Tell me no lies
Does the construction industry live up to the well-rehearsed speeches and act on its promises?
Does the construction industry live up to the well-rehearsed speeches and persuasive prose, and act upon its environmental promises? Or is the current green push just a load of hot air?
There is a certain perception among some areas of the public, with regard to the green building agenda. It is the perception that the construction industry cannot "go green", and that any publicised attempt to do so is nothing more than a cynical bid to appeal to the burgeoning environmental conscience of the market place.
Some GCC countries have come under heavy criticism by groups such as the World Wildlife Fund for their sustainability record - or lack of - as the issue has leapt to the forefront of the construction agenda over the past few years.
It goes without saying, however, that sustainability is not an issue that is confined to the GCC. By definition, it is a truly global issue.
It is not simply about striving to meet a minimum standard. It is not about ensuring that a particular set of criteria are met in order to make the first rung of the Leed certification ladder, allowing the developer in question to shout to the market: "Yes, ours is a conscientious operation, and yes, we are green." There are more urgent issues at the forefront of sustainable construction.
It is about designing and constructing buildings that will, in the words of Michael Nates, senior general manager for Environmental, Health and Safety, and Sustainability at Nakheel, "help us to find a way to live on the planet that is different to how we have been for the past 15 to 20 years."
The issue of sustainability must be considered early in the design stage, before pencil is even put to paper. British eco pioneer Wayne Hemingway told Construction Week last year of how "a place isn't sustainable unless people absolutely love it." He told how in the UK "the Victorians built places which, 100-odd years later, are not being knocked down."
Nates agrees with the sentiments of Hemingway: "When I say sustainable I don't just mean green buildings," he says. "I mean a place for people to live, to have lives and livelihoods. A place that people are passionate to protect and care for. A place that provides everything from food and shelter, all the way up to helping people self-actualise. The relationship between the built environment and the natural environment is often seen as one of domination. In order for it to work, it needs to be a partnership."
As Nates says, sustainability must be about people, as well as materials and resources. For this reason, the concept of sustainability must be an ongoing concern, from design all the way through to completion and, as Wayne Hemingway said, it must also be considered beyond completion, as developers look to how the building is going to serve its community for many years to come.
Give people a place in which they will be happy to live and work for generations, and, at least on a social level, you have a sustainable building.
The science behind global warming is now largely accepted thanks to the long- term work of organisations such as the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, the international cooperative comprised of around 2,000 leading climate change experts from the fields of government, science and technology.
Those who refused to adapt as the oceans began to rise, on the grounds that it was too much trouble, have seen their voices drowned out by those who chose to heed the warnings, and big business has reacted to the common consensus. The problem is that an individual can make a change in an instant. For an entire industry - like the oil tanker turning around - it takes a little longer.
Those who are in a position to do so have made it their business to deconstruct the myth that going green costs money. According to studies conducted by the US Green Building Council, which administers the Leed system, a small increase in cost at the design and construction phase will be recouped over ten times throughout the lifecycle of the building in question.
It is therefore important for developers to take an interest in the life span of the building, as opposed to simply handing over the keys and counting up the profits.
Nates agrees. "Most developers have quite a short time horizon. They get a piece of land, get planning consent, invest into it, sell it on, take the profits and keep going. Their drivers are profit, certainty of exit, no delays and making things as easy as possible."
"We need to make it clear that if you build green you will get extra sales opportunities and you will be able to market to a completely different audience. You will actually get more money."
"Regarding time certainty, if developers build green, then there is no need for conflict to arise. Lastly, we need to move developers away from thinking about a quick turnaround. We need to get into long term partnerships."
Still the question persists: If going green means minor additional expenditure for the small time developer over the short term, are sections of the industry really as keen as they make out in their fervent pursuit of the green agenda?
Colin East is a senior consultant at Hyder Consulting. The firm has built up a reputation for its work on environmental matters, helping to push the issue of sustainability to the forefront of the construction agenda.
Hyder employees have often chaired sustainability meetings attended by people from across the region and beyond.
East says: "It's not all talk from the industry. There is definitely something there. The building rating systems are now in common use, and all over the Middle East the construction industry is moving in a different direction, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai leading the way. Much is being done. The drive towards sustainability is not something that the industry is doing to ease its conscience, and it is not a marketing gimmick."
The public, however, may take more convincing. The marketing is incredibly slick, as can be expected. Any consumer considering the purchase of a newly developed property at present is without doubt going to be aware of its green credentials.
There is a discrepancy with how buildings are rated. The weighting is not relevant to the technology.
The rhetoric is also striking. Speech after speech is made, telling us all of how attitudes need to change, before it is all too late. The inherent risk is that the industry will still be organising sustainability conferences in plush beach side hotels when the conference suites are five metres under water.
Time will tell
There are, however, people involved in big business who are aware of the environmental problems society faces, not just on an economic level, but on a personal level.
People who genuinely do care, which will come as some relief to certain areas of the public, to whom big business is about the bottom line and little else.
The influence that such people have in the decision-making process is difficult to put a finger on, however. Practical steps are being taken towards the concept of sustainable development.
Within the industry, it is clear that changes have been, and are being made. The paradigm is slowly shifting towards improving the sustainability of GCC developments. Time will tell whether it's enough.
Peter Cummings is technical director at Dubai-based WSP Middle East, a design, engineering and consultancy firm. He agrees that large scale change is required, not least in how the industry measures its own performance.
"There is a discrepancy with how buildings are rated at present. You can invest millions in renewable energy to equate for 1% of your building's energy usage, and that will give you credit. At the same time, you get an equal amount of credit just for incorporating bicycle racks. The weighting is not relevant to the technology."
WSP is currently working with the Dubai Municipality and the Emirates Green Building Council on a new building rating system that Cummings says will incorporate the necessary changes.
He says the new system should be live by the end of this year, and will evolve every two years to account for technological improvements in areas such as energy usage.
So can the industry live up to the well rehearsed speeches and persuasive prose, and act upon its promises? Michael Nates believes so. As far as he is concerned, the industry has no choice.
"We need to create the conditions in which change can occur. Things may get hot and heated, and people may jump up and down, but what comes out of that process is a new direction. What we need to do is culture change.
"Are the regulations turning? Are we moving? We are definitely in a different place to where we were just two years ago. For the movement to occur we all need to be pulling in the same direction, something that is very hard on all of the parts, from the authorities, to the consultants and the developers. At the end of the day what we have here is a people business."
"So is the industry changing? Yes. It has to move for its own survival, because the way it's going now ... does not make sense."
The real test
So the process may take time, but it is happening. Because it must. Yet there is still a very long way to go. Michael Nates explains that he cares passionately about the sustainability issue because, having grown up in the beautiful city of Cape Town, he wants others to have the best out of life, as he believes he has done. But is Nates one man swimming against a rising tide? He doesn't see it that way.
"In order to make all of this work, you need to engage. You need to get into the businesses and help them to find solutions to things they want to do. I'm a mechanical engineer, and my passion is to make this difference, to make sustainability work. If I didn't have that passion - I would not come to work."
The result of change that is instigated today will not be known for a long time. And however long it takes, this is one issue that is not going to become unfashionable.
The real test is whether, in 15 to 20 years, the industry is building upon the changes that were delivered today, as opposed to talking about the changes that need to be made before tomorrow.
The public will be hoping that it is the former. It is up to the industry to ensure that it is, and that the conception of a construction industry that is only concerned about short term financial return, is indeed nothing more than an outdated misconception.