Oversizing is hurting the GCC's sustainability plans

Oversizing is hurting the GCC's sustainability plans
Published: 17 June 2017 - 11:30 p.m.
By: Fatima De La Cerna

The Dubai Chamber of Commerce head office building in Deira has attained a somewhat legendary status in the UAE’s green building community, being the first in the Middle East to achieve the LEED Existing Building Operations and Maintenance (EBOM) rating in 2013 – and certified at platinum level at that.

More than the rating, however, the story of how Dubai Chamber transformed its head office from being a water- and energy-hungry structure to one of the most sustainable buildings in the region, netting million-dollar savings along the way, is what has caught people’s attention.

Jagath Gunawardena, Dubai Chamber’s senior manager for projects and building development, and the champion of its sustainability agenda, said that one of the measures the organisation implemented to improve the building’s efficiency was to address the problem of oversized mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) components.

The issue of oversizing is not uncommon, and is not limited to MEP – attend any conference or seminar on energy efficiency and it’s bound to come up, with sustainability and energy-management experts pointing out that consultants are guilty of over-specifying because they buffer or round up their measurements in the design stage, to avoid the risk of undersizing. This fear of making a mistake, it must be noted, afflicts not only consultants, but also other industry stakeholders.

Explaining why the independent power producer (IPP) model works, Paddy Padmanathan, CEO and president of ACWA Power, told Construction Week that the private sector is better at keeping costs down than the public sector.

“No matter where in the world, when governments buy, they buy expensive,” he said, adding: “Part of it has to do with not wanting to make a mistake, so they over-specify.”

In the field of geotechnics, a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude has resulted in over-dimensioned foundations in the UAE, something that was noted by Prof Rolf Katzenbach, director of the Institute and the Research Laboratory for Geotechnics at TU Darmstadt, and Prof Harry Poulos, senior consultant at Coffey, during a recent geotechnics conference held in Dubai.

An over-dimensioned foundation means “more use of concrete, and that means more carbon emissions”, said Poulos. Needless to say, the use of more concrete would also mean higher construction costs.

This concern for safety is, of course, commendable, and is in no way being discouraged. However, are the construction industry and its related sectors really just looking at an either/or scenario? Are they limited to only two options – safe or sustainable? Reliable or economical?

Going by what Gunawardena and Padmanathan have achieved in their respective fields, and based on the points that Poulos and Katzenbach have raised, the answer would have to be no.

“I think we’re at the stage now where we are able to develop more economical designs, which will cut down the cost without compromising safety, as well as increase the sustainability of the foundations and the structures,” Poulos pointed out.

He might have been referring to advancements in the geotechnical sector, but there’s no reason his observation cannot be applied to the industry as a whole.

While construction professionals are not being advised to throw caution to the wind, the industry and all its stakeholders would benefit if engineers were to take a step back and assess whether the way they do things is actually the best way.

With governments in the UAE and the rest of the GCC member states placing greater emphasis on energy efficiency, reduced carbon emissions, sustainable cities, and green economies, construction companies cannot afford to be left behind by competitors just because they’d rather play it safe.

After all, the Middle East is a competitive market – one where “you only have the right to make a profit”, as Padmanathan put it, “if you add value, or if you take [on] and manage risks”.

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