Dubai is tackling its poor environmental image with a stronger line on sustainability

When it comes to energy use, Dubai is famous for its guzzling. This doesn't make for a happy contrast with neighbour Abu Dhabi, which basks in a warm green glow generated by plans to build the zero-carbon city, Masdur. This city will be based on traditional Arab design, with narrow streets creating shade, no cars and all energy provided by photovoltaic arrays in the desert. Dubai, by contrast, goes for fiercely air-conditioned, high-rise buildings separated by traffic-jammed freeways.

But are things as bad in Dubai as they seem? Let's take a look at the state of environmental legislation in Dubai and what is being done to improve the energy performance of all those new buildings planned for the city.

Dubai construction waste
Credit: Paul Keller

Contrary to what people might think, Dubai has had regulations governing building energy performance for 10 years. Called Decree 66, the legislation covers building envelope performance and is described by Richard Smith, Atkins technical director for the Middle East and India, as better than UK regulations when it comes to solar and thermal performance. The problem is that it only addresses the facade. “It doesn't address any of the broader issues in Part L, such as lighting and services efficiency, or other issues like biodiversity,” he says.

Stung by negative comparisons with his neighbouring emirate, Dubai's leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced that from this January buildings had to be constructed according to international sustainable building standards. The problem is that Sheikh Mohammed didn't specify whether the environmental assessment standard to be used was LEED, BREEAM or Greenstar, nor did he say what rating developers had to achieve.

In practice, standards vary wildly across Dubai. Build on any land controlled by Dubai World, the investment company that controls large parts of Dubai and owns developers including Nakheel, and all buildings must achieve 29 compulsory LEED credits, many of which cover energy and water use. Smith says that these add up to a building a notch short of a LEED silver rating. Tecom, which controls Dubai Internet City, has another set of requirements. And all areas are subject to controls by Dubai Municipality, which requires compliance with Decree 66.

Dubai Construction workers
Credit: Paul Keller

Another complicating factor is that energy suppliers can limit the supply, forcing developers to build more efficient buildings. Smith says: “You can say to the power company that you need 120W/m2 and they turn round and say 'Sorry, you can only have 80W/m2.' They are starting to realise spending money on energy saving is better than building new power plants. It's a very efficient way of controlling environmental design.”

Greater clarity could come soon in the form of new green building regulations that Dubai Municipality is working on, to give teeth to Sheikh Mohammed's pronouncement. In June, it introduced a stopgap set of simple measures, such as stipulating maximum flow rates on taps and the use of thermostats to control temperature room by room. “It could be argued this was a significant improvement on what went before, but not great by Western standards,” says Smith. No date has been set for the new Dubai Municipality legislation.

How tough the new regulations will be is also open to question. Smith thinks they will demand fairly high standards. “I believe they will be quite demanding, but these have to be viable and acceptable in the local culture,” he says.

When it comes to the crunch, will developers comply? Smith believes that they will, saying simply: “The Middle East is well known for making people comply with the law.”

Contrary to what people might think, Dubai has had regulations governing building energy performance for 10 years

However, Jeff Willis, Arup's Middle East liaison manager and the leader of the Emirates Green Building Council technical committee, thinks the big developers will comply but is doubtful about the smaller players. “It will impact a lot on the smaller consultants and contractors; it depends on how the regulations are policed and what the sanctions are for not complying.”

Willis adds that Arup recently assessed a building for a buyer that was completed last year. “The standard of that was terrible,” he says. “This was a recent building that was bad from the thermal, facade and air-tightness point of view.”

Despite the challenges, Smith and Willis are both optimistic about Dubai becoming a more environmentally friendly place. Willis says things move fast in Dubai - for example, developers are now taking a longer-term view on payback periods for greener buildings. “Five years ago, developers wouldn't have accepted a payback period longer than six months,” he says. “The big developers are now looking at 12 years.”

Smith says that Dubai is making a valiant attempt and believes it will get there, even if it is not yet clear how. “It's this amazingly evolving thing; we know the direction it's going in but we don't where we are going to end up,” he says. Which is Dubai all over.

“Greater clarity could come soon in the form of new green building regulations from Dubai Municipality to give teeth to Sheikh Mohammed's pronouncement”