Face to face: Yasmeen Al Rashedi

Abu Dhabi's Estidama rating system is being extended to cover the operational performance of buildings.

Yasmeen Al Rashedi
Yasmeen Al Rashedi

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Abu Dhabi’s mandatory system for overseeing the design, construction and operation of buildings, villas and communities, Estidama, has only been around for just over four years.

By and large, the construction industry has bought into Estidama in the same way that Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) is used as a benchmark for assessing sustainable buildings elsewhere in the GCC.

Ensuring that the nascent Estidama system is evolving with the times is Yasmeen Al Rashedi, the programme implementation and execution manager of Estidama at the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC).

The Emirati was the first female planner to work for the UPC and she manages a team that evaluates the design, construction and operational sustainability of developments.

Al Rashedi, 30, said that getting the industry to embrace Estidama in the first instance wasn’t easy, with concerns raised about increased costs and difficulties sourcing materials locally.

Winning over the sceptics, she added, involved working with industry to explain the merits of Estidama and being confident in the quality of research the UPC had gathered prior to launch.

“It’s taking a softly, softly approach and doing this hand-in-hand with industry in order to better deliver on the mandatory requirement,” said Al Rashedi.

“A simple example was the industry saying that the marketplace wasn’t ready and that these products were not available in the UAE. Obviously, we knew otherwise and in order to close that misconception we developed the Estidama Villa Products Database (EVPD).

“As a result, we worked with around 129 suppliers across Abu Dhabi, covering over 1,000 products that complied with the programme, were openly available in the local marketplace and basically didn’t cost any more than what people were already buying and installing in their homes.”

Al Rashedi said that it wasn’t until the end of 2012 that the industry really started to embrace Estidama.

“We then move into the third phase, which is partnership: us working hand-in-hand with the development community and government stakeholders in order to be able to take the programme to new areas,” she added.

The ‘new areas’ Al Rashedi is referring to is the next phase of Estidama – essentially the operational rating system. This facet of the programme is still to be launched as the current crop of Estidama-certified buildings are still fairly new. However, Al Rashedi said that getting it going was now a top priority.

Since the start of the academic year last September the UPC and Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) have been running a pilot at 10, Three Pearl-rated schools to monitor operational performance. This data will be used as a reference point, with other research, for framing the Pearl Operational Rating system and help ADEC develop its schools.

“We launched the pilot by providing special training to all of the teachers within the school as well as the school operators so that they understood the space that they were now working in – that this was a new standard of school and what would have been normal practice in a regular government school they would have occupied previously now doesn’t apply.

“So it was really important to reach out to them to make them understand what this new space was, how it improves the way they work and the environment that they work in, but also how they need to interact with the space,” said Al Rashedi.

The pilot will most likely run for at least three years to allow enough time to elapse for a useful amount of data to be collected.

“As the climate changes throughout the year, obviously the use of the building will change. How people are using outdoor spaces versus indoor spaces – ventilation, cooling, etc,” said Al Rashedi. “That needs to be monitored more than once. You need to maybe look at it over at least two years, if not three, to begin to get a trend on behaviour and use.”

Al Rashedi is excited about the possibilities the data could throw up for Estidama, given that it is such a new programme and the UPC is open to its constant improvement.

“If this is extremely successful, maybe we would need to start looking at adding in other sustainability measures we haven’t tackled yet in the programme,” she said.

“Maybe there are ones that are already in place that we can begin to modify and improve or benchmark against other standards internationally. Once we get the results, there’s a lot that can come out of it that feeds into both the client for his or her project, but also the programme to take it to the next level of maturity,” she added.

A hot topic in the sustainable construction debate in the GCC has been what should be done about buildings constructed before Estidama and similar rating systems were adopted by governments. Al Rashedi insists that Estidama will have an existing buildings segment, but “when is premature for me to say”.

“For buildings built in the mid-to-late 1990s, they are buildings that can and will be tackled through the programme when it moves into future stages of development which takes on board existing buildings,” she said.

“It might not just be existing buildings that don’t have Estidama. What about the first generation of Estidama buildings? If sustainable methods and technologies are continuously evolving and changing in construction, people might want to increase the rating of their projects. Why not be able to do that? Absolutely, it’s an area of the programme we have thought about.”

Part of the UPC’s remit is drawing up the structure frameworks for the different territories that make up Abu Dhabi. An update of Plan Capital 2030, which covers the Abu Dhabi metropolitan area, is due in the first quarter of this year.

Part of the framework involves mapping out the urban regeneration of existing areas such as the downtown district and also allocating new areas of development such as Zayed City and Al Maryah Island, which will serve as the new government and financial centres, respectively, for the emirate.

Al Rashedi believes Abu Dhabi’s long-term masterplans provide opportunities for Estidama to revitalise old buildings.

“We can’t continue this rapid growth and development without thinking about how this impacts our city in the future,” she said. “Estidama is embedded in every single one of those frameworks. So our review of those framework plans and our input into policy creation is extremely important.”

She added: “Abu Dhabi isn’t old, but the framework of its older buildings built between late 1968 to the early 1990s when construction methods weren’t fantastic means the reality is that a lot of these buildings won’t be able to be maintained as they are, so the natural lifecycle and progression of that stock will eventually come into the programme.”

The UPC has also devised concepts for several government-backed sustainable Emirati housing projects, which were then passed on to Abu Dhabi General Services (Musanda) for further work and delivery.

These include Al Ghareba in Al Ain, Al Raha Gardens in Abu Dhabi, Al Sila in the Western Region and one in Ajman – all of which have achieved the mandatory Two Pearl rating for government projects. The council has also been involved in a housing project in Bahrain, its first outside the UAE.

“The Government is continually working on developing housing and now, with the next generation of projects, is working closely with other government stakeholders like the newly-established Abu Dhabi Housing Authority, to be able to ensure that all elements of complete sustainable communities are secured, improved, tested and continuously under development,” said Al Rashedi.

Gem of an idea
To date, the Estidama team at the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has trained more than 9,000 people - from students through to contractors. Training sessions happen every week and are free.

Yasmeen Al Rashedi said: “It’s been one of our biggest successes because it keeps people coming in, it keeps people asking the right questions. We don’t just have training sessions but also workshop sessions where, for example, you can work through being able to successfully submit a design rating project. We’ve also worked in developing customised training for stakeholders that have come forward and asked for it.

“We are also looking now for the coming years to focus on our PQP (Pearl Qualified Professionals). PQPs are what I call our champions on the ground. They’re professionals in the industry that are certified to launch Estidama projects for our review.

“So they work with architects and project teams to apply all the Estidama credits to the project and then ensure it’s seen all the way through. PQPs are the only ones able to work and launch sustainable projects within the programme. We have around 1,500 in the industry at present.”

Yasmeen Al Rashedi
At just 30 years of age, Yasmeen Al Rashedi is a rising star in the UAE’s development industry.

In charge of implementing the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s Estidama programme of sustainability, she is at the forefront of efforts to safeguard Abu Dhabi’s long-term future.

The Emirati manages a team that evaluates the design, construction and operational sustainability of developments, ensuring effective implementation of the Estidama Pearl Rating System: Abu Dhabi’s mandatory sustainability rating system for villas, buildings and communities.

Al Rashedi was the first female Emirati urban planner to work for the UPC, which is a testament to her determination to succeed in a sector traditionally dominated by men. Her previous role was as a senior urban planner in the council’s development review team.

Having graduated from The University of the Arts in London, she gained a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Sorbonne University, Abu Dhabi.

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