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How our Green Building Councils are influencing the region’s construction industry

Around the world there are more than 90 Green Building Councils representing different countries. In the Middle East green building councils are one of the most influential NGOs at government level and BGreen had the opportunity to speak to four of them: UAE, KSA, Qatar and Tunisia – each country presents unique challenges associated with sustainable building.

Panelists (also left to right on picture)

Dr Mohammed Alhaj Hussein, honorary board member, Saudi Green Building Council (SGBC)

Engineer Meshal Al Shamari, ‎Director, Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC)

Saeed Al Abbar, Vice Chairman, Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC)

Rym Baouendi, Founding Member, Tunisia Green Building Council (TGBC)

Interviewer: Gary Wright, senior editor BGreen.

Could you tell us about the green building scenario in your respective countries?

Saeed Al Abbar: The Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) has grown to 130 corporate members who are involved or have a stake in sustainable buildings. We work closely with government departments developing and rolling out their building codes. We conduct technical workshops where we bring multi-disciplinary experts together to tackle some of the challenges that are being faced in the industry and the solutions are published as technical papers. We have also developed technical guidelines to help improve the performance of buildings.

EGBC has played a significant role in developing regulations for the new construction market. Today, availability of green building materials and equipment and skills is no longer a challenge. A lot of the suppliers have realised they need to stock these materials in order to survive in the industry. The awareness and expertise of professionals in the industry has grown tremendously. Our workshops, training seminars and conferences have definitely contributed in bringing about this positive scenario.

Rym Baouendi: The Tunisia Green Building Council is a ‘baby’ compared to other councils in the Middle East. We were set up in 2012 as an NGO. We have been holdings events, technical seminars and training to spread awareness about green buildings in Tunisia’s construction industry. We have also been talking to government organisations to understand how we can influence policy. At the same time, Tunisia enjoys a great track record when it comes to energy efficiency and renewable energy but we haven’t looked at green buildings in a more holistic way. This is something that the green building council intends to address. For us the opportunity is not only about transforming the green building sector but also about creating employment and economic opportunities in the country especially in these tough times of transition.

Dr Mohammed Alhaj Hussein: The Saudi Green Building Council (SGBC) was established in 2008. Since then, we have conducted as well as participated in various workshops in the region and outside. As a result of these exchanges, our help was sought by Yemen to establish their own Green Building Council. We were also consulted by Russian authorities to help change building codes in the country.

The green building scenario in Saudi Arabia is an evolving one. Our rulers have always supported sustainable development. But misconceptions about green buildings remain, and the reasons are not far to seek. For example, there are over 71 projects worth several billions of riyals registered for LEED certification, but only two or three projects have been certified. During a meeting with one of the ministries, the officials told us they don’t like green buildings because it costs more, citing a university project which cost SR10 billion to build but its solar power plant cost SR40 billion. One of the attendees at the meeting pointed out that a green building project is 50% more expensive while in Jordan or US, it is usually between 1-3%.

Today, we are spending around $25 billion a year on concrete and corrosion repair at many projects in Saudi, including the greenest project. One of the reasons of increased corrosion cost being that the consultants had used the wrong type of cement in the raft foundation, which is surround by soil and underground water that had very  aggressive chloride environment. In another meeting, consultants appointed by the Ministry of Housing were asking us which standard to follow – LEED or BREEAM?

The Riyadh Development Commission had decided to go with Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS) developed by Gulf Organisation for R&D (GORD) to meet Qatar’s built environment requirements. They are modifying parts of the code, like local sourcing, to Saudi Arabia’s needs. In fact, construction industry in Saudi Arabia can benefit immensely by using our natural pozzolan. Additionally, they can benefit from accessing GSAS experts who are available locally instead of hiring LEED consultants from the US, for example.

Whether it is Doha, Dubai or Jeddah, issues related to salt, chloride, sulphate or UV are the same; the soil is the same; we have many things common so it is better to have a standard that suits our weather and environment.

A recent development that strengthens the green building movement is the mandatory requirement for thermal insulation for new construction.  Otherwise, you cannot get electrical connection. Also, you cannot have a residential compound unless you have a grey water treatment. SGBC has recommended the use of natural, eco-friendly heat insulation in place of materials like polystyrene and Styrofoam as during a fire these can prove toxic to human lives. Major projects announced so far include the Riyadh Metro, King Abdullah Financial Centre, King Abdullah Sports City and Extension of Jeddah Airport to name a few. There exists a huge opportunity to use green building materials in these projects.

Engineer Meshal Al Shamari: Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) was officially launched as an NGO in 2011 and is supported by Qatar Foundation.  We focus mainly on education, training and research to drive the green building movement in Qatar. Thanks to our efforts, awareness about green buildings has improved in Qatar over the last two years. In fact, where Qatar is concerned, sustainability is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to other countries. Winning the right to host the FIFA World Cup 2022 has certainly helped. The growth in awareness is seen in both public and private sectors.

LEED was first used in Qatar in 2006; in 2011, Qatar and the Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD) launched GCAS. I believe that GSAS gave a different shape to sustainability in Qatar. While the government favours GSAS, we have adopted a neutral stand as we deem it to be a strategic decision of the project developer. Of the nine world cup stadiums, the nine constructed by the government are GSAS while the one constructed by Qatar Foundation is LEED. We like to see that kind of diversity in the market to avoid a monopoly situation for any single rating system.

On the research front, QGBC is partnering with Texas A&M University to evaluate energy performance between two high-rise buildings – a LEED Gold Certified tower and a conventional tower. We have also implemented the first Passivhaus pilot in Qatar. We have collaborated with International Sustainability Alliance to launch a benchmarking system which will enable comparison of building performance within Qatar.

We are doing research with Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) in collaboration with UK’s Building Research Establishment. We have submitted five bids for different kind of projects. Through one of our board members, we have proposed the idea of an Innovation Park to test new materials introduced into the region. We get so many materials that are mainly certified in the US and Europe but when you test them, they are unable to sustain their characteristics.

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE have resources that can be used in Qatar. Such sourcing is more sustainable. If a building material producer finds good demand for green products, they will be happy to make start making the products here.  In fact, QGBC will be launching an online Green Products Directory in May.

The supreme committee for FIFA World Cup has a sustainability department to ensure sustainable World Cup. They want to see what can be produced for 2022 in the region and within Qatar, and are encouraging manufacturers and investors to come to the country to develop industry. There will be demand within Qatar and the region up to 2022 and beyond that as well. Their target is to have a zero carbon event from all aspects.

How can the region ensure that it doesn’t repeat past mistakes?

Al Shamari: For the Asian Games in 2006, we started construction in 2004 but it was not planned properly so the quality was very bad and huge costs had to be incurred. We are trying to avoid making the same mistakes with regard to the FIFA World Cup. There is also this concept called Dubaisation. Back in 2000, everybody wanted to be like Dubai with gleaming skyscrapers, great airport etc. Now even Dubai is trying to get back to its roots by blending the traditional with the modern. That’s an important learning.

Alhaj Hussein: I think the tendency to rush projects through compressing the project time schedules needs to be curbed as this leads to compromises on the quality materials and construction standards.

How closely do the different green building councils in the region work with each other?

Al Abbar: Three years ago, we established World Green Building Council MENA network to serve as a framework for collaboration between the councils so that we are not reinventing the wheel. The objective is to collaborate, share ideas and move forward together. We have a steering committee of established councils in the region; Tunisia is working with WGBC to help develop their green building council.

Rym: Green building councils are organisations driven by impact. By sharing resources and knowledge, we can progress faster. There is a lot of diversity in the Middle East. In Tunisia’s case, we may not have as many certified green buildings according to international systems but we have started to make progress from a technical standpoint.

How would you rate green building awareness in Tunisia?

Rym: In Tunisia, I would say that awareness is still a challenge because we don’t look at green buildings in a holistic way. If you say energy efficient building, that’s easily understood but the same is not the case for a green building in all its aspects, whether it is environmental quality or even materials. We have silos of excellence that we have to unite some-how.

It seems that the question is often whether we need regulation or education – the bottom line can be regulation

Al Shamari: In Qatar, influencing the green development has to be done in two ways – regulation and education. Water and electricity is free for Qataris, free for government buildings and highly subsidised for expats. Here regulation has to go hand in hand with education. Relying solely in education will not work as it will take a longer time. It will take us nearly 10 years to educate the new generation on the importance sustainability.

How do you propose to reach out to the young people who may have become habituated to a comfortable lifestyle? Do you think sustainability would appeal to them?

Al Shamari: There is a sustainability education programme in place for schools but the problem is that it is not practised in the homes. In Europe and other countries, sustainability is part of your life whether it segregation of daily waste or paying monthly utility bills. If you asked a Qatari how much he spends every month or consumes every month, he won’t know.

However, KAHRAMAA has launched a national programme for the conservation and efficient use of water and electricity called Tarsheed. But even here, KAHRAMAA is not permitted to send bills, for example, to schools.  We have recommended that KAHRAMAA should provide monthly bills so that consumers could monitor their consumption and take appropriate steps. Moreover, residents and nationals could be informed about the actual cost of electricity and water versus the subsidised rates in their utility bills like Abu Dhabi has pioneered.

Al Abbar: In the UAE, we pay close to tariff rate, and particularly in Dubai, there is no subsidy except for locals. Because of the subsidies there has been a tradition of wasteful attitude to utilities but a lot of that is starting to change. Despite the wasteful culture, what you also have in the Gulf countries is a huge amount of national pride. This is being tapped by groups like the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) who have combined national pride with environmental protection.

That has a lot of impact, like the Abu Dhabi billing system where people can see the amount of money the government has spent on them through subsidises, money that could have been spent in hospitals, schools, infrastructure. That message needs to come up more and more, and with that, we will start to see a lot of changes in behaviour which is definitely still needed.

Rym: The drivers are different. In the more developing countries of MENA, the green building movement is driven by efficiency, economy and cost considerations. Here in the GCC, it seems like it is coming from mainly from the government. They can see the value as they are actually paying for the energy. That’s why you find government-driven programmes like ESTIDAMA more here than anywhere else.

Should regulations be backed by incentives?

Alhaj Hussein: Saudi Arabia has regulations like the mandatory thermal insulation but this is not backed by incentives like in Qatar or in the US, where in some states, you can get up to 10% reduction in building permit fees depending on building performance. In Jordan, installing thermal insulation fetches you 10% more extra area or 50% reduction in building permit fees.

Al Shamari: Lusail City has mandated GSAS for all its buildings. However, GSAS goes all the way from one star to six stars. To encourage developers to adopt GSAS, they were told that they could get more built up area for more stars. As a result, everybody aimed for the maximum as they got 15% extra built up area with the extra income that comes with that. Such incentives encourage developers to go green otherwise, they won’t be interested. This concept is being extended to two other areas as well.

Al Abbar: Some master plans in Dubai had incorporated such incentives years ago but I am not sure if that exists any more. The UAE is a regulation-driven market. Even if there is always some resistance to regulation, it doesn’t last too long.

Rym: It is not only regulation in the UAE; it is also competition.

While competition could be a factor, building owners or contractors are always looking at the bottom line which can be a hurdle to implementing green building concepts.

Al Abbar: Dubai is different from other emirates in the UAE and other countries in the region. In the private sector, buildings are developed for investors. When a building goes up in Dubai, even before it gets off the ground, probably a 100 investors would have signed on to it.  To raise the awareness of an average investor buying an apartment is a challenge. They are not sophisticated like big developers who have experience in numerous developments and know what works. It is difficult to get through them so some type of regulation is needed. On the commercial side (but not so much on residential side), we have observed that developers are able to attract more investment if they are going in for certification. What we are seeing is zero cost premium for going from standard Class A offices to LEED gold.

Alhaj Hussein: With regard to green buildings, compared to the progress made by Dubai and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has started relatively late. Dubai even has a laboratory for approving green building products.

Do the councils influence the government, do governments talk to each other?

Al Shamari: Even within the governmental authorities, we need to do more communication. Often we see different stakeholders doing their own thing or competing with each other leading to overlapping or even duplication of activities. We have therefore collaborated with KAHRAMAA and the Ministry of Environment to create a sustainability development forum which meets every three months and discuss each other’s activities. Now we have good communication with other ministries but things need to be organised better. There should be a green development or sustainable development forum in Qatar, which includes representatives from each ministry, the private sector, the NGO sector.  We will do well by collaborating together than by doing individual initiatives.

Rym: To achieve green building transformation, you have to do everything at the same time. I don’t think we should focus on just one area. That is where a green building council can play an important role; it is industry-driven, stakeholder-driven, it can balance different interests and come up with a vehicle that can advance the sector.

What we have done so far is talk to the professionals in this sector, create awareness, conduct education programmes and enable people to exchange their experiences.  That’s one initiative. The other one is to start communicating more with government agencies who are stakeholders in green buildings, work with them and expose them to experiences from abroad.

Do all of you look up to any particular country as an example to emulate?

Al Abbar: We look to all of them for different lessons. Jordan Green Building Council (JGBC) has done probably better than anyone in the world in terms of how to mobilise the society. They have done a lot of work in social media and get feedback from thousands of people. I don’t think any council has managed to achieve such a level of penetration, and EGBC is looking to learn from them. Qatar is doing great work on the research front, the Passivhaus pilot being a great example, and it is likewise with Saudi Arabia. We can also learn a lot from Tunisia’s socioeconomic work. There isn’t one specific country that you look up to; it is all different areas.

Rym: I think we should also look at it in terms of green building rating systems. Tunisia is an African Country, an Arab Country and European in outlook. Our market is influenced by all this diversity. We have good references around us coming from the GCC, South Africa and even Germany. We have to look at all these as they are relevant, process all the information and come up with something that is relevant to our context. We cannot just import something and use it, we have to make it useful.

Alhaj Hussein: We can learn from other countries as well. Construction waste is around 60% of total waste of the Dubai and is not entirely used. In Saudi Arabia, we don’t use most of the construction waste. SGBC is member of two committees in the US – ACI Committee 232 Fly Ash and Natural Pozzolans in Concrete and ACI 555 Concrete with Recycled Material. In Minnesota’s Interstate 35 highway, which has won many awards, they used 85% Pozzolan, 100% recycled aggregate and sand and 100% recycled water. There is silica in ceramics glass and even marble but with varying percentages. Many steel factories have tonnes of slag and don’t know how to deal with it. At local steel plants, we found 50% cement inside the slag material in the ground and 25% above. All these are available here and can be used here. 

What is it that you want to achieve in 2014?

Al Abbar: In the last few years, we have enjoyed a great level of success with bigger developers and government regulations have also come through. Where we haven’t been successful is the smaller buildings – existing villas, low-rise apartments where a lot of the resource consumption is taking place. They are one of the most challenging segments because you are not speaking to a handful of developers but to a large number of home owners, rental properties. In 2014, I would like to see good results in terms of the transformations we can do in that particular market.

Al Shamari: In 2013, our main focus was on education through monthly workshops and training programmes. From August, we also started focussing on top management and decision makers because whatever you do at the ground level, if not conveyed or driven from top, won’t be very effective. The end goal is not certification; it is to educate the top management about significance of green buildings from a financial standpoint as saves their money, gives them better reputation and more value for their assets. We will continuing with the programme in 2014 as well. Since regulation needs to go hand in hand with education, we are also increasing our communications with different ministries like the ministry of municipalities and the ministry of environment. Policy makers will make regulations if they are convinced of what we do and the aim behind that.

Rym: I think the success of a green building council comes from the community we can build around it. What we would like to see is start a strong community. In 2014, we will continue what we have doing in 2013 while emphasising on education, technical seminars and training. We will also supporting some of the government agencies who are considering developing a local rating system which we hope will co-exist with international rating systems.

Alhaj Hussein: When I visit ministries to talk about sustainability and green buildings, I have found that many of the people working there don’t know about green buildings. In 2014, we want to conduct more workshops and training to spread knowledge and awareness about green building practices in Saudi Arabia. I would also like to see more use of local products and local talent for green buildings. Another focus area would be increasing the number of members in SGBC.

 

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