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5 Minutes with Saeed Alabbar, EmiratesGBC, UAE

Construction Week speaks to the chief of Emirates Green Building Council about building economically and environmentally sustainable affordable homes

Saeed Alabbar, chairman, EmiratesGBC.
Saeed Alabbar, chairman, EmiratesGBC.

Saeed Alabbar is the director of AESG, an energy and sustainability consultancy in the UAE.

He was appointed chairman of Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC) in March 2014.

Construction Week speaks to Alabbar about the GCC's affordable housing mandate. 

Q: What according to you is the definition of ‘affordable’ housing, and how does sustainability fit into its remit?

A: Affordable housing is generally defined as accommodation with special focus on low and middle class incomes, which provides all necessary community services and reasonable access to safety, education, health, resources, transportation and leisure.

It should be economical from a life cycle cost perspective and safe to design and implement.

However, sustainable affordable housing ensures that the above relates to and complies with existing green buildings standards and regulations, and takes into consideration the ecological footprint of the project (materials and natural resources, waste streams, design, and so on) while guaranteeing its financial and technical feasibility; thus providing environmental and economic sustainable development.

To ensure social sustainability as well, the housing project should also contribute to leveraging a community by ensuring access to all vital services and employment opportunities.

Q: What are the cost and environmental benefits of sustainable affordable housing? 

A: The cost and benefits for green buildings in general, for developers and end users, are similar.

For instance, [it offers] long term savings in terms of energy and water performance, benefits in tenants’ comfort and health, and urban sustainability.

As we always reiterate, it is important to highlight that ‘building green is not more expensive’.

The cost of design and construction is generally not higher than the regular type of accommodation.]

Next page: Incentivising sustainable affordable housing

Q: What is the role of building materials in enhancing the sustainability of affordable projects? 

A: Projects need to be considered holistically, taking into account good design and the appropriate use of materials.

Through appropriate integrated design and construction strategies it is possible to achieve high quality, sustainable buildings at no added cost.

Q: Is it necessary for building materials to be cheaper (to reduce overall project costs), or can design factors and value engineering also contribute to affordability?

A: As sustainable housing targets a specific section of the market, the concept of ‘affordable housing’ needs to take into account not only technologies and design, but also the location – as cost of land has to be factored in, the size of the accommodation (apartments vs. villas) and the accessibility to services; which begs questions like “is the new neighbourhood attractive in terms of access to public transportation, schools, health, retail, etc.?”

We have witnessed many new materials and construction systems entering the market to allow the planning of small but affordable developments. In addition, the sourcing of materials is also very important.

Sourcing from recycling or local areas can make a difference in the final project’s costs.

Q: Do more rebates and funding options need to be introduced by local banks (and the government, by knock-on effect) to encourage affordable developments in the UAE and wider Middle East?

A: The definition of ‘affordable housing’ in the Middle East varies from one country to another, based on the economic and political context, the state of the real estate market and the actual need of the population.

A solution suggested in one country, such as regulations, banking solutions or incentives, might not apply in other markets throughout the region.

Each country has a different economic context too based on its GDP and investments.

Therefore, all stakeholders including developers, banks, government and contractors should work together to identify the best ways to provide the population with sustainable housing.

Considering housing itself is not sufficient; developments need to be part of clear sustainable urban planning and strategies, which allows inhabitants to access public services, schools, retail and transportation.

Therefore, both the public and private sector should work hand in hand to implement policies and regulations and identify relevant sources of financing.

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