Leeding change

Natural disasters like hurricanes are increasing as a result of climate change, and the impact of construction is among the worst causes. Jamie Stewart reports on what the industry is doing about it.

A rise in the number of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina has sparked more global concern about environmental issues
A rise in the number of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina has sparked more global concern about environmental issues

Natural disasters like hurricanes are increasing as a result of climate change, and the impact of construction is among the worst causes. Jamie Stewart reports on what the industry is doing about it.

There is a rising tide of awareness among the public with regard to climate change and the impact of human development on the natural environment. A tide that has been rising for some time now.

Over the past two decades science has begun to communicate to the rest of the world in increasingly urgent terms concerning the direction that the natural environment is heading. The message - that the natural environment is no longer able to support the un-natural one - was not always as loud as it is today, and for many, not always as clear.

It makes tremendous business sense to build green.

But it was clear to some, including Sarfraz Dairkee, the Emirates Green Building Council's (EGBC) Water and Energy Sub Committee chairman.

"When I started my career, oil prices, like now, were shooting up. As my passion for green issues grew, I went into renewable energy and energy conservation and became involved in many green movements.

"But within two or three years the green movement died down after having peaked in the early '80s. There were not many people who were interested in sustainability and renewable energy. Investors lost interest the moment oil prices came down."

Fifteen years later, society's complacency began to shift towards one of concern, such as that held by Dairkee, and in 1998 the US Green Building Council (USGBC) introduced the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed) system that the industry is growing familiar with today.

The Leed system was developed to provide a raft of standards to measure and rate environmentally friendly construction. It has since been adopted by more than 30 countries worldwide. On the surface, it seemed that commerce and industry were beginning to heed the warnings.

Wake up call

Across the GCC countries, however, the reaction took a little longer to manifest. Public awareness finally began to catch up after receiving a two pronged wake up call.

Freak weather events, such as 2005's Hurricane Katrina, were occurring with increasing regularity around the globe. This realisation coincided with the 2006 release of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) biennial Living Planet Report.

A section of the report measured the individual ecological footprint of 149 nations on a per capita basis. A rating was given as per the area of productive land and sea required to provide the resources consumed, to absorb waste, and to provide space for infrastructure.

The UAE was rated the nation on earth with the largest ecological footprint, by a substantial margin. Kuwait also made an appearance in the top five, and Saudi Arabia did not fare well. All three were rated as depleting biological assets faster than the planet is able to renew them. In the case of the UAE, almost 12 times faster.

Tanzeed Alam is Climate Change and Sustainability manager at WWF in Dubai.

Speaking to Construction Week, he said: "We're currently working on the new report and we're hoping for the best. By the involvement of the UAE ministry, it is clear that the issue is being taken very seriously by the government."

"The UAE is trying to reduce its carbon footprint at the moment but with the sort of arid climate that exists here coupled with the population and ongoing development, achieving this poses a big challenge. But the government here is adamant to raise its standards and is keen to see the country become more sustainable and environmentally friendly."

But Alam also said that one of the biggest problems was people's misconceptions about what makes a country's ecological footprint high and that there needs to be more awareness about it.

Now is the right time. Try to use your common sense and it will lead you to the right answers.

The position of some GCC countries in the 2006 WWF report came as a result of the consumption of fossil fuels used to power air-conditioning systems and water desalination plants, an over-reliance on cars due to an inadequate public transport network, and increasingly rapid development of infrastructure.

It was in the centre of this delicate political and economic situation that the EGBC began operating.

The EGBC was formed in July 2006 to promote green building principles within the various ratings frameworks such as Leed, Breeam and Green Star.

The system has steadily evolved since its 1998 inception, attempting to account for the influence of technological advancement on the market, and the progression of science with regard to carbon emissions and global warming.

The Leed system now accommodates a variety of specific project types. There are established criteria set out for the purpose of measuring new construction and major renovations, existing buildings seeking certification, commercial interior fit-outs, homes and schools.

Taking the LEED

Sarfraz Dairkee is an advocate of a robust rating system. With the EGBC, he is working on a system that will account for regional conditions. As far as Dairkee is concerned, you've got to have a system.

"When you consider the green rating system you are bringing accountability. Anyone can say 'my building is a green building,' but you have to have means to verify and check it. You must be able to measure how good or how bad it is."

Dairkee also points to the January 2007 decree of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, as going a long way to turning the tide.

"The decree was very clear. It was one sentence that summed up everything. It said that all buildings must be green and they must be rated. The moment the decree happened, everyone was looking towards it. If you read a newspaper before 2006 there was very little coverage of the sustainability issue. Today you will find very substantial coverage."

The Leed system is not without its critics. Though it can act as a foundation on which to build a regionally sensitive system, Leed at present does not cater to local conditions. It has also been criticised for distributing too many points for efficient use of fossil fuels, rather than focusing on renewable energy.

The EGBC is working alongside Dubai Municipality and the consultancy firm WSP to address these shortfalls. A system is expected to be in place by the end of the year, according to Peter Cummings, WSP technical director. But regardless of the system, gaining points is one thing.

How you get there is quite another, as Dairkee explains:

"Let me emphasise very closely knit team work. More often than not the owner doesn't clearly define what he wants. If this definition is ambiguous then it gets translated into the basis of design and again into the construction document. The ambiguity goes on enlarging."

"Ultimately the operation and maintenance people have to bear the brunt of all this, because one small loss becomes a loss to everyone. All that is happening is people are losing money. All the good intentions were there, but unfortunately, the ambiguities were there all along."

Dairkee says that commissioning is the key to assuring that the message is clear throughout the process. "Commissioning is absolutely vital. It is a discipline which runs right from the inception."

"It means the owner's requirement is very clearly defined and must be agreed on the basis of design, which then has to be signed by a commissioning agent. It is the agent's duty to verify all those issues between the two parties, which must then be incorporated into the construction document, which then goes for bidding."

"If this is not done then how are you going to check that the owner's wishes are being carried out? Provided everything is working in harmony, you are going to get a healthy building. That is what is ensured by commissioning."

Dairkee is a man who has dedicated his career towards green issues. He has watched from the inside as public awareness tailed off in the '80s, only to bounce back. He leans forward in his chair and stares you right in the eye as he explains that despite the additional initial expenditure, going green is good for business. Is anybody qualified to argue?

"It makes definite business sense. I'm not talking about certification for the sake of certification. I'm talking about better productivity, lower operating costs and better energy efficiency, the cost of which is going up every day."

"All of these prices are very likely to increase over and above the rate of inflation. It makes tremendous business sense to build green. You are not only building a sustainable, healthy, high-performance building, but it is more economical in terms of life-cycle cost."

The cost of living

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has said recently that the world must spend US $45 trillion by 2050 to achieve the UN's stated target of a 50% cut in carbon emissions by 2050. This figure represents an investment of around 1% of global GDP each year until the middle of the century.

All of this adds additional weight to the recent comments of Habib Al Habr, director and regional representative of the United Nations Environment Programme Regional Office for West Asia. He said that the construction industry is responsible for the use of 40% of resources, and for creating 30% of waste.

When considered within the context of the 2006 WWF report, and the more recent IEA report, this places an immense burden of responsibility on the broad shoulders of the construction industry.

The industry has proven itself up to many tasks and challenges in the past. Going green, however, is the industry's greatest challenge yet. But after two decades of fighting the fight, Dairkee is not the kind of man to give up.

"I have been waiting 20 years for this to happen. Now is the right time. Try to use your common sense and it will lead you to the right answers."

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