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Dubai goes green

New environmental standards and cost pressures are opening the door to foreign expertise in the United Arab Emirate.

Necessity is the mother of invention, apparently. As Dubai enters what is by its standards an increasingly frugal period for construction, the necessity for projects to be economically efficient increases. Even this time last year, when the credit crunch was taking hold across the US and Europe, Dubai continued to boom, with construction leading the charge.

One third of the world’s cranes were operating in the emirate. Indeed, many UK engineering firms fleeing a collapsing domestic property market regarded it as their salvation.

Twelve months on, things are very different. The market conditions are such that swathes of projects have been put on hold or cancelled. Those schemes that are progressing, must therefore make sure they deliver more bang for their clients’ bucks. This economic imperative is now combining with a decree from the emirate’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Last October he decreed that all new projects must comply with green building standards. The result is that construction techniques will save time, energy and money. All of which are common in the UK, but have just started to find a foothold in Dubai. Perhaps the best example of this is the introduction of modular construction methods.

Contractor Laing O’Rourke is Dubai’s lead player in modular construction with a dedicated factory in the emirate. The facility, which operates under the name Modulor, was established three years ago to provide 1,267 prefabricated bathroom pods to the £1bn Atlantis Hotel on the Jumeriah Palm Island, which opened with a £13.5M party in November last year. “By using modular construction techniques for the bathrooms, we were able to cut the number of people working onsite by between 900 and 1,000,” says Modulor general manager Nigel Dixon. This also reduced costs and eased logistical difficulties on a very busy construction site.

By using modular construction techniques for the bathrooms, we were able to cut the number of people working on site

Nigel Dixon, Modular

“We employed 260 men here [in the factory], rather than 1,000 onsite. This was due to our efficient standardised process but also, unlike construction sites, we don’t have to shut down between 12.30pm and 3.30pm in the summer months due to the heat as the facility is fully indoors.”

These logistical savings equated to £231 per square metre of bathroom pods. The standardised construction process also helped boost the hotel’s green credentials. A standard bathroom pod comprises a steel frame with a concrete floor and plasterboard walls.

At peak production on the Atlantis, Modulor was producing 39 pods per week, equating to roughly 150m2 of product per day. Dixon says that his team designed out waste by ordering materials such as plasterboard at a correct standard size for each batch of pods. “We don’t send any waste to site,” says Dixon. “We buy materials at specified dimensions. We ordered 25,000 boards at the correct height for the Atlantis. The traditional method of buying at a standard size to send to site means cutting off 50t of plasterboard in little strips, which is waste you can avoid.” This helped cut waste on site at the Atlantis project by half.

A lot of energy is used for cooling here. The standard building technologies are very inefficient in terms of energy storing.

Michael Schmidt, BASF

As well as cutting waste, modular construction also helps reduce a project’s carbon emissions. Rather than requiring multiple crane lifts of materials for insitu construction, the ready made bathroom pods were lifted, fully finished and sealed, saving on crane lifts and crane fuel. These green credentials have helped the Modulor facility to continue operating beyond the Atlantis, with orders coming from projects in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi. It has a deal to supply units to the first two phases of the latter’s Masdar project, which is aiming to become the world’s first zero carbon city.

Despite the downturn in Dubai, Dixon is optimistic about Modulor’s future in the United Arab Emirates. “We are not too apprehensive [at the current state of the market],” says Dixon. “It will mean when a main contractor is bidding for a contract, they can add us in as a value engineered option and that we can guarantee hitting timeframes. The Atlantis opened two months early and the pods contributed to that, whereas many other projects in the area are running two years late.”

While modular construction saves money and cuts waste on projects, clients and designers have also had to think about the long term energy efficiency of structures to meet the terms of Sheikh Mohammed’s decree. On site at the four star, 26 storey East Hotel at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, an insulation system is being fitted that is claimed will cut the building’s energy consumption – through air conditioning or heating – by 60%. Known as an external insulation finishing system (EIFS) it is a form of construction technology long established in the US and Europe.

So far – with the exception of the Atlantis Hotel where it was also used – it has only begun to be exploited in Dubai for its energy efficiency properties in the last 12 months. There are numerous EIFS on the market. All vary in the composition of materials they use, but the guiding principle behind all such systems is to create an external envelope for the building that will keep cool air in and warm air out, or vice versa in cooler climates.

“The beauty of the system is that it goes totally on the outside,” says German chemicals firm BASF regional business systems manager Michael Schmidt. “It’s like an envelope protecting your structure. Internal insulation can only cover certain areas of the walls.” BASF is supplying the EIFS for the £90M East Hotel to main contractor Khansaheb, a local firm 49% owned by Interserve. Project manager is Mace, consultant is Norr Group and client is the Majid Al Futtaim.

The system being used on the project is a cladding comprising a pre-made metal stud frame with sheets of 50mm polystyrene on its internal side and 125mm thick polystyrene sheets on the exterior. Using polystyrene as cladding has the added benefit of being easy to carve elaborate shapes into – the system is unsurprisingly commonplace in the construction of hotels in Las Vegas.

This is another reason BASF regional sales manager Julian Pritchard feels the system will only grow in popularity now it has been given the push that was need by Sheikh Mohammed’s decree. “A lot of energy is used for cooling here,” says Pritchard. “Standard building technologies here are very inefficient in terms of energy storing. However, I was pushing it for two to three years since the Atlantis and contractors weren’t buying into it. But as soon as the decree went out, everyone had to start looking [into effeciciences]. The decision to apply EIFS to the East Hotel was retrospective.”

Despite such steps being taken on a handful of projects, Dubai is struggling to match the standards being set by its neighbouring and rival emirate. Abu Dhabi established its Estidama environmental rating system in May 2008, awarding pearl ratings for various categories of sustainable construction, such as Water and Energy Use (NCE 4 September 2008).

Dubai meanwhile has delayed regulations which were meant to be implemented at the start of this year. Following on from Sheikh Mohammed’s decree, these would have set the framework in which international standards such as the UK Breeam and US Leed standards could operate. Unsurprisingly, given the current market conditions, it is suspected that the current delays are due to financial concerns rather than the official reason that they require more work before implementation.

“The green codes in Dubai are being held off for the moment, apparently until September, because of the economy but I’m sure they will reappear,” says White Young Green Gulf region managing director Keith Perry. “The Dubai regulations have gone backwards because at this time no one wants to do anything to upset investors.”

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