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The UAE's heritage architecture must be preserved

With construction activity continuing unabated in the UAE, the engineering community needs to ensure that progress doesn’t come at the expense of heritage

COMMENT, Projects

So long, and thanks for all the fish, said the dolphins before they vanished.

Fans of the late author, Douglas Adams, would recognise the reference, but for those who have not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a brief explanation: the quote was the last message the dolphins left for the human race, after their attempts to warn people that the planet Earth was going to be demolished (to make way for a hyperspace bypass) proved unsuccessful.

Although Adams’ work is billed a science fiction comedy series, demolition is very much a real-world concern and, often, an unfunny one – just ask preservationists.

Ask Mohamad Khodr Al-Dah, for example, and he’d say that protecting structures with cultural and historical significance should be a top priority for the engineering community.

“We see, in our everyday work as structural engineers, a lot of old, historical, and cultural buildings [being demolished] to make way for newer buildings,” he told Construction Week. “We are demolishing a small villa to build a four-storey building. And then, before you know it, we’re demolishing the four-storey building to construct a 20-storey tower.”

Technical affairs director at Dubai Land Department (DLD), Al-Dah also serves as the UAE regional group chairman of the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE), which recently organised an event that saw industry experts gather to discuss whether aging buildings in the Emirates should be demolished or retrofitted.

“As structural engineers, we make money when [old buildings are demolished]. So there’s a bit of a conflict going on,” he said. “Of course, we like it when a client comes to us and asks us to design a tower, because that ultimately pays our salaries. But when we take [the demolition] route to an extreme, we risk losing our architectural heritage.”

Construction professionals, Al-Dah noted, can help address the problem by educating owners of aging structures about solutions like retrofitting – a sentiment that was shared by the speakers at the event’s panel session.

Saeed Al Abbar, director of consultancy firm, AESG, said that some building owners could be persuaded to go for retrofitting by allaying any apprehension they might have about the costs involved.

“The MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) sector has a real opportunity to [retrofit a building] and upgrade all systems for free,” explained Al Abbar. “How do we do that? Through a method called performance contracting.”

Performance contracting, according to Al Abbar, will require the retrofit services provider to replace old systems like chillers with more energy-efficient equipment.

“That energy-efficient equipment will produce savings every year, and will pay for itself within two to three years,” he added. “This means that the owner doesn’t have to invest anything. The contractor will provide the upgrades at no cost, and he’ll get paid based on the savings generated.”

Performance contracting could very well assuage any worries about the refurbishment costs and operating expenses of old buildings. But there is, unfortunately, more to the issue than simply assuring owners that they don’t have to spend on equipment upgrades.

Speaking with Construction Week on the sidelines of the event, which he moderated, Eng Rashad Bukhash, chairman of the Architectural Heritage Society, said that some owners – especially those with properties located in the centre of the city – are harder to persuade because they know that they can replace, for instance, a three-storey building that earns $54,451 (AED200,000) a year with a 10-storey tower that could generate annual earnings of $544,514 (AED2m).

In these cases, the government could either offer to compensate the owner for some of the income lost or “buy the property and turn it into a museum”, said Bukhash, adding that there are also instances where the government offers owners grants to maintain their buildings.

He admitted, however, that demolition is not always off the table, as not all old buildings need to be saved, pointing out that this is especially true if a building posed a danger to residents or the community.

As has been mentioned, the question of whether to preserve, or to demolish, aging structures doesn’t come with ready-to-dispense answers. But make no mistake, it is a question that needs to be asked.

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Oct 30, 2019