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Experts: Retrofitting a viable alternative to demolition for UAE

Construction firms operating in the MEP sector could offer to do retrofits for free through a method called performance contracting, says Saeed Al Abbar of AESG

IStructE organised a panel session on retrofitting in Dubai earlier this month.
IStructE organised a panel session on retrofitting in Dubai earlier this month.

The construction and engineering community can boost the UAE government’s efforts to preserve the country’s cultural heritage by encouraging building owners to retrofit aging structures.

This was the recommendation submitted at the end of a panel session, which carried the theme “UAE’s aging buildings – demolish or retrofit?”, organised in Dubai earlier this month by the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE).

The event was moderated by Rashad Bukhash, chairman of the UAE Architectural Heritage Society and featured a panel comprising Bob Scott, technical director for building structures at WSP; Saeed Al Abbar, director of AESG; Jonathan Ashmore, co-founder of Anarchitect; Craig Ross, partner and head of project and building consultancy at Cavendish Maxwell; and contractor lead, Safwan Ghuraibeh.

Speaking during the session, Al Abbar said that construction firms can educate building owners about their options, particularly when it comes to addressing cost concerns related to retrofit projects.

Read: The UAE's heritage architecture must be preserved

He noted that construction firms, especially those operating in the MEP sector, could offer to do retrofits for free through a method called performance contracting.

The method would involve the MEP firm upgrading old equipment with energy-efficient systems, he explained, adding: “That energy-efficient equipment will produce savings every year, and will pay for itself within two to three years.

“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.”

Al Abbar further noted that retrofitting no longer comes with any significant technical challenges. “The technology is advanced now, and we can overcome any technical challenges. The level of engineering that we have here in the UAE is second to none.”

He admitted, however, that carrying out MEP retrofits can be tricky because clients typically expect activities to be implemented while the building remains operational.

“We have to work around everyone still occupying the building, so that creates a […] logistical challenge,” said Al Abbar. “But it can be done.”

Read: How does retrofitting make buildings more sustainable?

On the sidelines of the event, Bukhash told Construction Week that retrofitting old buildings is a practical and sustainable alternative to demolishing them.

“So many of the buildings that were built in the 1970s and 80s are starting to be demolished, but as I mentioned at the end of the [panel] recommendation, if the buildings can still be used, they should be kept,” he explained.

“Maintenance is very important. And nowadays, there are systems of engineering that allow for the iron to be replaced, for example. Today, you can replace the concrete, and allow these old buildings to live another 50 or 100 years.”

Although he conceded that demolition could sometimes be necessary, particularly with buildings that pose a safety risk to residents or the community, Bukhash said that retrofitting should be the go-to option for “historic buildings”.

“If it’s a historic building, like the Dubai World Trade Centre or the Dnata building in Dubai, then it should go through some kind of restoration or conservation process,” he elaborated.

IStructE’s regional group chairman for the UAE, Mohamad Al-Dah, said that when it comes to determining if an old building has historical or cultural relevance to the country, the people should be allowed to decide.

He continued: “You have to let the people ask that question and then answer it. [The building] has to be relevant to the people living and working in that area.

“This is what Dubai Municipality is doing. It has put together a questionnaire that ask factual questions about the building to determine if it should be preserved. It’s the same system in the UK. It’s a longer running system that is being maintained by a government organisation called English heritage.”

English Heritage lists buildings according to the historical relevance, said Al-Dah, adding: “If it’s listed through that organisation, you cannot demolish it. And [the system] works because it is supported by the public.”

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