Sustainable Development and the Built Environment in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities

Karim Elgendy

In the western context, notions of sustainable development often refer to the need to adjust existing economic models in order to maintain better balances between economic growth and social needs, while protecting local ecologies and reducing the negative impact of growth on the global environment.

In the developing world, however, sustainable development takes on a rather different meaning. With the agendas of developing nations focused on addressing basic developmental challenges such as economic growth, water scarcity, food security, and health, other environmental and social aspects are considered secondary at best and for the most part a luxury that a developing nation cannot afford.

The Environment and the Middle East – Pathways to Sustainability – Volume 1.

In the absence of functioning economic models in the developing world, sustainable development here is not about adjustments to maintain balances. Instead, it is about using this economical tabula rasa to build the foundations of a new economic model in which sustainability and the environment are integral. One of these economical foundations is the built environment.

The built environment of our cities plays a major role in shaping the way we live and work, and given its relatively long lifespan its impact is long lasting. Our buildings determine how much energy we use to maintain thermal comfort while our infrastructures determine how much energy we need for transportation. It is estimated that 40% of carbon emissions worldwide is produced from the occupation of buildings with at least a portion of transportation’s 20% share being a consequence of the way our cities are planned.

Our built environment also influences our impact on the local environment as well as our collective health and wellbeing. Thus, as the cities of the developing world continue to grow, they continue to make decisions about the direction their development takes.

In the Middle East, the role of the built environment is becoming more pronounced as the region continues to experience rapid population increases and urbanization. Increased urban densities together with the rise of consumerism, have not only led to an increase in environmental degradation locally, but they have also meant that the region’s traditionally low energy use — and consequently carbon emissions– are set to rise and to play a larger role in global climate change.

But embracing sustainable development in the Middle East faces many challenges which prevent it from becoming part of the region’s development framework and its building industry practices.

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The State of Egypt’s Sustainability Agenda

Karim Elgendy

Two weeks ago, The English version of a leading Egyptian daily published an opinion piece on entitled “Our local ‘green’ agenda.” In his article, the author made a number of intriguing arguments that suggest that Egypt has a unique environmental agenda and a set of sustainability priorities that are different from the predominant global ones.  He also suggests that imported ‘green’ concepts fail to take into consideration ingrained conservationist behaviors that already exist in Egypt.

While I agree that each country must develop a local approach to sustainability which responds to its specific socio-economic and environmental needs, I found many of the author’s arguments to lack sufficient context, and was therefore concerned that the article could potentially result in an inaccurate representation of the state of sustainability in Egypt.

Cairo's Old City. Copyrights: Karim Elgendy

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Dubai Experiments with Sustainable Development

Karim Elgendy

Throughout the last three decades, the city of Dubai has not been known for its emphasis on sustainability as guiding principles for its development. Not only did it adopt an unnatural rate of growth by middle eastern and global standards, it has also long disregarded the environmental and social consequences of its rapid urbanization. Dubai’s growth relied on -and was economically fueled by- a development model which imported inappropriate and inefficient building forms and planted them in its extreme climate. The result was a 1,500 square miles city (3,885 square kilometers) with isolated island buildings that are not only divorced from their environments, but which also require a great amount of fossil fuel energy to remain habitable.

Image 1. Aerial View of Xeritown showing massing and landscaping. Copyrights: X-Architects and SMAQ

The city of Dubai also has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in the world, and even though this footprint is partially a result of energy intensive water desalination processes on which the city relies for its potable water, Dubai’s carbon footprint remains higher than that of other gulf cities including Saudi cities which also rely greatly on desalination.

In many ways, it is fair to argue that the Dubai’s model of development has been, in essence, the antithesis of sustainable development over the last three decades. In other words, Dubai has come to represent the climax of an obsolete development model in which humans attempted to subjugate their environment rather than coexist with it.

In contrast to this un-sustainable development pattern, Dubai’s neighboring city of Abu Dhabi has long adopted a measured and less extravagant development model. Over the same three decades, Abu Dhabi’s development model was generally characterized with a more sustainable pace of development. In the last few years, Abu Dhabi has been attempting to champion sustainable development in the Middle East by establishing a sustainability oriented framework for its development over the next 20 years, and by establishing the Masdar initiative which includes the world’s most progressive sustainable city project at its outskirts with ambitious zero-energy and zero-waste targets.

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KAUST: A Sustainable Campus in Saudi Arabia

Karim Elgendy

UPDATED – The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) at Thuwal (near Jeddah) in Saudi Arabia was recently announced as one of the winners of the American Institute of Architects’ Top 10 Green Buildings awards for 2010.

The new international graduate-level research university was established by the government-owned Aramco, the world’s largest energy corporation, to drive innovation in science and technology and to support world-class research in areas such as energy and the environment. The campus project was designed by HOK Architects and was completed in September 2009.

KAUST’s new campus is Saudi Arabia’s first LEED certified project earning a Platinum certification, the highest rating in the United States’ green building rating system At 496,000 Square meters, the project also represents the world’s largest LEED Platinum project.

Image 1. Night view. Copyrights J. Picoulet and HOK

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Comparing Estidama’s Pearls Rating System to LEED and BREEAM

Karim Elgendy

UPDATED – In April 2010 the Estidama program of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council partially released the first version of its rating system suite, The Pearls Rating System for Estidama. The release included the design and construction portions of the the rating system suite which includes rating systems for buildings, villas, and neighborhoods.

Prior to its release Estidama has occasionally referred to the upcoming system as one that learns from its established predecessors, the British BREEAM rating system and the American LEED rating system (BREEAM stands for British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, and LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The decision to learn from these rating systems was not only to learn from their mistakes but also to help create a system whose requirements are familiar to the market. On the other hand, the Estidama program asserted that the Pearls Rating System would not be a direct copy of either systems given the environmental and cultural differences of the Emirates

Given the debates that exist amongst practitioners and researchers on both sides of the Atlantic on the merits, shortcomings, and differences between BREEAM and LEED. An analysis of Estidama’s Pearls Rating System in comparison to these two established rating systems was necessary. The first version of the Pearls Rating System for Estidama will be compared to the latest version of the LEED rating system, LEED 3.0 (also known as LEED 2009), and the latest update of the BREEAM rating system, BREEAM 2008.

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The State of Energy Efficiency Policies in Middle East Buildings

Karim Elgendy

Energy use in buildings accounts globally for nearly 40% of global energy consumption and 36% of total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. These percentages are almost equally split in two halves between the industrialized countries and the rest of the world (Price et al., 2005).

Our buildings use energy in two ways; first, to keep our interior environment comfortable through cooling, ventilation, and heating our spaces; second, to power the appliances that we have come to depend on such as home appliances, lighting systems,computers, and other office equipments.  To reduce this high percentage of energy use and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions, both sources of energy use in buildings must be addressed. The first energy use can be addressed by improving the building envelope’s efficiency in order to reduce the need to condition its spaces (cooling, heating, and ventilating). This method of conserving energy use includes a vast array of passive low energy design strategies that depend on the building’s environment and context. The second energy use can be addressed by improving the efficiency of appliances and equipment used inside buildings including improving the efficiency of lighting and dissemination of improved stoves for cooking in rural areas. Continue reading The State of Energy Efficiency Policies in Middle East Buildings

Masdar City Masterplan Reviewed

Masdar City Masterplan. Copyright Masdar, Foster+Partners

When Masdar City was first announced in 2007 by the Masdar Initiative, it claims that, when completed, it will become the world’s first zero carbon, zero waste development, while maintaining the highest quality of living. Foster + Partners and a team of environmental consultants including WSP and Transsolar have been appointed by Masdar to design the masterplan and the first stage of the project which broke ground in February 2008.

Masdar City’s Master plan is claimed to “meet and exceed” the principals of One Planet Living (OPL), a set of ten guiding principles of sustainability, proposed in a joint initiative by WWF, the global conservation organization and Bioregional Development, whereby everyone lives within their fair share of the Earth’s resources. The principles include Zero Carbon, Zero Waste, Sustainable transport, Sustainable materials, Sustainable water, and Sustainable culture and heritage.

The project also comes in the context of a rapidly increasing population and an economic boom in Abu Dhabi which -, together with new laws opening the emirate’s real estate to the free market- led to speculation  and a housing shortage estimated in 2008 to between 35,000 and 50,000 dwelling units. This shortage has prompted the state to allocate billions for the construction of residential buildings, especially for foreign workers and western expatriates. This housing shortage has also resulted in rising house prices, which led to discussion of legislations that would introduce a 20 per cent quota for low-income housing in future developments.

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