In 2006 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Massive fossil fuel consumption resulted in the production of huge volumes of carbon dioxide.
This, combined with a heavy reliance on water desalination, led the World Wildlife Fund to rank the UAE as the country with the worst ecological footprint per capita in the world.
The Emirates' rulers did not like this at all.
Two years later and the UAE's two largest states – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – have already introduced new green building standards. Dubai began by issuing a decree that all new buildings must take sustainable design into account from 1 January 2008.
In the UAE's capital Abu Dhabi the Estidama system – sustainable in Arabic – was introduced in May. "When the ruler of Dubai decreed that all buildings must take green criteria into account it made green building design compulsory almost overnight," explains WSP managing director of environment and energy Brent Ridgard.
Although the region is new to the philosophy of green building design, it is learning fast. "I was on stage at a meeting three or four years ago and talked about using less energy, I was almost booed off. But the learning curve here is almost vertical. Things change. It is an interesting time," says Atkins technical director for sustainability Richard Smith.
Smith is also vice president of the Emirates Green Buildings Council.
"The region has moved from extreme scepticism. In the past paying the fuel bills was not an issue – producing a building at an economic price was. But things are changing," he says.
Clearly, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have made significant progress over the past few months, albeit using different approaches.
Abu Dhabi has introduced an extremely prescriptive system with its own assessment method.
Buildings will earn a "pearl" rating depending on their green credentials.
Under the pearl rating system, each of 10 environmental variables is awarded credits. For example, a developer can gain 30 credits for reducing potable water demand and improving water efficiency.
Credits can also be obtained for energy efficiency, using local materials and efficient waste management.
Each category has a maximum score and the maximums for all of the categories added together total 100.
When a development has obtained ratings for all of the categories, they are added up and the total expressed as a percentage.
Pearls are then awarded according to the percentage rating. One pearl equates to a rating of between 35% and 45%, two pearls equate to ratings of between 45% and 55% and so on.
Dubai is opting for a less prescriptive approach. It plans to let designers choose the standard they consider most appropriate, for example locally amended versions of the United States Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system or the UK Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). Both award credits and give ratings.
"There are lots of standards. These are all voluntary and I hope the authorities don't choose a specific standard. Some US cities, for example, have stipulated 'use LEED' but the Middle East is different," says Smith.
"The challenge is to create new buildings and develop land with urban infrastructure that will add ecological value and achieve the right balance between economic, environmental and social values.
"The main thing is for the design to achieve a stable series of processes that can be understood and practiced by all."
Two of Dubai's largest government bodies: Dubai Municipality, which is responsible for most building approvals; and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), are currently working on a set of regulations that developers must comply with.
"DEWA and Dubai Municipality have commissioned us for the green buildings project which is focused around regulations development. We are creating the regulatory environment not specifying the system developers will have to follow," says Ridgard.
The regulations will be introduced as a tiered system with a minimum requirement being set as compulsory from the start of next year. Initially developers can meet more stringent requirements should they wish to, but over time the system will evolve so that toughest requirements will become compulsory.
"We will have the final product ready by early November. It will then go to the client for approval and will come into effect from 1 January, 2009. It is a very challenging time frame," says Ridgard.
What the regulations will ask for is so far undecided.
"The main focus of the green standards is conservation of water and required energy consumption. The target is to reduce both of these by half – which could possibly be achieved in the long-term. One third is more reasonable in the short-term," says Smith.
Engineers in the region are already implementing design changes that will make buildings more efficient. "We have started specifying local materials such as clay for internal wall finishes," says Buro Happold sustainable and alternative technologies consultant Jane Boyle. "There is plenty of clay available in this part of the world, particularly in Saudi Arabia."
Steel is also popular with designers because of its recycling potential. "There are quite a lot of steel processing plants in the region and as a result some engineers are specifying stainless steel cladding, which is good as it can have a high recycled content. Aluminium is not so good as much of it is not recycled."
Developers have already begun incorporating energy efficient techniques in their buildings, as has been done by Emaar in its Lake Hotel project. Engineers also point to new buildings such as the Lighthouse Tower as structures that use passive design, which involves creating efficiency through optimising the building orientation and creating natural shading. As such they let light in without heat, and have good levels of thermal insulation and natural ventilation.
In addition to such design techniques and specifying local materials, research to help designers
better understand new technologies is also underway.
Atkins is working with the British University in Dubai to test materials such as photovoltaic cells. "We are trying to understand the photovoltaic market better," says Smith. "We don't know how they really work in the Middle East. Architects want to integrate them into buildings so we have to get our hands dirty and do rig tests in this environment. We want real data and tools for our architects and engineers to use."
Other initiatives being investigated by Atkins include its chilled surfaces project where plastic is embedded into concrete, and water running through it keeps surfaces cool.
Other Gulf states are watching the UAE closely, ready to follow their lead. According to Smith, Qatar is setting up its own council.
"I suspect all Gulf states will," he says. This means that professionals with experience of sustainable design will be in demand in the region for some time to come.
"We really are on the cusp of exciting times with green building design," says Ridgard. "The region has learned a lot from the international community and is creating better environmental legislation. It's an exciting place to be."
GREEN BUILDINGS CONSTRUCTED THE ABU DHABI WAY
Energy Use 20
Indoor Environmental Quality 15
Waste Management 5
Land Use 2.5
Pearl ratings awarded according to the sum of the above scores expressed as percentage
35 1 Pearl
45 2 Pearl
55 3 Pearl
65 4 Pearl
75 + 5 Pearl