LEEDing change

Examining the UAE's commitment to LEED development with Waterman Group's Greg Morgan and Banafsheh Shobeiri.

 Banafsheh Shobeiri. (John Pocock/ITP Images)
Banafsheh Shobeiri. (John Pocock/ITP Images)

Examining the UAE's commitment to LEED development with Waterman Group's Greg Morgan and Banafsheh Shobeiri.

Where is the industry in terms of LEED development?

BS: The start of the LEED talk in the UAE was when Madinat Al Arab announced all buildings would need to achieve a LEED Gold rating.

That was followed by HH Sheikh Mohammed's decree in October 2007, which mandated that all new buildings must be constructed as per environmentally friendly "Green Buildings" standards, starting in January 2008.

What that meant to a lot of developers was that they needed to implement some level of LEED rating system. Some have gone with silver, gold or platinum.

How difficult is it to achieve LEED Silver certification?

BS: To start, it depends on which masterplan the project sits on. There are projects that offer a platform to allow the building to become as green as possible because it ties into a sustainable city. You cannot have a green building as an isolated entity...it needs to tie into the rest of the fabric of urban design.

The other factor comes down to the competency of the consultants on board. If they've got experience with green issues, it's not a terribly difficult task. You just have to make sure it starts at the inception of the project.

GM: To achieve LEED Silver probably doesn't require much more than good, responsible design. Without getting into too many specific alternative technologies or measures, you can achieve LEED Silver by adopting fundamentally good design.

What are some of the obstacles to achieving green buildings?

BS: Because everything in this region is expedited, over-design is a common problem. You'll find it in piles, sub-structure, super-structure, HVAC and electrical systems. It does no good to install a chiller that is much bigger than required, which then operates at a lower efficiency.

GM: Moreover, the sophistication of a building's electrical controls, proper installation and the way in which they're operated and maintained, has an absolutely enormous impact on how much energy the building will consume.

Air-conditioning systems are particularly vulnerable. Control valves that aren't working or sticking and thermostats that are out of calibration have a massive effect on energy use.

This is endemic in buildings around the world and given the rapidity with which Dubai is developing, I suspect it is a large and growing problem here as well.

Why is LEED the best measurement tool for this region?

BS: I cannot honestly say that LEED is the best tool, but I can say that it's the most versatile one. Green Star was developed to be used only in commercial buildings, never for residential applications. And, until very recently, BREEAM didn't look at existing buildings.

Because LEED is so versatile, it helps to drive the market forward. The baseline technology and systems are constantly improving, which forces people to reach higher. I think that's why it was chosen, because it is simple to understand and the categories are well-defined.

GM: It's not just about the design of the building and the energy-consuming systems within. LEED looks at the local infrastructure that supports the building.

Is it fair to say that the most LEED-friendly buildings are, in fact, the ones designed to draw the most attention?

BS: Not necessarily. If the whole country is moving toward LEED certification, something has to distinguish these buildings from one another. The level of transformation happening here is driving the industry to create unique solutions. The real estate market here is going through a huge transformation and sustainability is beginning to play a role in that.

Are clients more interested in LEED certification because of the environment or because it's trendy?

GM: Clearly, HH Sheikh Mohammed realised that buildings and communities had to respond to the climate change problem. He's obviously approached it from a position of genuine sustainability.

The local development industry, on the other hand, has a range of different views. They've all got to achieve a LEED Silver at a minimum, but had this decree not come along, you've got to ask yourself how many developers would have done it voluntarily.

The decree makes all the developers react, but I think some are being driven by legal requirement much more so than by social responsibility.

How easily can LEED be adjusted or modified to fit the Middle Eastern context?

BS: Well, LEED 2009, which will be implemented from January 2009, includes features that will specifically serve this region. Setting baselines for power and water consumption that include requirements for wastewater treatment, storm water management and waste-to-energy systems all need to be looked into in this region probably more than anywhere else.

The production of water, by way of desalination procedures, has a massive environmental footprint.

GM: On the issue of water, as engineers and designers, we can only do so much. Ultimately, the buildings are used by people and the water use behaviour of a lot of people in this region leaves a lot of room for improvement.

So, will LEED only be successful by re-educating the population?

GM: Introducing standards for the development industry to follow is critical because it has to respond to global challenges but the next step needs to be an education process for people.

In this part of the world, there are a lot different backgrounds, different levels of awareness and different patterns of behaviour. So, to achieve the quantum step on reducing carbon that we should all be aiming for, involves addressing the building design issues and educating people.

How easily can LEED be applied to existing buildings?

BS:There's an entirely different rating tool for existing buildings through USGBC (US Green Building Council), which looks at operation and maintenance of the building. A lot of it comes down to facilities management to get the best performance out of the systems already in place.

Is that going to be a component of the Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) rating system?

BS: We brought up the issue of existing buildings with EGBC and it's basically a matter of picking your battles. However, we've gotten to a point where most developers want to be certified to some degree out of corporate social responsibility.

GM: Whether an existing building is subject to a LEED rating or not, there is always the opportunity to improve the performance of the building. Even in the best buildings, there are always opportunities.

When sub-standard build quality combines with the harsh environment in the Middle East, what is the life-cycle of a building?

GM: The life-cycle of all elements of buildings is influenced by the level and quality of facility management. Making sure filters are regularly changed, cleaned and lubricated properly and taken care of has an absolutely enormous impact on the expected life of mechanical and electrical systems in a building.

Like an automobile, if you don't service it, it might last two years, if you do, it might last 20.

Are green buildings more easily achieved with architectural or engineered solutions?

GM: It has to be both. The engineering and architecture are intertwined; the building is a product of both. Put simply, engineering supports the architecture by making the building operational. The best buildings have a passive approach to architecture as well as the right engineering solutions in them to minimise energy consumption as well.

If you consider the example of PV cells cladding a building, the engineering and architecture is one in the same. It's both the façade of the building and part of an engineering system of supplying energy to buildings.

In this region, how far are we from green buildings being the standard building format instead of just another option?

BS: Dubai's Strategic Plan 2015 and Abu Dhabi's Strategic Plan 2030 do require sustainable urban design. All development from here on will respond to those strategic plans. If you don't demonstrate social responsibility, you simply won't be marketable.

GM: That being said, it does require a shift in the way the consumer thinks. On the developer side, some are seeing the big picture and moving toward green developments voluntarily, others are doing so because they have to.

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