All change: sustainability faces fast-paced change

Government agencies across the region are making sustainability a priority for new buildings. However, the rapid pace of change is presenting MEP consultants with a host of project management, training and skills challenges, Zoe Rawlins.

Dr Ahmed Alaa: move away from a ‘tick box’ culture.
Dr Ahmed Alaa: move away from a ‘tick box’ culture.
Saeed Al Abbar: government authorities need to educate industry on new regulations.
Saeed Al Abbar: government authorities need to educate industry on new regulations.
Reid Donovan: building design has improved, but can still get better.
Reid Donovan: building design has improved, but can still get better.

Sustainable design and implementation of MEP systems has been a slow burning topic since the release of the 2006 documentary, an Inconvenient Truth, but there is good reason to believe that this long smouldering issue is about to ignite and become a core consideration in MEP system implementations.

The green evolution over the last nine years has been accelerated in part by marquee projects unveiled in the region — from the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, to the successful bids for the 2020 World Expo in Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. However, a greater acceptance of altruistic environmental arguments, the development of mature sustainable technology and clearer capital investment versus operating cost models have all played a part in pushing sustainability to the forefront of the region’s building agenda.

More influential still has been the work in the states of the GCC, which has resulted in changes to building regulations that are pushing developers and the construction industry to embrace sustainable construction techniques, technologies and business practices.

Green buildings codes introduced in 2012 by Dubai Supreme Council of Energy (DSCE) and applied to the emirate’s new government buildings have already resulted in a 43% reduction in energy and a 15% reduction in water consumption claimed Jamal Abdulla Lootah, CEO, Imdaad, a facilities management service provider, in a recent column for sister publication Facilities Management Middle East.

“Dubai is set to make half of the buildings in the emirate ‘green’ in the next 10 years, and reduce carbon emissions by 30% in the next 16 years,” he added.

Dubai isn’t alone in its enthusiastic embrace of green building codes. Abu Dhabi has put its 2030 vision of sustainable living and subsequent Estidama green building framework at the core of its bid to diversify its economy.

Early last year, Saudi Arabia’s Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PME) issued a five year deadline for all companies to comply with new standards on air, water and noise pollution.

Given the current building boom in the Kingdom the PME’s guidelines are expected to have a substantial impact on the design and construction of new buildings.

Qatar has been an early adopter of green building practices. Establishing the Green Building Council (QGBC) in 2008 and then forming the Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD) to promote healthy, energy and resource-efficient, and environmentally-responsible building practices in the country. GORD has since introduced the Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS), an international assessment system designed with desert environments in mind and an alternative to LEED certification.

“The MEP industry has been promoting sustainability in the Gulf region long before regulations were in place demanding implementation,” said Darrel Strobel, managing director of MEP Engineering, KEO International Consultants.

“Demand has increased as governments within the region adopted sustainability practices and made them mandatory as part of the building permit process. [For example], Estimada in Abu Dhabi, GSAS in Doha and Green Buildings in Dubai,” explained Strobel.

Good news for the environment, but the flood of green regulation poses several challenges to the MEP industry, not least of which is keeping track of the growing complexity of new legislation. Bodies like the Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC) based in the UAE, acts as a bridge between the construction industry and regulatory bodies, ensuring the construction industry as a whole is up to the green challenge.

The forum acts as a platform for the industry’s stakeholders to share technical knowledge in a bid to address sustainability challenges and opportunities in the built environment.

“Green building regulations, whether in the UAE or globally, set the ground for high standards that need to be fulfilled by all stakeholders,” said Saeed Al Abbar, chairman of EmiratesGBC.

“Based on our consultations with EmiratesGBC members and external requests, we have realised that understanding the regulations and new requirements should come with more informative sessions from the authorities, to ensure that all parties ‘speak the same language’,” says Al Abbar.

There is little doubt that the wave of green building legislation will make MEP project work more demanding.

It is not just question of incorporating sustainable technologies, but adopting an implementation process that demands higher levels of transparency, communication, teamwork and project management and perhaps more importantly committing to a new green building ethos to bring about successful projects from design all the way through to commissioning.

“Quality of the construction standards has improved over the last 10 years; that said, in some areas further improvement is required to ensure the design intent is followed right through to the commissioning stage,” commented Reid Donovan, regional MEP director at Hyder Consulting Middle East.

“I see the single biggest challenge [with] the actual implementation of new sustainable technologies [is that it] will require a true team approach from clients, designers, contractors and local authorities, with a real desire to put green buildings at the top of their priority list,” he added.

For all the talk about sustainable construction it is questionable how much ‘real desire’ there is to adopting a green approach to construction. It is far easier for developers, contractors and consultants to talk about sustainability, while implementing the absolute bare minimum standards required to ‘tick the box’ and obtain the necessary permit, rather than embrace a sustainable approach to construction.

“If you need the proper MEP design and implementation it will cost money and the developer always needs to save money,” explained Dr Ahmed Alaa, regional vice chair, GGAC-RAL, chapter board of governors, ASHRAE Falcon Chapter.

The constant pressure to save money is evident in third party commissioning.

“There is a lot more focus on commissioning companies… when commissioning companies are doing the work in a proper way [they] have found that [there is] a lot of deviation… because of financial pressure. They are ticking boxes? they are not implementing the proper way,” Dr Alaa added.

According to Strobel, it’s time for consultants and the wider industry in the region to ‘practice what they preach’ when it comes to sustainability – from system design through to the recycling of building waste. However, if there is an inclusive project management approach the sustainable doesn’t necessarily mean a significant hike in costs.

“Consultants must take a stand on this issue by adapting sustainability within their practice and applying it to their projects. Using a holistic approach to design and applying good engineering practices can yield a sustainable project, without the need for major effort or increasing costs,” he added.

Such holistic project management heightens the need for strong project management skills. Clear communication, team building and transparency of project objectives are all vital when faced with the tight timeframes and challenges that are common with Middle East projects.

“All consultants in this market need the skill to meet the demands of MEP design in general; the sustainability requirements are part and parcel of this,” said Donovan.

“This is one of the most challenging markets in the world with opportunities to work on world-class projects. The challenge is the very tight design durations and high volumes of work within the timeframes,” he added.

Getting all project stakeholders on the same page is a constant challenge faced by the MEP industry. It is vital for manufacturers, suppliers, consultants and contractors to be aligned in order to build an optimised system whether it is in choice of design, products, equipment and systems to implement.

“These regulations push all stakeholders to work together in an integrated manner throughout a project, which is recommended to achieve the best results within the deadline,” said Al Abbar.

In all likelihood the accelerated adoption of sustainable building techniques will put further pressure on the industry’s already acute skills shortage.

The slow burn adoption of green building techniques provided most consultants with the opportunity to develop in-house skills. Unfortunately there are still challenges, in part driven by the increased complexity of many projects.

The growing volume of complex projects is driving demand for greater use of certified experts, particularly in specialised areas, such as energy auditing, energy modelling and third party commissioning. This in turn may push MEP contractors and consultants to invest more to train staff.

“If MEP contractors [send] their engineers on courses, they will not gain [immediately]. It will be a long term. [Companies] are not looking at it from this angle,” said Dr. Alaa.

Increasingly engineers are taking time off and signing up for these course for themselves. In a recent technical course attended by ASHRAE, as many as 75% of delegate were ‘self-paying,’ claimed Dr Alaa.

Despite the recent progress made on the regulatory front there is still considerable work to be done to educate developers and owners to long term value of sustainable MEP systems and the building project as a whole.

According to Al Abbar, educating the market is critical for owners and contractors to understand that ‘green’ does not mean ‘more expensive’, but instead contributes to long-term financial savings.

Sustainable systems, whether it is some form of solar technology, a grey water plant, or LED lighting system will increasingly be integrated with a building management system. For building owners to realise the long term savings of these various green systems they must re-train their facilities staff.

“We need to educate the fact that value engineering does not necessarily mean deleting sustainable elements, but rather optimising their use within the building’s design, and then training the maintenance personnel on the correct operation of the MEP systems,” explained Strobel.

“Training of operations staff is an important component of the potential savings available through the sustainable design approach. If this is ignored, potentially [owners] can pay a higher price for a system to be implemented and not achieve the expected savings,” he added.

Regional governments are currently the biggest drivers behind the Middle East’s green building drive.

However, increasing the private sector developers and owners will take over the mantel of sustainable leadership. Before that happens there is still a considerable education task to be undertaken.


EmiratesGBC has launched an Energy Efficiency Programme, which serves as an energy efficiency database that compiles the expertise of EmiratesGBC’s corporate members, which provide services or materials that are related to energy efficiency.

The platform will initially serve as a referral point for energy-efficiency projects and will turn into a functioning online database later this year, to which all EmiratesGBC members will have access.

While there is an increasing demand to have industry products and services acknowledged as sustainable and energy efficient, the product market continues to be fragmented; this makes the process of identifying partners to push an energy efficiency project forward often challenging.

“We are confident that this programme will bring numerous benefits to industries by streamlining the energy efficiency market, unifying key stakeholders and simultaneously boosting company market reach, as well as bringing in financial opportunities,” commented Al Abbar.

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