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Face-to-face: Saeed Al Abbar, EGBC acting chairman

Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) met in Dubai's Grosvenor House

Al Abbar sees good times ahead for the UAE construction industry and says EGBC will play a key role in maintaining standards.
Al Abbar sees good times ahead for the UAE construction industry and says EGBC will play a key role in maintaining standards.

Wrapping up 2013 with a collective cheer, Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) met in Dubai’s Grosvenor House in mid-December for its annual congress.

It brought together over 150 delegates from the council’s 138 company members, representing every corner of the construction industry, to debate the issues at the heart of the green building revolution.

While the event was in part a progress report looking back on the industry’s achievements of note and missed opportunities in the past year, its focus was decidedly more ahead than behind – a defining characteristic, of course, of the council itself.

Central to the discussions at the congress was the issue of existing buildings and how to rectify their inefficiencies.

Not content with the work it has done since its establishment in 2006 to encourage a change in construction design and practices on UAE new-build projects, the council has now set its sights firmly on the country’s older building stock, aiming to ensure that it is dragged into the cleaner, greener 21st century.

Saeed Al Abbar, EGBC current acting chairman and vice-chairman of three years, says that the green building lobby has “managed to get a hold of the ‘new construction’ industry” with tighter regulation and greater awareness, but that the greater challenge may lie in curing the ills of older developments.

“Existing buildings is a very difficult sector; a more challenging sector in the sense that you often have a landlord who is not responsible for paying utility bills – tenants are paying them meaning there are split incentives,” he says.

“Generally once a building has been constructed the budgets for renovation and improvements are not often there. It’s a lot harder to change something that’s already in place than to start with a blank sheet of paper. Globally, that’s a challenge.

“There are a lot of innovative approaches to dealing with that, one of them being with energy performance contracting, which is starting to take hold in the existing building market. The Dubai Supreme Council of Energy is leading on this and we are also looking at existing buildings and how we can address that challenge,” Al Abbar adds.

Another body to which EGBC is lending its support is Dubai Municipality as it aims to manage the smooth implementation of its new green building codes, which came into force in the new year. Over the last year, the council has held a number of technical workshops for its members on the new codes, getting feedback from them and passing this onto the municipality.

While EGBC plans to continue such work into 2014 to assist with the codes implementation, Al Abbar does not forsee any “drastic impact” on the MEP and wider construction industry as they adjust to the new demands.

“These codes and standards have been in place on government projects since 2011,” he says.
“The documents were released a few years ago so contractors have had a lot of time to look at them. [Dubai Municipality] has also had a number of workshops with contractors to make them aware of these codes. Most of the MEP contractors here have worked with Estidama and they’ve worked to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.”

Al Abbar’s confidence in the UAE MEP contracting industry to deliver what Dubai’s new codes demand of them also stems from the fundamental nature of the market itself, which he says lends itself well to widespread adoption and adherence. He describes the UAE as a “very regulatory-driven market” as well as a “very compliant-based market”.

“Even when you compare it to the US, UK or Europe, the percentage of projects that comply with the regulations is very high,” he adds.

A prime example of how this is achieved is the work of Estidama and the close attention it pays to the quality of delivery.

“Estidama has definitely raised the bar of workmanship in Abu Dhabi, largely because they conduct site audits in five stages throughout construction,” says Al Abbar.

“They have improved quality of building end-product construction. You see a lot of projects that are designed very well ... but when it comes to construction some poor practices let that down.”

Al Abbar also highlights Estidama’s focus on commissioning in their work which, he says, is an area to which the entire UAE construction industry, and in particular the MEP industry, should attend more closely.

“We still need to focus a lot on the commissioning stage,” he says. “I think the whole [UAE construction] industry is not quite up to the mark.

There are a lot of projects that do well in commissioning but, if you look at it over all, there is definitely a lot of room for improvement in making sure that the handover process happens effectively ... so that when something goes wrong in the first six or seven months of occupancy, that the facilities management team are empowered to fix it.

The handover phase is where some of these initiatives or efficiencies in building can get lost,” he adds.

Testing and commissioning does, of course, require time and patience if it is to be effective. With Dubai and the wider UAE now racing to prepare a stage on which it can welcome the world for Expo 2020, might important commodities such as these be in short supply over the next seven years as projects rush to meet tight deadlines?

Al Abbar admits that the potential rate of construction in the intervening period “can pose a challenge to sustainability”, as velocity takes precedence over quality. “There is a risk,” he adds, “but the government is now paying very close attention to [green building standards] and I like to think that they are not going to let the standards slip.”

Furthermore, Al Abbar predicts that, in such a scenario, EGBC’s role would take on even greater importance as it would have to “raise what the issues are, [work] to raise the bar, and make sure that we don’t let standards slip,” he says.

A more real and present challenge for EGBC is the recovery of the construction market in the UAE, to which Al Abbar says the council is trying to react.

He sees “a definite change” of late, an “upward trend” in terms of the number of construction projects and says that the council must adapt to this and tailor its activities to maximise its influence on the changing landscape.

But the resurrection of the UAE market also represents a huge opportunity to the council, which expects growth in its own ranks as a consequence of the upturn.

Defying the collapse in the market that occurred in 2009 and beyond, the council continued to experience growth in its membership from the original 30 members who signed up at its establishment in 2006.

Alabbar sees this trend continuing apace now that business is picking up in the country, but says that there will be no fundamental changes to the body’s makeup.

“I think it will be a case of continuous growth and evolution rather than any drastic changes,” he says. “The model is working very, very well and there has been a lot of success in the industry that has happened as a result of the council, so I think that will continue to grow.”

Gang Green
When it was founded in 2006, EGBC became just the eighth such green building council in the world. Now, there are almost 100 similar bodies around the world.

Although not yet part of the organisation when it was established, EGBC vice-chairman Saeed Alabbar says the EGBC took some inspiration from the original seven international bodies which preceded it but that, like every other green building council, had to forge its own path ahead.

“We followed them to an extent. It’s the same model but each is effectively a council to drive sustainable buildings in their country,” he says.

“In that sense, the missions of each council are aligned. The way that we achieve that in the UAE compared to how that might be achieved in the UK or the US might be different, so we’ve had to look at the model, follow the same principles, but then adapt it to the local conditions, industry and environment so that it can be developed more effectively for the UAE market.”

However, there is close collaboration between many of the world’s green building councils. Alabbar is also the vice-chairman of the World Green Building Council MENA network which sees work between 13 councils from around the region.

Shades of green
With the GCC countries sharing such similar climatic conditions and many of its construction companies operating in each of its constituent states, the question is often asked as to why the region does not have a combined green building code.

Many argue that it would simplify design and work practices and prevent confusion between the occasionally conflicting standards of, for example, Estidama, Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

EGBC’s Saeed Alabbar argues that the range of standards is, in fact, beneficial and should be maintained if green building practices are to flourish.

“While there are similar climatic conditions in the region, a lot of the building practices can be different. It’s not as simple as having a unified code,” he says.

“Harmonising codes and having a unified minimum is important because then there’s at least a minimum bar across the region. But then if certain emirates or countries want to have their own programmes, there’s nothing wrong with that, to continue raising the bar.

“I think competition between emirates, to an extent, and different countries is healthy because that is a way that things can keep moving. We do encourage some unified standards and some of our members would like to see something along those lines.”

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