Sustainability Decision Drivers in the UAE

Sustainability Decision Drivers in the UAE
May 2021 , by , in Interviews

Amritha Achuthan & Mohammed Dulaimi, British University in Dubai

What is the impact of UAE fast pace construction on the environment?

The unprecedented growth in the UAE construction industry in the late years coupled with its massive fossil fuel energy consumption has not escaped media attention. The LIVE PLANET report in 2006 revealed that UAE was responsible for the world’s largest ecological footprint. World Wildlife Fund revealed that UAE was five times more unsustainable than any other country in the world.(Anon 2007, WSP 2009) It was observed that UAE had an Ecological Footprint of 11.9 hectares/person, while the global average is at 2.2 hectares/person and the sustainable average should be at 1.9 global hectares/person (Oehme, 2008).

In 2008, Dubai government released a directive proposing a regulation that requires all buildings in Dubai to adhere to strict green standards prescribed worldwide.(Sell 2007).Greening the future was the message delivered by the government of Dubai in its Circular 161 which underlines the fact that all buildings constructed in Dubai from the beginning of year 2009 shall conform to green standards. 

The introduction of sustainability metrics should assist in turning the generic concept of green development into action. However, one must keep in mind that the fabric of the construction industry in Dubai is made up of a mix of small, medium and large sized local and foreign contractors, consultants and investors. 


How effective can be green building principles in dealing with local issues?

Climate responsive design has been the underlying principle while identifying green building design elements. By understanding climatic conditions that are specific to a project’s location, design teams are able to develop climate responsive sustainable building designs. Positive climatic attributes are enhanced and unwanted impacts are eliminated through careful design consideration. The result is a building that utilizes less energy and provides high quality and a comfortable environment for the occupants. 

Broadly, the UAE is defined as having a tropical desert climate, with high humidity. It experiences two distinct seasons: a hot summer at 50ºC (120 ºF) (May to October), and a milder winter ranging from 10ºC (68ºF) to 25ºC (77 ºF) (November to April). Wind speed is generally quite high, and its direction variable (Arup, 2004). This air movement can be enhanced through responsible design to create desirable comfort conditions. 

The selection of an appropriate site has the biggest impact on a sustainable design. Leeds tresses upon the utilization of previously developed land and brown fields for new developments and discourages new land development. 

Most of Dubai’s land is undeveloped and only 20% of the emirate has been occupied so far (WSP, 2008). Hence it is not appropriate to restrict development to previously developed sites as against virgin land. However, preference should be given to developed sites as their infrastructural requirements will be limited leading to minimal environmental disruption. 

The availability of land in Dubai makes brown fields unattractive for development. In Dubai, site selection is often based on the commercial viability of the location. Though connectivity is an important aspect it is not always a driving factor for site selection as most of the city commutes through privately owned vehicles. 

Besides care should be taken not to exploit the natural ecology by restricting developments along Creek area, land connecting to the mangroves which form habitat for migratory birds; along the beachside which are already over developed, desert zones with wildlife and such sensitive zones. Building orientation in Dubai is in response to the adjacent development like roads or natural/manmade beaches to maximize commercial viability. 

The lack of natural landforms and expansive desert land has restricted the articulation of the building’s architectural form. This is where the need for climate responsive design becomes critical and LEED pointers come in play. Accordingly landscaping should be planned to enhance the design and utilize natural resources to create comfort zones in design. Monotonous desert sprawls in the UAE are often landscaped mainly with turf grass lawns and high maintenance plants in discontinuous patches providing little relief from the building mass. The concept of a thoroughly thought building footprint has never been relevant. Much help can be sought by following building orientation, planting hardwood trees, north facing windows, native vegetation, shadow profiling to mention a few could be most popularly used and are apt to be applied in Dubai.

Parking facilities and roadways have negative impacts on the environment because impervious surfaces increase storm water run-off while contributing turban heat island effects. Encouraging the use of mass transit reduces the demand for transportation thereby reducing the space needed for parking lots, which encroach on greenspace on the building site (USGBC, 2007).

Dubai also has the highest rate of car ownership in the world. Alternative transportation are currently being reviewed and promoted by the government. One among them is the encouragement for the use of bicycles, as most new communities are being designed as being bicycle friendly. RTA has been instrumental in setting up Bicycle Network Master Plan that will be implemented in stages from 2008 (Noort, 2008) providing 1300 kms of cycling paths, as part of the 2015 strategic vision. 

To ensure the success of this strategy, it is important to provide amenities like bicycle storage and showering areas as support facilities. UAE has large urban sprawls of paved area under constant sunlight. In addition, hot air released from air conditioning units contributes to warming up of built spaces, leading to Heat islands (WSP,2008). Green roofs can be used efficiently here to reduce heat island effect by replacing heat absorbing surfaces with plants, shrubs etc. for their insulating and aesthetic benefits. In the UAE this point can be altered to form Cool roofs wherein plant matter is substituted with photovoltaic panels or solar hot water collectors to utilize the enormous heat energy available. 

Similarly photo pollution is a problem, arising from the reflection of excessive building lighting utilized commonly seen in this region. LEED suggests to classify projects as per lighting zones and to design accordingly. This should be adopted at design and a regional sensitivity to determine the type of environment the project falls under and then the design evaluated. Carefully designed exterior lighting solutions can reduce infrastructure costs and energy use.


Challenges in implementing green design initiatives in the UAE?

The industry functioning under time and cost constraints largely depends on the cohesive symbiotic functioning of all of the diverse segments complementing each other to get the job done within desired project frameworks. Getting the message of the need for green development through, to these varied types of people involved, tagged with its high financial perception would be a matter of concern during actual implementation. The difficulty also arises with the fact that LEED solutions were never designed to be used across multiple countries and often have features with a significant ‘local’ flavour. Hence the impact and effectiveness of the LEED system, which forms the basis of the proposed green regulations, needs to be critically analysed as to whether these prescribed design requirements suit the local context of Dubai. 

Excerpts from – Implementing Green Design Initiatives in the UAE

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