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Site visit: The Sustainable City (TSC), Dubai

Diamond Developers explains why in addition to being green, The Sustainable City (TSC) is shaping up to be commercially lucrative

A four-part study was conducted to work around the topography of TSC, which features a slight slope from one side of the site to the other.
A four-part study was conducted to work around the topography of TSC, which features a slight slope from one side of the site to the other.

Diamond Developers explains why in addition to being green, The Sustainable City (TSC) is shaping up to be commercially lucrative

As its name suggests, The Sustainable City (TSC) is being built with one concept in mind. Located off Dubai’s Al Qudra Road, nestled between Arabian Ranches and Layan, the 46ha project is billed by Diamond Developers as the GCC’s first “fully-fledged” sustainable community.

And with good reason. TSC, which is scheduled for completion by the end of next year, will boast 10,000 trees, 10MWp of solar production, a green spine, and its own farm. What’s more, 100% of its waste and water will be recycled, and a minimum of 75% of the community’s electricity demand will be generated on site through renewable energy resources.

Ultimately, TSC will be home to 2,700 residents, the majority of whom will be housed across 500 three- and four-bedroom eco-friendly villas.

Each villa will come with a free electric buggy, not to mention an additional one-time electric vehicle subsidy worth $10,000 (AED36,730). Homeowners will also benefit from zero net service and maintenance fees and free energy-efficient white appliances.

Laudable though these credentials may be, are such projects economically viable in the Middle East? In the opinion of Faris Saeed, CEO of Diamond Developers and the driving force behind TSC, commercial feasibility is a prerequisite of any genuinely sustainable development.

“TSC has been designed and built around the three pillars of sustainability: the environment, the economy, and society,” he tells Construction Week.

“The idea came about for many reasons, but from an early stage, the primary motivation has been commercial. In 2010, we visited the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). At the time, they were initiating a project to establish green student accommodation. We got the germ of the idea from the UC Davis team, and decided to develop a larger-scale version here in Dubai,” Saeed recounts.

Following this initial meeting, Diamond Developers and Jeet Building Contracting, the main contractor at TSC, embarked upon a four-year period of research and design. Although construction only began in February 2014, Saeed is adamant that this lengthy planning period was integral to the long-term success of TSC.

“At first, we were planning to build a green city; not a sustainable city,” he explains. “However, green factors represent just one segment of sustainability – the environmental segment. When we focused solely on green aspects, we began to encounter issues related to costings. Certain techniques and technologies might be preferable from an environmental perspective, but commercially, they don’t always work. They can be too expensive.

“We soon realised that we had to strike a balance between commercial and environmental considerations. This brought us closer to the overarching concept of sustainability, covering all three of its pillars.

“For any proposed technology, we would conduct a technical assessment related to the environment. We would follow up with commercial assessments. If the two sides balanced one another, we would proceed with that technology,” he adds.

This process seems to have paid off. In addition to TSC’s numerous environmental benefits, the project has proved a commercial hit. 50% of villas have already been sold. Diamond intends to lease 40% of the units, leaving just 10% still up for grabs. The three-pillar foundation of the development appears to have captured the imagination of UAE buyers.

“This is because a development like TSC encourages people to invest,” Saeed comments. “The community offers a selection of financial incentives through lower operational costs.”

Indeed, the reduction of energy consumption has been a core objective throughout TSC’s design and construction. To this end, Diamond and Jeet have employed a diverse array of tactics, both passive and active.

One example of the former is the topography of TSC, which features a slight slope from one side of the site to the other. Conventional wisdom would entail the levelling of the entire area; land would be excavated from one end, transported to the other, and reallocated to eliminate the gradient. This approach, however, is incompatible with sustainable wisdom.

“We conducted a four-part topography study and we designed the whole terrain of the city to follow the existing landscape,” Saeed reveals. “We made TSC a zero import-export development for excavated material. Obviously, this resulted in substantial savings, both financial and environmental. This was our starting point.”

Another example of passive design is the orientation of TSC’s buildings. The development’s five 100-villa clusters point towards the prevailing wind to enhance ventilation. Windows are north-facing to reduce the heating effect of the desert sun, yet large enough to maximise natural light within the properties themselves.

Active design choices, meanwhile, are evident within the buildings’ opposite walls, and throughout the development’s MEP infrastructure.

“The south-facing sides of all TSC’s properties are insulated with two layers of concrete and coated with reflective paint,” explains Saeed. “Aluminium has also been integrated as a thermal breaker.

“All of the technologies that we used within the villas have been selected to deliver energy savings, especially when it comes to the air conditioning systems. At 60% to 70%, AC accounts for the majority of energy consumption. We use variable refrigerant flow (VRF) AC systems, which are extremely eco-friendly and efficient.

In each room, there is one air-handling unit, meaning that residents consume exactly what they need. This results in energy savings of more than 50% compared to conventional systems,” he adds.

Other active design choices include the inclusion of LED lights, ‘green star’ kitchen appliances, and of course, solar panels to meet the lion’s share of the community’s electricity demand.

“The energy efficiency of this development has been reverse engineered,” Saeed reveals. “We designed a house, we imposed a target for consumption, and then we exceeded that target. TSC has been designed using the proper, scientific methodology.”

In terms of construction, Diamond and Jeet opted to use precast concrete. Although more expensive than conventional on-site pouring, Saeed points out that this strategy helped to minimise waste.

TSC also features a “buffer zone”, which incorporates green belt (five layers of trees), cycling, and equestrian facilities. The “green spine” that runs through the centre of the development boasts 12 biodome greenhouses and a central organic farm. Owing to TSC’s extensive greenery, the temperature inside the development’s borders will be 6°C to 8°C lower than outside.

Other sustainable flourishes at TSC include an eco-resort, a green school, a solar-panelled electric vehicle charging network, and the Sustainability Excellence Centre. It’s difficult to argue with Saeed’s assertion that he and his colleagues have all three pillars covered.

As its sales figures demonstrate, TSC has struck a chord with UAE buyers. It’s fair to say, however, that this level of sustainable luxury comes with a sizeable price tag – at least in the short term. With this in mind, the next step for Diamond Developers will be to produce a sustainable community on a more affordable scale.

The question is, can Saeed and his team achieve the same level of sustainability on a more modestly priced project? Diamond’s CEO replies without hesitation.

“Yes, it will be easy for us to translate,” he tells Construction Week. “Sustainability can be applied universally. The difference in construction costs between luxury and affordable projects is not as great as you might imagine – perhaps 20%. The difference lies in the land price.

“TSC is a low-density community. This means that the land price accounts for a higher proportion of the overall project cost. When you have higher-density communities, the land value per unit is reduced. It’s easy to see how the prices will be impacted.

“It is the same with infrastructure; whatever you see here [at TSC], you will see there [on our future projects]. Sure, the finishing materials might be less expensive, but you will find the same aluminium, the same precast concrete, the same solar technologies, and so on. The main features will be identical,” adds Saeed.

Encouragingly for Diamond, other Middle Eastern outfits appear to have been convinced by the economic argument for sustainable communities. TSC’s completion date might still be a year away, but the company has already been approached by international developers looking to transfer the concept wholesale.

“We have been approached by developers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” reveals Saeed. “They want to develop new projects according to the same concept. It’s too early to mention any names, but we are in discussions at present.

“Hopefully, [we’ll be ready to make an announcement] at the beginning of 2016. Firstly, we want to finish TSC – at least Phase 1 – and make it operational. We’ll then be able to start showing people what we’ve done. From this point, the concept’s expansion will accelerate.”

For now, Diamond and Jeet will concentrate on delivering Phase 1 of TSC, which is on course to complete by the third quarter of 2015. This phase comprises the five 100-villa clusters, the green spine, the equestrian centre, horse, bicycle, walking and jogging tracks, a community mall, and all infrastructural works. The development’s first residents will be able to move into their new homes before the end of the year.

Phase 2 will include the construction of the eco-resort, the green school, the Sustainability Centre of Excellence, and a science museum. All construction at the site will be completed before the end of 2016.

That being said, Diamond has no intention of cutting ties with TSC. Following its completion, the development will act as the prototype and sales tool for all of the company’s future projects.

Saeed explains: “We will implement a full monitoring system at TSC, and it will always be monitored. We will use this city as a living example. Production, consumption, ambient temperature, air quality, and residents’ behaviour will all be measured.

“We feel that this is the future of the market. TSC is a future city. Every developer should follow this trend. So long as the environmental and economic factors are balanced appropriately, I see no reason why every development shouldn’t be sustainable,” he concludes.

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