The great outdoors

Priorities have changed and contractors have to choose sustainability

The master plans of the middle east are going green in more ways than one as companies begin to invest in sustainable landscaping.
The master plans of the middle east are going green in more ways than one as companies begin to invest in sustainable landscaping.

Landscaping was once about making a project look eye-catching but now priorities have changed and contractors have to choose sustainability over beauty, as CW discovers.

The Middle East is renowned for its five star resorts and picturesque hotels, but where would Downtown Burj Dubai be without its famous dancing fountain? Or Atlantis without the beach side promenades of The Palm Jumeirah?

Mega-projects from theme parks to man-made islands depend on striking landscaping to attract business. And, whether developers and contractors choose to believe it or not, investing in sustainable landscaping both helps the environment and is proven to save money.

The world around us is changing. Construction projects can no longer rely on picture perfect developments at the cost of being unsustainable. Beauty is a priority but, right now, sustainability is an even greater one.

When it comes to landscaping, what does it mean to be sustainable? “Sustainable landscaping basically is defined as landscaping that not only can be constructed cost efficiently, but can also be maintained and preserved efficiently as well,” explains Rafael Khanoyan director of Al Ryum General Contracting, a designer and manufacturer of landscape solutions.

“In my opinion, this trend didn’t just start; rather it has developed and through technology, has improved. As a landscape contractor we are always trying to create cheaper, more efficient methods of construction, as well as using the ‘green’ approach, being that we are environmentalists, not only by profession but by nature.”

A specialist in master planning, landscape architecture, project management and irrigation engineering, Cracknell is one company which has several projects under its belt that take sustainable landscaping into account.

“We have been working on Yas Island and with the Grand Prix recently taking place – this has been one of our key priorities,” says Cracknell associate Lee Allen.

The Yas Marina Circuit undoubtedly looks green with its grass running around the track. But, behind the scenes, the company has planted foliage that is locally sourced and requires less water.

“Planting has become more Middle Eastern,” adds Allen. “There has been a shift from the use of tropical plants, which were popular in the past, to locally produced plants as they thrive best in the region’s tough weather conditions.”

Contractors and developers are also leaning toward softscape (plants and trees) rather than hardscape (tiles and granite) because of cost savings.

“Clients are choosing schemes that are pleasant on the eye without having the costs that previous landscape projects incurred,” adds Khanoyan.

Green Concepts Landscape Architects (GCLA) principal Geoff Sanderson takes this further by saying that there is a trend towards using lower heat retaining materials for hardscape elements.

“Even concrete, with its very high CO2 emission, will be rejected in the near future in favour of carbon neutral ‘e-crete’, shortly to be produced in the UAE,” he predicts. But, Nazneen Sabavala director of Landscape design for 3 Square says: “Clients are not just asking for softscaping but for outdoor enclosures.”

She also believes that there is not a trend towards sustainable landscaping, especially within the private residential sector.

“People say they want to be sustainable but we find that when they are given plants, which don’t require a lot of water, they don’t like the way they look,” she says.

“If you want sustainable plants you have to go with those that hold a lot of water on their own. These tend to look dry and people don’t like them.”

When it comes to large areas of land such as public parks, the argument whether to use recycled or non-recycled water has stirred up a lot of debate.

On the one hand, the use of non-recycled water is not good for the environment, for obvious reasons, but the use of irrigated water can also have nasty consequences.

“You have to be careful with treated sewage effluent (TSE) because sometimes there is a terrible smell that comes from it,” says Sabavala.

“In general, grey and recycled water is a great idea to use on landscaping, but the waste water generated is generally not enough to meet the demand of irrigation.”

GCLA recently came second amidst a very large number of entries from fellow consultants and academics in a world wide competition for sustainable cities.

Its entry promoted use of edible plants in an effort to make more sense of the way we use irrigation water and the way we relate to species of animals, birds, fish and insects.

“We must use TSE as it is a second use of the expensively produced potable water,” advices Sanderson.

“It contains some biological nutrients, although it must meet WHO standards before it can be used in public environments.”

TSE is not suitable for water features as it sustains algae and it is not safe for swimming pools or any place that could come into human contact.

Khanoyan sees both sides of the debate: “Potable Water has some advantages over TSE. It does not have the high sodium levels that TSE does, which makes managing turf and plants more difficult and makes the mortality rate of the landscaping higher. Potable water also is a clean source of water that doesn’t have any toxic elements.”

However, he adds that potable water is much more expensive than TSE and is not as environmentally friendly.

“Water is scarce in some parts of the world and by treating and recycling water for different purposes helps preserve our most important resource.”

Cracknell also has a preference towards TSE and, according to Allen, TSE can be obtained, processed and redistributed locally, for example, on site.

Due to the limited amount of water, particularly in the Middle East, can the number of golf courses being developed in the region really be sustainable?

Khanoyan says yes: “The large amount of landscaping that goes into a golf course is appealing to the golfers, as well as people who just appreciate nature.

They will be sustainable because not only will they be used by regular customers seeking different challenges, but professional golf associations will be searching for quality courses to hold events. This in turn will generate revenue and popularity where they are held.”

Sanderson believes that golf courses are not sustainable if water used to keep them maintained is potable, or comes from aquifers. He also believes that if there are too few golfers using them to justify high maintenance costs and the high volume of nutrients used to keep the grass healthy, golf courses cannot be sustainable.

However, he also adds: “Great golf course designers like Gary Player have created some amazing courses that are environmentally sensitive as well as good golfing experiences.”

When it comes to developing a sustainable project, the choice of lighting is also crucial. And, according to landscape experts, green has become the trend in this sector.

“Clients are inquiring about solar technology and other methods of powering lighting naturally. As long as the product quality is not sacrificed, rather enhanced, solar is becoming the new trend of lighting,” states Khanoyan.

There is also the debate over the use of natural versus composite decking. Composite decking tends to have a longer life-span but, according to Khanoyan, decking made from natural resources is much better.

“Although it is very feasible to go with manufactured products, they do not give the natural feel of the real thing. The smell,
texture, and feel of natural products creates a much nicer and more ‘real’ experience,” he says.

But, Sanderson says: “Natural decking means rainforest hardwoods that are rightly losing popularity for environmental reasons.”

There will always be an argument over the pros and cons of sustainable design. But, the Gulf is now starting to take a long, hard look in the mirror and spotting the damage beneath the surface of its impressive exterior.

And, with new standards and regulations coming into place, it may not be long before non-sustainable products and services are gradually phased out.

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