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Interview: Abdulla Rafia, Dubai Municipality

Abdulla Rafia speaks to CW ahead of the UAE Infrastructure conference

Dubai Municipality's assistant director-general for engineering & planning, Abdulla Rafia
Dubai Municipality's assistant director-general for engineering & planning, Abdulla Rafia

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With the masterplan designs for the Expo 2020 site underway, Dubai Municipality’s recent announcement that it was introducing new green building codes couldn’t have been staged at a better time.

Abdulla Rafia, assistant director-general for engineering and planning at the Dubai Municipality, said that it would have been more “hectic” had the organisation just started working on such regulations now.

By the time the development for Expo would have picked up, the regulations would have been at a very first stage of implementation, he explained.

“Now, we are in the first year of implementation, the design for the Expo building starts now. We are working ahead. We came just in time,” said Rafia.

On January 1, the municipality introduced new building codes for all new construction projects happening in the city. These focused on energy saving systems, green building materials and waste management policies.

Moreover, they are compulsory for every new building in Dubai.

The plans to introduce these policies were set in motion back in 2007 – before the city had even applied to host the Expo. In October that year, the Municipality began studies on new sustainable building codes with a view to bringing them forwards within a year.

However, this proved to be difficult – particularly as there were 200 different rating systems already in force around the world. Therefore, the municipality spent a further three years researching the city’s own needs and referencing them in terms of other certifications and best practice systems.

“It is really important to have something that fits this area,” Rafia said.

He explained that although few changes are made regarding the technical principles of engineering, Dubai’s geographical location dictates a more specific set of rules.

“In Europe and North America, they look into conserving energy by making more efficient housing from (preventing) the leaking of warm air from the inside of the building to the outside. What we have here, we have the harsh summer we endure, so we have the opposite. It is how to keep the warm outside and keep it cool inside.”

In order to do so, Rafia explained the importance of bringing in construction materials that are adapted specifically for Dubai.

“If you bring things from the outside, it may not fit here, maybe it’s too expensive. So you really put up your specifications for the immediate area.”

By 2010, the regulations were ready to go. The history, geography, and specificity of the city of Dubai were integrated into a set of codes that emphasised energy saving systems, natural lighting arrangements, eco-friendly building materials and insulation methods.

The regulations were also brought into the wider marketplace, but were initially only made compulsory for government buildings and were optional for other contractors, developers or owners.

Still, by the time they became law to the wider market earlier this year, they had been used in the development of up to 40 new municipal buildings, meaning that there was some experience in the marketplace as to how they should work.

They encompass five different parts of the construction cycle, including siting, design, construction, operations and maintenance and were published as a guide on the Dubai Municipality website before being incorporated into the building code.

In fact, Rafia said that they have been well received by contractors, consultant and suppliers alike with courses offered to help bring the industry up to speed.

“The whole issue was accepted,” Rafia said. “The benefits go all around.”

He also added that implementing the codes is unlikely to increase a building’s cost by more than 5%, using the Municipality’s own recent Al Fuhaidi Souq as an example.

On this, he said that meeting the code’s requirements did not increase costs but led to ongoing energy savings of 43% and water savings of 20%.

Fears concerning lack of regulation as a result of the rapid speed of construction have been voiced in the region recently, but Rafia assured that “doing things with a speed when you don’t have clear regulations is more problematic than going at high speed with clear regulations”.

“We are not leaving anything vague,” he said. “The regulation is very clear and we are ready to answer any question. So that should help a faster development - if faster development is the way to go.”

He said that 70mn ft2 of built up area was added into the market in 2013 – a figure which he believes will increase by 15% this year, with the number of permits issued climbing by 10%.

“We are building capacity and gearing up for the upcoming growth in construction,” he said.

“We hope we don’t have a very rapid boom, but what we are seeing is an increase in demand for building permits.

“We’re keeping up with that demand, we are building capacity.

“We think building capacity is quite a challenge, but we are lucky that we can.”

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