew Plumbridge said the codes “will improve energy efficiency 50% to 70% over business as usual. They will look at low-hanging fruit like the building envelope, leakage from buildings, fenestration, glazing and plant optimisation.”

Al Durubi explained that the DMA had looked at codes from the UK, Europe, Australia, Canada and the ICC. “The codes will be localised to fit specific conditions,” he said.

Crucially, the DMA was also investigating the accreditation of professionals in the new family of codes. “This will be very transforming for the industry. We are hoping to achieve one document from design to municipal and inspection level. This is the main concept behind the international codes. I am sure other emirates and countries in the GCC will look very seriously at Abu Dhabi’s successful adoption.”

Ramboll sustainability and renewables director Heath Andersen said that, with Dubai yet to pronounce its own green building code, it would make sense to piggyback on Abu Dhabi’s achievements in this regard. He said the main attraction of such an approach would be standardisation. “An ideal situation would be for the entire GCC to adopt a uniform code.”

Estidama and the new building code could create an increased demand for specialist consultancy services like energy auditing as clients ensured compliance with the latest sustainability measures, said Ramboll building services associate director Louise Collins.

Implementation of the new standard would “impact on fees” as projects are likely to require more detailed modelling in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency. Collins said Ramboll was adopting the initial approach of highlighting this as a separate component of its total fee structure, as “other MEP consultancies bidding for the same job often have not allowed for it. Eventually it will become a standard fee, but at the moment we have to educate clients.”

Estidama, in combination with the new building code, were “probably one of the biggest drivers in the region at the moment,” noted Andersen. “This is because Abu Dhabi has invested considerable effort and resources into ensuring that this green standard is both region-specific and forward-thinking enough to promote sustainability.

“It improves on LEED in many ways, which was compiled originally over 20 years ago in the US. What is note worthy about Estidama is that it represents the evolution of industry standards like LEED. It pushes the boundaries of the region’s construction industry, and raises minimum standards. The One Pearl minimum will go a long way in making everyone a little more energy-efficient,” said Andersen.

The DMA reported that, since the One Pearl announcement, “145 licences have been subjected to those new conditions. “This is part of our plan to convert Abu Dhabi into a sustainable city by adopting the highest global standards,” said Eng. Salah Awad Al Sarraj, acting executive director of town planning.

“All projects submitted for issuance of building permits have to be compliant with the stipulations and standards of Estidama,” he stressed.

“New buildings, schools and mosques funded by the government have to meet Estidama standards for qualifying for Two Pearls, as per the grading system.”

The new standards will immediately benefit people with special needs, as all new buildings – in addition to many refurbishments – will have to be equipped with ramps at entrances and along parking-to-building access routes from this year onwards.

In addition, signage such as elevator buttons and exit signs will have to include Braille. It is estimated that less than 50% of apartment buildings in Abu Dhabi are accessible for people with special needs.

“Universal accessibility, especially for people with visual impairments and disabilities, is a key concern of the code, which aims to make as many buildings in the emirate as possible safer and more accessible,” said Al Durubi.

“As part of this set of guidelines, new public buildings like shopping malls and apartment buildings need to be fully accessible to wheelchairs, for instance. First off, this means that they must have ramps in strategic areas as well as elevators.”

Corridors would also have to have sufficient space for two wheelchairs to pass side-by-side, while bathrooms would have to have sufficient turning space. In retail environments, for example, elements like check-out counters would have to be “at a height at which persons in wheelchairs can easily sign credit card receipts,” said Al Durubi.

The fact the new code will be the only code allowed for building design across the emirate would “increase the durability of the emirate’s buildings from an average of 25 years to about 50 years,” said DMA policy and regulations consultant Ali Bukair. The codes would also considerably ease the design process for firms in the building and construction industry.

“In the past almost every firm followed its own standards, which complicated matters. The new code will therefore ensure that building design becomes easier, while also tailoring all buildings to region-specific elements like climate and seismic activity,” said Bukair.

He said that, to date, over 2,000 construction industry professionals have received training related to the new code. Training initiatives would be stepped up this year, with the aim of requiring proof of such training before building permits would be issued.

Another major focus of the new building code is fire protection and prevention, with a requirement that all high-rise public buildings include refuge areas on intermittent floors so that people with special needs can shelter there before being rescued by firemen.

“These are essentially easily-accessible rooms that are more fire-resistant than other parts of the building,” said Bukair.
In the interim, the ICC itself has announced the latest edition of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC).


  • 165,000 Total buildings in Abu Dhabi
  • 10,000 Under construction
  • 43% Growth from 2005

Source: Stats Centre, Abu Dhabi (Nov 2010)

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