Green communities in the UAE: Fact or fiction?

Exploring how best to build green communities


Day Three of last month’s World Architecture Congress—which ran alongside Cityscape Dubai—was coined ‘Green Day’ and it witnessed a bevy of architects, developers, engineers and sustainability pundits waxing intellectual about everything related to the region’s growing green building conundrum.

Throughout the day, professionals and practitioners from every corner of the industry addressed ‘community’, construction best practices, energy saving, financing, green legislation and regulation, facilities management, life-cycle costs and new ‘green’ materials and products.

Habiba Al Marashi, chairperson of the Emirates Environmental Group and board member of the UN Global Compact, began the day with a sobering—albeit refreshingly honest—sentiment.

“A 100% mindset change will be necessary to reduce carbon emissions and encourage best practices industry wide,” said Al Marashi. “Right now, it’s not just political will that is necessary. Leadership should be taken by the private sector, which is one sector [ in the UAE] that is currently lagging far behind.”

As green credentials and bizarre acronyms flittered and fluttered throughout the conference, one particularly interesting session—Delivering Green Communities, Not Just Green Buildings—brought together designers and developers to talk about how to actually deliver the level of greenness being touted for the region.

Concept of Community

Geoff Sanderson, Dubai veteran and principal of Green Concepts Landscape Architects (GCLA), began by directing the discussion toward the fundamental concept of community. “Without defining ‘community’,” said Sanderson, “it is impossible to really get to the heart of what constitutes a ‘green community’.”

Sanderson rightly pointed out that many of the speakers, and in fact visitors to Green Day, ply their skills and specify their products in regions other than the Middle East. He criticised the conference’s willingness to apply external experiences in the UAE without truly understanding the nature of the professional design community, the contractor community or the end users that acutally live and work here.

“It’s difficult to establish a community [in the UAE] because of the transient nature of society here. If we’re depending on a stable community, we’re struggling,” said Sanderson. “End users [tend to be] largely self interested persons with no concern whatsoever for the UAE’s sustainability beyond their own contract period. Sadly, there are too few people like Habiba Al Marashi to make a big enough difference in the UAE’s green debate.”

Decisions from the top

Mike Lewis, senior associate director at Benoy, is of the opinion that change needs to come in the form of clear and universal green legislation. Rather than fight the good fight from the bottom, he sees little point in expending the effort unless the true decision makers are on board.

“My particular concern is the fight during the project brief. We need a large-scale change in attitude at the decision maker level,” says Lewis. “It’s sad but true. It takes someone to stand up with a torch and say ‘enough’,” says Lewis.

“Decision makers need to make it happen. We have a responsibility to clients to educate them and make recommendations but that’s from the bottom up. I’d love to walk into a briefing and be told ‘We will be doing a LEED Gold building’,” adds Lewis.

Never one to buy in to altruism within the building industry, Sanderson suggests change will only come when legislation dictates that material gain is available for those willing to implement green strategies. “We should devise a system to combine regulation with reward,” says Sanderson. “If rewards were very attractive financially for developers and users, it would create some impetus. Unless that happens soon, I don’t think we’ll see anywhere near the amount of change [in the UAE] that we’re expecting.”

Value of masterplanning

Mark Grundy, sustainability & environment manager for Abu Dhabi-based Aldar Properties PJSC, suggests that sustainability at the community level will only come when master plans are designed with the health of the individual in mind.

“In Mexico City,” explains Grundy, “the average person spends 2.5 hours per day in their car. It stands to reason, then, that the city also has the highest rate of obesity and diabetes in the world. That’s just one illustration of how smart master planning can actually be the frontline of healthcare.”

Sanderson, on the other hand, rejects the idea that the mere presence of buildings begets communities. He uses a Mumbai example to illustrate a strong, vibrant community that thrives without a collective reliance on the build environment.

“In the modern Middle East, there is too much emphasis on buildings, structures and planning,” says Sanderson. “Some of the closest communities in the world are located in the slums of Mumbai. Devising a common interest or shared experience throughout the community is what brings it together and creates a bond.”

What cost sustainability?

As it often does during discussions of sustainability, the session moved into an analysis of the financial benefits and detriments of green technology in buildings. One point on which everyone—both speakers and audience alike—agreed is that green technology is generally more expensive initially but when taken over a building’s entire lifecycle, it ends up saving significantly in terms of energy consumption and, therefore, outright cash.

The financial discussion only got interesting when a woman from the audience asked—given the financial state of the building industry—what methods or techniques could be employed to achieve sustainability free of charge.

Echoing the popular sentiment that architects alone can single-handedly achieve LEED Silver just through smart design, Lewis pointed out the importance of continuing professional development.

“There are things designers can do that are free but that’s down to education,” says Lewis. “We’ve got to make sure the older architects are using the new tools as well.”

From the perspective of landscaping and public realm space, Sanderson doubts the idea that the onus of education lies solely on architects. “Amongst the design community, very few architects, fewer engineers and even fewer clients, recognise the role of landscape architecture or other site design issues in the sustainable equation.

For Sanderson and landscape architects, the formula is quite simple: “In terms of landscaping, we can reduce the cost of buildings by up to half, just through smarter and more efficient maintenance.”

Grundy quickly brought the conversation back to earth when he reminded everyone that there is a limit to what can be achieved through design. “When you try to really push the envelope; when you try to build something that is really cutting edge or ground-breaking, that’s when the big [technology] costs come in.”

Looking ahead

According to Jimmy Grewel, co-founder of UAE-based Pulse Technologies, there is no time like to present to innovate and set new eco-friendly building standards for the region. “If there’s ever a time to do this, it’s now,” he says. “Everyone around the world is looking at what [the region] has done, what has been finished and what types of projects are going to come next.”

While it’s encouraging that the debate about building green communities is happening, Sanderson is pessimistic about the amount of talk surrounding the issue. Experience tells him that this level of airplay generally sees little or no follow through in the region. “I have attended so many sustainable conferences that I doubt I can cope with another,” he says.

For Sanderson, the issue remains one of fundamental misunderstanding. “There is simply an abundance of theory without a serious understanding of the communities that supposedly exist here.”

Sanderson concludes: “There will always be individuals in any residential area—I avoid the term ‘community’—who express a keenness to support sustainable endeavors. However, unless there is a history and serious community depth and commitment as exists in Europe, Japan, North America and Australia, such sustainable communities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are no more than fiction.”

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