On the crest of a wave

Can a tall building be built sustainably? Matt Plumbridge, Nakheel's project manager on the Dubai Waterfront's Al Burj, explains to Alison Luke how he believes that world change can be triggered in the UAE's construction market, given the right team and attitude.


After spending an hour with Matthew Plumbridge it's impossible to be negative about the future of sustainable building in the Middle East. His enthusiasm spreads in waves as he talks with passion about the opportunities in the region, and the emerging technologies the industry may see in the next few years.

“People told me [before I arrived] ‘there’s nothing green in Dubai’ and ‘good luck, you’ve got no hope’, but I haven’t felt discouraged at all. I’ve been pleasantly surprised...here it’s more accepted because what’s been created in this society is one of acceptance,” Plumbridge states. “Things can change here and I think it is changing progressively with [the emergence of] the Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) – if it can happen anywhere it can happen in Dubai,” he enthuses.

Describing himself as “a project manager who knows how to deliver green buildings”, the fact that Australian-born Plumbridge was chosen by one of the Emirate’s biggest developers to project manage its latest landmark project is perhaps an even more telling sign of the changes that are taking place in the region’s construction industry.

Developers have consistently been accused of holding up the progress of sustainable building, but here the Nakheel management is proving that is not necessarily the case. The firm is an active member of the EGBC and in a further move towards a sustainable future, it is consciously recruiting upper-level management staff known for their green credentials for its Dubai Waterfront development.

Prior to moving to Dubai, Australian-born Plumbridge was part of the team that created Melbourne’s Council House 2 (CH2). This project was awarded a Six Star rating under the Australian Green Star certification scheme – the highest possible category, which signifies “world leadership” standards.

As project manager on the Al Burj tower, the centerpiece of the Dubai Waterfront development, Plumbridge is striving to repeat the success of CH2 and make the Al Burj as sustainable as possible, both in build and operation.

The project is being created 35km south-west of Dubai at the coastal border with Abu Dhabi. It will cover 81 million m2 and is billed as the largest waterfront development in the world. “What I’ve been brought on to do is implement ecologically sustainable design elements throughout [the tower],” he explains.

“That’s not necessarily all MEP [systems], it’s any materials that we use, so you start by looking at passive systems, then active systems and also materials.”

Plumbridge studied planning design at Melbourne University. It was his first job on a Hong Kong development involving ten 40-storey buildings that triggered his interest in sustainable building and move to project management. “We were importing rainforest timbers for formwork …I was 21 and I just thought that is absolutely abysmal, I’m in the wrong industry,” he explains. “So I made a promise to myself that I either get out of the industry altogether or get good at it and try to change it,” he adds.

Opting for the chance to make a difference, after graduating, Plumbridge began work as a project manager for an Australian construction firm. “One thing I had noticed is that buildings were designed around architecture. The form of a building was the most prevalent aspect and a lot of air conditioning and energy was used in order to maintain that form.

“I realised as a builder I could not influence design because you arrive right at the end of the food chain. I needed to get into project management in order to be at the front-end where the decisions were made in order to influence the design or select the appropriate architects that would not only design good buildings, but low energy buildings,” he explains. The opportunity to get truly involved in sustainable building design came when he won a job on the CH2 project.

“CH2 is an exemplar of engineering and design,” states Plumbridge. “The engineering systems were very high-tech and passive in the same breath.” But it was not only the systems used that ensured this Green Star rating could be achieved, the methods of working enabled these systems to be effectively designed and installed.

A high degree of teamwork, plus the early involvement of all members of the construction team were of particular importance and Plumbridge believes that this is essential if a green building is to be created. He cites the CH2 cooling system as a prime example.

This relies heavily on thermal mass free cooling and includes curved, vaulted pore-cast concrete ceilings with integrated ductwork, which act as structural and architectural elements as well as part of the mechanical cooling system. “Essentially in one module of the building…you had three or four disciplines involved and that is the skill of it – it was an integrated design where the services engineers were actually influential in the modelling of this building,” he explains.

“Part of the philosophy of green buildings is that mechanical and electrical engineers stand up at the start and say: ‘I want to be involved and if I’m going to make a green building it’s imperative that I’m involved at the start’. That’s a very important change in order to affect green buildings,” he stresses.

Plumbridge has not formally studied engineering, but instead has spent much of his personal time feeding a keen interest on new technologies that may have an impact in the move towards sustainable buildings. He also gives much credit to the architect on CH2: “He impressed upon me the laws of thermodynamics and basically that you need to be passionate and drive an idea. It’s not too hard to turn an issue on its head – but you need to find the right people in order to implement the idea.

“The skill is getting the right management into place so that you’re not a lone voice screaming into the valley; you’re around like-minded people, so you can afford to push the boundaries and put in innovations,” he stresses.

Nakheel is currently recruiting worldwide for the remaining positions on the project management team. Once this team is in place, the focus will fall on the design work. But with existing green buildings generally being low-rise developments and the Al Burj competing for the accolade as the tallest building in the world, how will this affect the ability to include sustainable engineering techniques?

“I think the fact that we have got such a large building means that there will be constraints through simply elevating and defying gravity,” Plumbridge says. However, he believes that the scale can also be of benefit: “This is such a big development we can actually create a supply chain and say, for example, that we want to procure all the steel and this has got to be 100% recycled. As such a big player in the market we can dictate that and get it at the same price because we’re forming supply chains,” he states.

The design of the MEP systems is in its very early stages, but items that are likely to be considered, explains Plumbridge, include regenerative drives in lifts and solar thermal absorption chilling.

“We’ve got to look at [waste streams] in isolation in our building because it’s going to be in itself a vertical city, so we have to look at the whole complete systems in the first instance,” stresses Plumbridge.

“Energy is a large part of that and we’re going to be looking at using ASHRAE [standards] as our base model,” he confirms.

In his quest to ensure that the desired levels of sustainability are met, Plumbridge has joined a growing number within the Middle East construction industry calling for a local energy benchmarking system. “At the moment there are no rating systems, so [as a client] you can’t actually say what you want and that’s part of the governance that you need,” he states.

In the absence of a local benchmarking system the project team is currently looking to the USA Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Australian Green Star rating systems.

Benchmarking aside, Plumbridge believes that Dubai has the basics already in place for sustainable building.

“The rudiments of a green city exist…water is recycled and [treated sewage] is used for irrigation...so Dubai itself is moving in that direction. It’s not as if its completely virgin territory, early adoption has taken place and now its time for critical mass, which is generally how things unfold. You have early adopters and then critical mass comes through and that’s when things are reformed,” he states.

“[In Dubai] there are people pushing every envelope imaginable in terms of building form and design. Why not push this [green] envelope?” he asks, “Because this envelope is one where in this type of commercial and growth climate, some of the systems for a sustainable planet could come out of here.”

The tide of professionals continuing to flow into the region and the booming property development industry makes this the ideal time and place for change Plumbridge reasons. “Some of the greatest minds are here in Dubai; Dubai is for people with property as LA is for actors, we’re all here in the one place. All the professionals are here, if ever you were going to reform an industry…you’ve got a captive audience and we’ve got a visionary at the helm, and a massive climate issue – these are all fertile ground for wholesale change,” he stresses.

Plumbridge believes that the next step is to apply the systems used in individual buildings on a wider basis.

“We’ve got a vertical city, so that’s a good start,” he states. “The beauty of the tall tower is that what we push and innovate there we can push across to the city,” he adds. “The tall buildings are the ones that people know all about, so they are actually beacons for engineering feats,” he states, “These buildings won’t be the tallest forever, but if you can be the greenest…then all the other ones will probably have to follow suit.”

Plumbridge’s plans for a sustainable future don’t stop at individual buildings: “My dream and the way I see my career playing out is working in green cities in China, because China needs green cities. It has 400 million people planning to move from the provinces into the cities in the next ten years, so if they don’t develop green cities the whole planet is going to be in an awful mess.

“At the end of the day, my biggest motivation is that I don’t want my daughter to think that her dad didn’t help for her future,” he concludes.
Matthew Plumbridge: up close and personal

MEP: Where are you from?

I’m from Melbourne, Australia. I grew up in London; I spent my childhood in Wandsworth then went to boarding school in Scarborough, before moving back to Melbourne. At the moment I live in Al Bada’a, Jumeirah in Dubai.

MEP: Who’s in your family?

My wife and daughter; my daughter is two, so she’s in kindergarten.

MEP: How do you spend your free time?

With my daughter, dancing around the living room to music videos, and we’ll probably be going to the beach a bit more. We live where we do because we like walking; we’re very much from a pedestrian culture, so Jumeirah was perfect for us because everything is within walking distance. I also play the drums.

MEP: Where do you like to holiday?

Our first holidays are going to be around the region. One thing we mandated in our family was that we saw the whole of Australia, so for the last ten years my wife and I have been travelling through Australia; now it’s time to see other things. My wife is from Sri Lanka, so we’ll be going there as well.

MEP: How long do you plan to stay in the Middle East region and what are your plans for the future?

We’re bringing the dog over, so that means we’ll be here for the long haul. He’s a cocker spaniel-poodle crossbreed – a spoodle. The tall tower is going to take a while, so being involved in that. To keep doing what I’m doing, but to be open and communicate, so literally if we’ve come up with some radical systems [for sustainable construction] to communicate those out to the market.


"Part of the philosophy of green buildings is that mechanical and electrical engineers stand up at the start and say 'I want to be involved."


"All the professionals are here, you've got a captive audience...and a massive climate issue - these are all fertile ground for wholesale change."

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