As the UAE entered the 21st century, globalisation bought with it many ideas and design concepts from the West. Costly, energy-intensive air conditioning technology was utilised to ensure that such buildings were able to maintain comfortable interior conditions despite the poor insulation.
Towards the latter part of the decade, local governments began introducing more rigorous codes, such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System in Abu Dhabi and the mandating of elements of the United States’ LEED Rating System for buildings within Dubai World’s jurisdiction.
While these steps are fantastic for the industry, and local governments should be praised for the bold steps being taken to address the sustainability of building, there are still fundamental issues that need addressing in the industry.
Firstly, we need to start talking about a building’s energy use intensity, the energy consumption per square metre, rather than comparing buildings to theoretical baselines.
Next, we need to set stringent quality control guidelines; the integrity of building envelopes needs major improvement. Some fantastic analysis goes into building designs to select the right glass and insulation but quite often all this good work is lost during construction as insulation and facades are installed poorly with high levels of thermal bridging and air leakage.
It is not only the contractors that are at fault here. A lot of building envelope designs done by architects in the region are very poor with enormous amounts of thermal bridging. There is really little use in specifying the top of the range insulation if heat is allowed to pass through all the exposed elements of the building. Major savings in energy can be made by addressing this rather simple issue, which would not cost that much to fix.
We also need to move the discussion of green buildings into the realm of building operation. There is a lot of talk about green design and green construction but the objectives seem to stop once the building is completed and received its rating. Buildings do not consume energy while they are being built. They only consume energy when they are occupied so this should be the most important phase of a green buildings life.
Finally, we need to ensure proper utilisation of new technology. Far too often when we look at existing buildings we see the most expensive, highest spec building management system turned off because it is not working properly or the operators do not know how to use it. Bridging the interface between construction and operation, through proper commissioning, is essential, particularly now as buildings are becoming more and more high-tech.
There is a lot of great change that has happened in the industry over the past few years and the government and private sector are both making great strides in the realm of sustainable buildings.
However, we must not rest on our laurels and we must wake up every day and ask ourselves the fundamental questions of how we can really make our buildings better.
Saeed Alabbar is director of energy and sustainability consultancy AESG, which is based in Dubai.