Built to (b)last

An excess of cash is driving demolition over the retrofitting option in Qatar’s MEP sector

The most spectacular recent retro-fitting in Qatar is the Sheraton Doha hotel.
The most spectacular recent retro-fitting in Qatar is the Sheraton Doha hotel.

In Qatar there are numerous buildings standing empty or in need of more than a lick of paint and, one would assume, this is the ideal opportunity to upgrade an existing structure’s MEP to comply better with the green wave that is sweeping the construction sector.

Or is it?

Hussan Abou Salha, structural engineer Al Hamad Engineering is pragmatic: “Generally, all high-rises and relatively big structures are new in Doha and there is an attempt to demolish old structures. But in my opinion, for old buildings, there are some applications that can be made to obtain better building performance in terms of water consumption, light contamination, rain water collection, landscape design etc.”

According to Vladimir Slavcic, senior site architect for AEB, retrofitting MEP to comply with green regulations is not always the best solution and not really the Qatari way. “The focus is rather on new buildings as you can design the MEP from scratch to how you want. Besides, retrofitting is inclined to be limited and superficial; implemented with things like reducing the cistern size on toilets and refitting on-demand water in bathrooms and kitchens; these are the normal basics for retrofitting.

“However, in Lusail for example, the base of the [city’s] design is built on sustainability so any type of retrofitting in the future would be easier than say, in any other area of Doha where energy and water systems are traditional and don’t accommodate any type of retrofitting.”

Darrel Strobel, managing director KEO International, maintains that in the UAE and also Qatar, land is such a premium that it often makes better sense to demolish a building than retrofit it to current standards. Also, the older buildings in Qatar are so poorly constructed, built at a time when building standards were in their infancy, that it is more cost-effective (and safer) to knock them down and start from scratch than spend money and resources trying to ‘upgrade’ them. However, he adds “Within 20 years it will become the norm, but now the country is awash with cash.”

Bimtec’s managing director Ramzi Abu Qamar says that with the new green building regulations in Qatar the industry has no option but to comply with the GSAS model and that generally, retro-fitting is not big in Qatar: “We demolish rather than refurbish,” he says flatly.

Ronald Alia Obordo, project manager, Arab engineering Bureau (AEB) comments, “If it is a pre-requisite of the specification there is no option, we have to find the most viable and most cost-effective solution, which is not always the cheapest option.”

Abou Salha explains that there is a cost component: “The green wave implementation has a significant effect on cost of materials, and the role of good consultants is to select criteria which best fit the project, that make it sustainable with the least cost possible. A building can be green and not sustainable. For example the building can have low energy consumption but if it is far from public amenities, then it is green but not sustainable.

“A sustainable building should take into consideration any contamination, environmental or non-environmental, such as light contamination and noise contamination.

“For this reason, the authorities in Qatar, released a standard called the Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS), and obliged the clients, consultants and contractors to apply requirements to pass a certain score and be certified, or else no building permit would be issued. This is applicable in Lusail City for example.

“With the result that the consultants and contractors don't have that much choice – they have to comply,” he adds.

Despite playing such a major role in the function of a building, MEP is often seen as an ‘add-on’ in the design process, or worse still, excluded altogether in tender submissions.

Case in point, late last year the stadium tendering process was held up partly because MEP specs were unclear or inaccurate, or not included, according to sources in the industry.

Obordo explains that in an effort to alleviate delays, MEP is introduced early in the project, during the conceptualisation stage of AEB’s projects. He elaborates, “We have a governmental body, the involvement of the civil defense that checks and assesses all MEP designs – literally every single design. Once we have 60% of the architectural concept of the building, MEP will be included – as a concept – and we then have to approach the civil defense, the government, as the authority to authorise the drawings.”

This is mechanical, structural and civil design, not only architectural and landscaping design.

Because MEP specifications are often incomplete, inaccurate or excluded, issues are apt to arise further down the design line and can become costly.

Abou Salha adds: “Often the early design stages do not take MEP requirements into consideration as it is considered minor, which is not acceptable if you consider how tough the environment is in these areas and how severe the depletion and contamination of natural resources is. Under these circumstances, consultants should reassess their take on the importance of MEP and start looking at their structures integrally from the early design stages, instead of considering only structural and architectural design. This process will not be that hard in the presence of building information modelling (BIM).”

He cited an example of what happened at one of Al Hamad’s projects where MEP was not considered fully, resulting in insufficient overhead spacde allocation. He explains: “As result of not taking MEP into consideration we had to remove and replace the slab in the basement with a thinner slab to have enough space for fresh air ducts, and this amplified the cost – needlessly.”

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