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A greener Atkins diet

Lee Morris, senior design architect at Atkins, is working on the design of what could be the world's first zero-carbon tower.

Morris believes that future icons of the building world will be those that demonstrate sustainable design elements and energy efficient characteristic
Morris believes that future icons of the building world will be those that demonstrate sustainable design elements and energy efficient characteristic

How is Dubai taking the issue of sustainability forward?

Dubai grabs the headlines for a lot of things but currently it is not grabbing the headlines so much for the cutting edge sustainability issues. At the moment we are going full-steam ahead with building a nation, and I think because of the speed at which this is happening, a few fundamental issues regarding the long-term effects on the environment and sustainable building, may have been pushed aside.

How is this going to change in terms of building design?

It is about going back to basics before we even try and be clever. Because the clever stuff frightens people; if you passively design a building, the benefits are huge. I am not talking wind turbines, solar photovoltaic cells or fuel cells, I'm talking about fundamentally good design.

The opportunities will shift up a gear and developers who don't engage will be left behind and theirs will be the buildings that are left vacant or half-full. And the people that have said: "I will spend 2% more on my construction costs and get 20-40% back in terms of rental from people who want to live and work in my building," will retain staff, absenteeism will go down and productivity will go up. It's difficult for people to see because it's intangible.

Bahrain World Trade Centre was conceived three years ago and that kind of building is good because it raises awareness; when you look at that building you automatically think it's sustainable, it's promoting something and it's generating power.

Whose responsibility is it to take the next step?

A lot of it has got to do with the government, which sets the rules and standards. We are much stricter in the UK in terms of building regulations, tightening up the fabric and not allowing heat out. Here, we are still two to three years behind. The problem we have at the moment is that 60-70% of all energy used is going into buildings. It's in the houses we live in, the offices we work in, the schools our children study in; that is where the majority of energy is going. And if the fabric of the building isn't good enough to cope with this sort of environment, it's all wasted, so it's a huge area that needs to be addressed.

How much are businesses doing off their own backs?

Businesses are coming round to the fact that an environmentally conscious building is beneficial - you have potential access to natural ventilation, you can open window and have plants, for example. And with cost benefits of 30-40%, firms are more willing to pay a small amount of extra money up front.

All of this is coming from the US. For example, under new regulations, New York is no longer going to have any external lighting on its buildings and each building will be allocated a set amount of energy.

What are the challenges of pursuing this agenda?

Because of the rapid development, people say: "Let's make a fast buck, build it as fast as we can, rent it and sell it." They also say: "What's that for? I don't need that, I won't be here long." So the sustainable agenda is only literally picking up momentum.

But once it gets moving it's going to be awesome and hard to resist. Dubai has got to be seen for more than just having the biggest shopping mall and the tallest tower, it has to be seen - as it sits on the world stage - in terms of how it builds the future.

With its international population, Dubai seems well placed to develop these new ideas...

You're right; we won't just create fabulous buildings, we will create fabulous buildings that are ecologically sensible and environmentally sustainable.

To me there are no icons at the moment, because they are not complete. There are great façades and interiors, but to me they are just the same as any other building you see, pumping energy in and pumping energy out, but just slightly better to look at. And I think that is a key consideration.

So will you be prouder of the zero-carbon tower than Burj Al Arab?

No, for what it did for this country, the Burj Al Arab is awesome. It stood in its own time, but now we are playing a different ball game.

I think the thing is not to think about it too much and treat the shift one step at a time. We are not trying to be NASA here, we are actually going back to basics, but putting it in a model environment.

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