The number of green buildings in Persian Gulf countries is steadily rising
With massive steel Sidra trees sprouting from the base of the building and a nine meter high sculpture of a spider in the lobby protecting a sack of grey and white eggs, Qatar National Convention Center is hard to ignore. But it’s what most visitors don’t see that may become the building’s lasting legacy in a region far better known for over-the-top excesses than conservation.
From the sustainably logged wood used in its construction to the 3,500 sq. m of solar panels on the roof, the building designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki is considered one of the most environmentally sound convention centres in the world.
“We want to change people’s mindsets,” said Ali al Khalifa, CEO, Astad Project Management, which oversaw the construction, as he led a visitor through an exhibition hall where dozens of ceiling windows helped cut down on electricity. It will take centre-stage in November when it hosts the U.N. Climate Change Conference, the first to be held by a top oil producing country.
Green buildings would seem an oddity in this tiny Gulf nation which has plenty of oil and gas and, according to the International Energy Agency, the highest per capita emissions in the world, closely followed by Gulf neighbours Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. But attitudes about energy use are changing across the Gulf. There is a growing recognition that the once seemingly limitless fossil fuels will some day run out.
Buildings are a logical place to start. They consume up to 70 per cent of energy in parts of the Gulf compared to 40 per cent worldwide due to the preponderance of glass skyscrapers and brutally hot conditions. These nations have come late to the green building movement, lagging far behind the US, Europe and Asia in building structures that emit fewer emissions and consume less water.
Now, the Persian Gulf countries are leading with the number of buildings that are under construction and trying to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificates. There are 1,348 LEED-registered buildings in the region, which surpasses all but Asia and the US.
One step further
Dubai in the UAE is home to one of the region’s first green shopping malls and is building an eco-friendly mosque in 2013. On the outskirts of capital Abu Dhabi, the government-run Masdar Institute has built the first phase of a pre-planned city that aims to be powered by renewable sources including solar.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia appear to have even bigger ambitions. In Doha, work started in 2010 on Msheireb Downtown Doha, which promises to be the world’s largest sustainable community with 100 buildings using an average of a third less energy.
In Saudi Arabia, authorities have applied for LEED certification for the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, which will be home to the country’s stock exchange. The nation’s first LEED-certified project, the 26-building campus of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in 2009 and recycles all its wastewater, uses 27 per cent less energy than a typical campus and was built with 20 per cent recycled content.
Most of these green buildings rely on 21st century solutions to reduce their footprint: high-tech operating systems that ration electricity and power, additional insulation, thicker glass to reduce external heat, and designs that orient the structure to limit sun exposure. But, as the university campus shows, the region is also tapping technologies that are centuries old to solve its energy problems. There are wind towers and lattice-like shading on windows known as mashrabiya and a tent-inspired roof system that blocks the sun and extends throughout the campus. “When we start a project, we research what people built in this location before they had electricity. How did they keep buildings warm or cool?” said Bill Odell, Sr V-P, HOK Architects, who designed the campus. “All these ideas we took out of traditional Islamic architecture.”
The future looks fresh
The challenge now, experts say, is to go beyond a handful of high-profile projects and apply green building practices to the bulk of Gulf construction, including low-rise office towers and residential projects. To do that, governments have to make green building codes compulsory and provide greater incentives to developers.
The other hurdle is sourcing building materials locally, which can cut down on emissions from transportation of material like steel, cement and wood. Today, almost everything is imported.
Those were among the challenges Qatar faced when it set out to design the exposition centre that finally met LEED’s Gold certification. It went as far as Belgium and South Korea to get environmentally-certified wood, steel and glass. This increased the initial cost and contributed to additional carbon emissions from shipping but in the end helped ensure the building produces 32 per cent less energy than a comparable convention centre.