Green credentials

The region is under the spotlight like never before to start producing sustainable design. Michele Howe finds out how this applies to the outdoor.


The region is under the spotlight like never before to start producing sustainable design. Michele Howe finds out how this applies to the outdoor.

Sustainability appears to be the new must. Ever since His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, decreed late last year that all buildings are to be constructed along green principles from January 2008, having a project that is sustainable has become the new standard of excellence.


By introducing things early at the masterplanning stage, you can really change the outcome.

"This is the better that firms can go to now. It used to be height, now it is meeting environmentally sustainable criteria," says Jim Carless, head of the landscape department at Atkins.

But beyond the common agreement that sustainability is a good idea, there appears to be a whole bundle of confusion as to what sustainable design means, how you measure it, and what it means for outdoor design.

First steps

For the purposes of this article, COD will focus on two issues: sustainable design for the masterplanner, and sustainable design for the landscape architect.

"For the masterplanner, the most important thing is transportation. You want to make sure that you reduce transportation as much as possible," says Dr Bassam Abu-Hijleh, senior lecturer at Atkins and head of the sustainable design of the built environment programme at the British University in Dubai.

The most obvious way to do this is through the adoption of Transit Oriented Development (TOD), whereby land space is designed with the transport needs of residents uppermost in mind, and specifically, with the goal of reducing reliance on personal transport.

Orientation of sites is also important, adds Abu-Hijleh. This means measures such as ensuring that schools and hospitals are not located next to an industrial zone or placing a factory which produces smoke on a site where the wind will blow it away from the direction of the city.

It can also mean the creation of micro climates.

There are many things can be done to modify the external climate of an outdoor space, notes Richard Smith technical director for Atkins in the Middle East.

"We're almost reaching a point where with advanced modelling skills we can redesign an Arabic courtyard that you can live in all year round without feeling hot," he says.

Masterplanning is the crucial stage for introducing sustainability to a project, says Stephen Oehme, regional director of value management and sustainability at consultancy firm Hyder, which recently established a sustainable division.

"What happens very often is by the time people are trying to introduce sustainable principles, the masterplan is already set, and that is a real shame because at the masterplanning stage and by introducing things early, you can really change the outcome," he says.

Sustainable landscaping

For the landscape architect, sustainable design covers a whole range of issues from sourcing of materials that are suitable for the local environment, to reduction of the consumption of water, to solar orientation.

Site selection is one of the most important factors, says Lee Allen, associate at landscape design firm Cracknell.

This involves looking at ways to reduce the impact of development on existing habitats and vegetation, for example.

Selection of materials is also important. For instance, using plants that are native to an area rather than imported from overseas.

There is a lot of vegetation in the Middle East that is not really suitable for the climate, notes Oehme.

"It might mean getting some plant species that are maybe not native to Dubai, native instead to Oman or Jordan, but it is certainly better than getting a plant that is used to living in Coventry," he says.

Landscape irrigation is another key consideration for more sustainable landscaping. As well as exploring advanced irrigation techniques, this also means more basic measures such as designing the irrigation system so that it doesn't spray onto the sidewalk or setting the timing so it isn't running at the hottest time of the day, for example.

"A lot of designs are still working on the basis of throw water everywhere and the plants will be happy. The idea isn't to simulate rain, it's to get the maximum amount of water to the plants and people are not designing like that," says Oehme.

Greater control of water consumption is key to more sustainability, argues James Balderstone, project manager of The Desert Group.

"In Dubai, everyone is talking about making places green but that isn't sustainable. The biggest issue is water consumption. We need to be addressing how we're getting our water consumption, how we're treating it, and how we're designing to minimise water consumption," he says.

Common obstacles

The Middle East has traditionally been something of a slow starter on the sustainability front, particularly, in comparison to Europe, but this is now starting to change.

One of the biggest obstacles has been resistance from clients. "A year ago it was something that we were initiating, but more recently it is the client side asking for green certified projects," says Allen.

"There are two reasons for that: one is the current legislations, and two is economics. If the project, building or the landscape has a green accreditation or a green badge, residual value of the development can be enhanced."

Clients were also put off from sustainability because of the perceived higher cost. But it is a misconception that sustainable design is more expensive, says Allen.

"By considering the environment, you're looking to reduce impact and a direct result of that are decreased costs. For example, by sourcing the materials locally or minimising the amount of new materials that you are using, then the direct effect is that you are reducing the overall cost. It doesn't necessarily make the project more expensive and in some cases can make it cheaper."

Using indigenous plants, for example, avoids the need for expensive soil treatment.

Green guidelines

The emergence of guidelines has gone some way to helping to promote more sustainable design.

The main rating system to have been adopted by the region so far is the US LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system from the US Building Council, which is used to measure the sustainability of a building.

The rating system addresses six areas: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design.

The water efficiency section includes awarding of credits for things such as landscaping and water use reduction.

The LEED system is currently being modified by the Emirates Green Building Council to make it suitable to the UAE.

There are also a number of LEED specialisations. The most relevant of these for the outdoor designer is the LEED for Neighbourhood Development. Currently in pilot stage, this goes beyond the green building approach to explore green building in the design and development of communities.

This is important, says Abu-Hijleh. "People are now just talking about the green buildings, but actually what they should be looking at is the green city which includes not just the buildings but the urban set-up, the landscape, the transportation. It has to be looked at from a much wider point of view than just the building. You can do a very good building but if you destroy the environment around it, then it's not sustainable so everything has to be in harmony."

For landscape architects, there are no specific regulations in the Middle East, although the American Society of Landscape Architects is developing the Sustainable Sites Initiative, which covers areas such as water management, soil, vegetation, and material usage.

Passing the buck

Guidelines are a start but taking sustainable design forward so that it becomes a norm needs more of a push. The question is who should do it - is promoting more sustainable design the responsibility of the developer, the designer or the government?

Some experts say it is inevitably up to the government to make it happen. In parts of Europe, for example, governments award a tax credit if you apply sustainable design and a surcharge if you use unsustainable practices.

"I think they [the government] will have to otherwise if they leave it like this people will only pay lip service and they will find it hard to do anything, and if they do anything, they will only do the minimum. We have to apply it and apply it aggressively," says Abu-Hijleh.

But the onus is also on the designer or developer, argues Oehme. "Governments have a role to play but the governments can only mandate a minimum standard. They cannot encourage people to go higher than the minimum standard through rules and regulations," he says.

"A lot of it does come down to the designers and the architects and engineers and project managers that are across these issues and can see the benefits not just to the environment but to the development."

With time running short for introducing more sustainability, however, there is little space for quibbling over who should push the truck.

"All of them have to come on board and co-operate with each other and understand that they have to do it, it's not someone else's job, everyone is responsible and everyone has to do their share," says Abu-Hijleh.

Case study - Masdar City

When it comes to talking about examples of sustainable design, there is no project that has attracted more attention than Abu Dhabi's Masdar City.

What is Masdar City?

Speaking at the recent World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, Lord Norman Foster, who produced the masterplan for the development, said it was the holistic approach to design that made Masdar City so unique.

"Everything in our natural world is design, is a conscious act of design. We cannot divorce the issue of energy from architecture and urban planning. You have to design those two elements together, and you can only do it at the level of the community. That is why Masdar is so important and progressive," he said.

The location of the city was "extraordinarily ambitious", he added. "I think that to [create a community that's zero carbon and zero waste] in any climate in any part of the world would be an inspiring and almost daunting challenge. To do it in a desert environment is exceedingly demanding," he said.

In designing Masdar City, much of the inspiration came from traditional settlements, Foster revealed. The streets of the city, for example, are reminiscent of traditional streets in their dimensions and their ability to use light and solar gain sparingly.

Traditional devices, such as cool colonnades, have also been deployed to offer respite from the scorching summer temperatures. Garden design and green canopies have also been used to reduce the heat. "All of these traditional devices are very much the base [of the design of Masdar City]," he said.

Every aspect of the design was carefully considered in terms of its environmental impact, Foster said.

Orientation of the site, for example, was chosen to maximise use of solar movement and the urban grain.

The buildings were orientated so as to capture the daytime winds to provide ventilation and freshness, and while winds from the desert at night were exploited for their potential to cool.

Mixed use was an important aspect of the design, Foster said.

"There are no separate zones in Masdar. There is no 'zone' for industry, there is no ‘zone' for culture, it is very much towards integration. The proximity creates a lifestyle quality. The activities happen around the very compact urban squares, and there is the light rail transportation system snaking through."

Transport has also been designed to make the area as pedestrian friendly and cyclist friendly as possible.

The car has its rightful place at the threshold of the city," Foster noted.

The city will also have its own personal transport system, which is planned to run around on magnetic tracks hidden below the road surface.

There will also be an elevated light transport system, which will be able to handle around 50,000 commuters a day.

"This is genuinely a self-sufficient community. Those are the goals which the client has set, which the whole team is totally committed to," concluded Foster.


Sustainable selling points

• Streets orientated south-east, north-west, which will help to balance lighting of streets with shading

• Linear parks allow cooling of daytime wind from the sea for street ventilation, and allow cool winds from the desert at night to enter the city

• High density development, masterplanned so that 56% of the population has access to green space and 40% to a public square within a one minute walk

• Green belt on southern edge of the city is intended to provide protection from hot daytime desert winds

• Integration of building photovoltaics across the city, producing around 50% of total energy demand

• Shaded walkways and narrow streets with cooling breezes encourage pedestrian use

• Fixed external wall prevents expansion beyond the ability to be self-sustaining

• Low-rise/high-density development encourages energy efficiency and community building

• Personal transport system negates the need for the car usage

• Recycling of waste and use of unrecyclable waste as fuel for power generation

• 80% use of recycled water, leading to 75% decrease in desalination

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