Face value: exploring the GCC’s facades sector

We investigate the case for efficient façade design and engineering in the GCC, where sustainability is gaining equal footing as aesthetics

Facade of the under-construction Louvre Abu Dhabi museum.
Facade of the under-construction Louvre Abu Dhabi museum.

The global façade sector is, perhaps, at its busiest in the Middle East. A region bubbling with ambitions to build lofty and glittering skyscrapers, the Middle East, and more importantly, the GCC, plays a key role in developing façade applications around the world.

Crucial to innovations in the sector is the element of sustainability, which, as façade experts reveal, this region has its roots in.

Andy Dean, head of façade engineering at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff Middle East, explains: “People have lived on the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding region for millennia, and building materials were indigenously scarce. Even the most basic of materials that allowed construction above a single storey, or which allowed a roof, would potentially have been imported, [for instance], wood for beams. [Yet], buildings were successfully functional in relation to their context.

“The main feature was shade, and this was coupled with air circulation. Although they were the most impermanent buildings, the Bedouin tents had both, often employing a double skin to allow a circulating (cooling) layer in the heat, and an insulating layer in the cold months,” Dean continues.

“Unfortunately, modern technology brought with it an arrogance that encouraged us to throw away some of those ancient natural solutions. We had electricity to run air conditioners, and plastics to provide insulation.”

The advent of investments which followed the discovery of oil in the region brought with it a shift from the usage of vernacular and traditional façade materials towards internationally-used options, such as glass.

The growth of regional infrastructure, following the foreign investments, also invited architects and engineers from the wider Middle East.

Abdulmajid Karanouh, head of facades at Ramboll Middle East, says these professionals were helped by their knowledge about the GCC’s topography.

“Architects and engineers from the wider Middle East, such as Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon worked in the Gulf Region, and they were found to have a greater understanding of the locale, environment, and culture,” Karanouh, who rates Dubai World Centre Tower’s facade as one the best in the region, tells Construction Week.

“[In] the 1990s, and international architects and engineers mainly from Europe and North America brought with them international styles and high-tech trends, including the deployment of fully glazed facades, which were found to be technically inefficient, and environmentally and culturally inconsiderate options in most cases,” Karanouh continues.

The concern of lack of environmental consideration was prevalent not just here, but also in Europe and North America,” he adds.

“A cutback of inefficient practices is now being witnessed in Europe and North America and is being picked up by the Gulf Region at least conceptually, especially in the UAE,” Karanouh states.

The evolution of façade design towards sustainability – environmental and economic – is aided by the use of increased technology.

Matt Kitson, regional director for Hilson Moran in Qatar, explains: “The reading of the regional façade sector now is very different than what it was five to seven years ago, and I think that’s being brought about by legislations [implemented] by various governments, including the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“They’ve started to understand that they cannot keep doing what they’re doing if the building is consuming a [high amount] of energy, and resources like water.

“Legislations such as Estidama in Abu Dhabi or GSAS in Qatar are now becoming mandatory for developers, so it’s not so much of an option but something they have to do, and I think that makes a big difference,” Kitson adds.

Kitson’s pick of façade technology is electrochromic glass, which he argues provides both, the aesthetics of glass glazing as well as the efficiency of a heat-responsive sheath.

“Electrochromic glass is a little more expensive [than the usual variety], but it keeps out 95% of the sun instead of the typical 40%. It can be programmed into the building management system to work as a smart façade, which means the façade gets darker when the sun points at it.

“It’s akin to changing sunglasses,” Kitson adds. “Options like these, probably not now, but within two to three years, will be the easy way of achieving sustainability and aesthetics.”

Agnes Koltay, director at Koltay Facades, is also excited about the potential of smart glass in the region.

“I am very excited about developments in electrochemically deposited metal forming process [using nanotechnology to create metals] and 3D printed glass,” Koltay says.

“Both are steps towards affordable new methods of forming traditional materials. With the [technology] we possess these days, structures can be optimised for aesthetics and structural efficiency, but these shapes may not fit the standard range of mass produced building parts,” she adds.

“Visionary architects, such as Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher have foreseen a future with parametrically developed forms. Their work is immensely important for moving ahead and push the limits of affordable reality,” she continues.

According to Koltay, the construction industry has not changed so much in the materials it uses as it has in “the way we combine them; the principles how we build them into a system have evolved”.

WSP | PB Middle East’s Dean agrees with Koltay: “How facades have changed depends on the time-frame and context. If we focus on modern times, since, say glass has been used, [then] I’m not convinced that they have changed that much in principle.

“We use glass, in gaskets, in frames and attach them to the building using brackets – we’ve been doing that since the beginning of the 20th century.

“For me it’s the details and the big picture that have changed; so the two opposite ends of the technical scale. The details are the metal and glass coatings, the refining of materials such as sealants, the introduction of composite materials, including carbon fibres, and the automation of systems for security, emergency egress, solar control and lighting.

“Innovative suppliers are bringing products to our market almost constantly. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to use the developing electronically tintable glasses, which allow light transmission to be controlled from almost clear to 1% at the flick of a switch, allowing glare, heat, and ambience regulation,” Dean continues.

“The power required to excite these systems can interestingly be driven by the same solar energy they are rejecting.”

All these advancements, however, demand steady support from local governments. To begin with, Kitson believes an overhaul is in the order where a façade’s heat resistance is concerned.

“[There is a tendency] to worry about being prescriptive, but I don’t think it’s just about the mark or grade. Germany, for instance, has legislations which demand efficiency to the nth degree, and it measures the annual energy used by ever square metre of the building. I think that’s a very good way of assessing the efficiency of your design and operations,” he says.

Karanouh echoes this opinion, adding that the durability of buildings demands patient and steady evolution in construction practices.

“Product development is much easier and quicker in other high-tech industries rather than it is in construction. Therefore, it is likely that it’ll be 10 to 20 years before major changes are seen in terms of regional sustainability,” he says.

Furthermore, legislative changes must span an all-encompassing remit, Ramboll’s façade expert states, stressing on the need to involve all stakeholders in the development of new practices.

“Change requires legislation and government support, where sustainability becomes an integral part of the culture and therefore mandatory in terms of good practice. It must be all inclusive of stakeholders from clients to the wider supply chain including or even starting from academia.”

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