Green for go: The private sector looks on with interest as the government focuses on sustainability

Building green has been part of the GCC market for some time. In the pre-financial-crisis days, before 2008, when buildings in the UAE were appearing rapidly, many developers highlighted their environmentally friendly credentials. However, in a period of such rapid growth, there was a concern that green talk was simply ephemera.

BEHAVIOUR CHANGE: A lack of awareness and inefficient use of resources at the household level is a major hurdle in Qatar’s drive to shift to a greener development path. The country currently has one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world. Furthermore, the rapid pace of growth combined with the need to import almost all goods and services has come at a tremendous environmental cost.

TAKING ACTION: However, Qatar is beginning to dispel the cynicism of those who questioned the sincerity of green moves. Sustainability has been placed at the forefront of the government’s vision for development, with the General Secretariat for Development Planning’s National Development Strategy 2011-16 setting out a plan that “balances economic growth and environmental protection. The overarching goal is a sustainable framework that assures future generations’ prosperity, but with a quality of life unconstrained by shortages or inherited ecological damage.”

The government has also established a number of bodies to deal with the challenge of sustainability. One of the most prominent is the Qatar National Food Security Programme, which has been charged with developing strategies to ensure the long-term viability of food production and imports in an increasingly hostile climate and a challenging topographical environment. “The main problem for domestic food production is the availability of water,” Patrick Linke, the managing director of the Qatar Sustainable Water and Energy Utilisation Initiative, told OBG. “The current practice is to use groundwater, but that is depleting fast. So using desalinated water is the key, but we have to look at ways to generate power in a sustainable way.”

A BROAD APPROACH: The fact that the state has placed such an emphasis on this body illustrates how seriously it is taking the issues of sustainability and the environment. Qatar has adopted a broad approach, targeting areas from the reduction of flaring in the hydrocarbons sector to better air quality monitoring and management to protecting biodiversity. However, there is much more that can be done.

“Environmental regulations currently seem to be very focused on the design phase of construction.

More emphasis needs to begin to reflect the next stages as the projects begin to advance,” said Steffen Pekrul, the senior project manager and head of business development at Hochtief Solutions, an international construction services firm.

BUILT ENVIRONMENT: One of the main components will be improving the sustainability of the built environment. The government is taking the lead in this by calling for a reconsideration of current urbanisation trends in Doha and the peninsula as a whole.

According to the National Development Strategy 2011-16, “Doha has grown exponentially, supported by a construction boom of striking contemporary buildings. But the capital lacks the benefits that urban green spaces provide. To continue Doha’s expansion without incorporating greenery and open spaces would increase Qatar’s sustainability challenges by a considerable margin.”

As such, the government has set the target of creating three car-free, tree-shaded corridors by 2016.

These will effectively be pedestrian routes that are protected by shade and greenery. The corridors will span residential, commercial and mixed-use areas.

Such developments will be important in a city that has hitherto seen very little green space or pedestrian-friendly development.

According to the commentary accompanying the strategy document, “A greener capital will support other environmental priorities. The addition of broad-canopied trees should help improve air quality by absorbing pollutants and trapping windblown sand and dust. Certain solid waste could be converted into compost and used as a planting base. In addition, the surplus water gathering in the city’s rising water table could be drawn down to maintain various green spaces.”

WATER: While grey water can help reduce the burden on groundwater for use in agriculture and maintaining the country’s green spaces, there may not be enough of it to meet the all needs. Ghassan Oueijan, the managing director of Al Nakheel Agriculture and Trade, told OBG that “The major challenge for landscaping is the availability of irrigation water. However, this is now starting to be resolved by the completion of treated sewage effluent projects, letting that water be used for irrigation purposes.”

The construction sector is in itself a large consumer of water. There are a number of initiatives to develop alternative sustainable sources of water to reduce the country’s dependence on carbon-intensive desalination technology. However, companies in Qatar are gradually developing technology solutions to improve sustainable outcomes, such as Khalid Cement Industries, which received Green Star certification from the National Ready Mix Concrete Association (NRMCA) in 2010. The company is also engaged in efforts to introduce building materials that help reduce carbon dioxide emission by 70%. The NRMCA’s Green Star recognises efforts to reduce environmental impacts in the construction sector.

LAND: Given the high land prices in the market, the government’s policy to buy up land for green public space rather than development is a significant investment. Such a move is likely to support strong land prices and please developers with a land bank. “The government has bought land for reallocation and has not built on it in order not to compete with other developers. They are keeping it as green space,” said Seraj Al Baker, the CEO of Mazaya Qatar Real Estate Development. As such, public policy and regulation on development should also complement private sector development.

Maintaining green spaces should also encourage greater building density, which will in turn support efficiencies in terms of land use and resource use. According to William Maibusch, a trustee for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Qatar, “Towers create urban density and help to reduce urban sprawl. You do pay a premium to go vertical, but you are bringing in a denser environment and not using utilities and streets further out. You can concentrate your resources in a more localised effort.” Such a concentrated effort can benefit sustainability in many ways, from more efficient use of resources to creating a culture and environment less dependent on travelling significant distances between locations. Maibusch said this notion is taking hold among many stakeholders in the construction and planning sectors. “Some of the future developments are recognising that you have to create an environment for the pedestrian all year round. It has to be thought through how you allow people to walk around and not stay indoors.” The government has taken the lead with its plans for green corridors, which should set a template for private developers.

GREEN BUILDINGS: The government is also leading the way on the more specific task of promoting green building practices. The most prominent example of this is the Qatar National Convention Centre developed by Qatar Foundation. The QR4.2bn ($1.2bn) project, which was completed in December 2011, has been awarded a gold standard under the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification programme for its environmental credentials. The 177,000-sq-metre centre has a 3600-sq-metre solar panel roof, which will supply around 12.5% of the project’s total energy needs.

The convention centre will put its green credentials on display when it hosts the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2012. Qatar also recently joined the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), which was initiated by South Korea and has grown to become a leader in green development. COP18 and GGGI will be important platforms for Qatar to share its own experience, innovations and leadership in green development.

TAILORED SYSTEM: Local conditions make some LEED standards difficult to implement, however. With this in mind, the government’s Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD) has put together the Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS), alongside training and outreach initiatives. GSAS, a green rating system, takes into account the Gulf’s specific economic, social and environmental factors, such as desertification concerns and land scarcity, to form an alternative to LEED. All government buildings are to meet GSAS standards by 2016, sending residential and commercial developers a strong message on the importance of sustainability. “Implementing sustainable building practices requires a holistic approach that tackles all barriers from different angles and gradual implementation,” Yousef Al Horr, the founder and chairman of GORD, told OBG. “The target to begin with is to ensure large projects and new government buildings adopt sustainable practices, while slowly phasing in enforcement to encompass the rest of the economy.”

Such energy efficiency will be crucial for Qatar’s future and its aim of reducing its carbon footprint and water usage. According to a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, residential and commercial buildings are responsible for around 40% of global primary energy use and 12% of global water consumption. In the harsh climate of the Arabian Peninsula, energy and water use for buildings has become a critical sustainability issue. The implementation of more robust green standards could have a significant impact in this regard. For example, the US Green Building Council estimates that green building reduces energy use by 30% on average, carbon emissions by 35% and water use by 30-50%. Gold standard LEED projects should help reduce energy their building’s consumption by 37% compared to conventional buildings. Turgut Dizdaroglu, the regional director of STFA Construction Group, underlined the importance of coordination given the speed with which projects are moving forward, saying, “Due to the number of projects coming up in Qatar, the planning and coordination between all the entities related to the construction field is really important as the projects for 2022 move forward.”

Qatar Foundation also hosts the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC), which was established as a membership-based organisation in 2009. The QGBC is mandated to “provide leadership and collaboration for Qatar in guiding and adopting environmentally sustainable practices for green building design and development, [and] support the health and sustainability of our environment, people and economic security for generations to come.” Recently, the organisation initiated a “Green Hotel Interest Group” drive to help members in the hospitality sector adopt green environmental practices to offset CO sions. It is also leading education and research initiatives through thematic groups.

GREEN GOAL: The government has also demonstrated its commitment to such initiatives and is backing many ambitious plans of developing sustainable infrastructure with significant investments. The most important development within the broader context of the construction sector is the ambition to host a carbon-neutral World Cup in 2022. Despite the intense summer heat, each stadium will be built with integrated technology and design solutions to reduce the carbon footprint. Seating areas and the pitch, for example, will be kept cool using innovative, environmentally friendly, carbon-neutral technology. Solar panels and other green energy sources will also be used to power cooling systems.

The World Cup is also accelerating plans to shift the transport sector towards less carbon-intensive systems. The country is starting to develop a multi-billion dollar integrated rail and metro network that will help move drivers off the road and ultimately reduce carbon emissions in the future.

FOLLOW MY LEED: It seems that many developers are beginning to follow the government’s push in building green. According to Khalid Klefeekh Al Hajri, board member and CEO of Qatar Solar Technologies, there is strong demand for solar panels for building development throughout the Qatari capital. “My expectation in the medium term is that we’ll be seeing solar used for electricity generation and energy efficiencies in many buildings. We’ll be producing the panels and installing them for domestic customers, both residential and commercial.”

The $5.5bn Msheireb project for the redevelopment of downtown Doha provides a good example of where this demand will come from. The majority of the 100 buildings, which will revive old Doha for commercial, residential and leisure use, will be built to LEED gold standards. With the project under the auspices of Qatar Foundation, a government-owned company with significant financial clout, it is easier to implement such a vision. The challenge is to persuade wholly private companies that it is in their best interests to build green. A perception that still holds among many developers is that you have to pay a premium in order to do so. However, a 2004 study, “Costing Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Budgeting Methodology”, by Davis Langdon, found that building to LEED specifications only increased upfront building costs by an average of 2%, and that in some circumstances it resulted in project spending below standard market costs.

SPIN-OFF BENEFITS: The report also found that initial costs could be offset by greater returns in terms of rental premiums, faster occupancy and higher market valuations. In Qatar the government’s green building drive will act as a test case for private developers with lingering doubts. The likelihood is that such building will not only prove more sustainable, but also cost effective in the longer term. Majed Fatfat, the contracts and procurement manager at QBC, is certainly convinced, citing the example of the requirement for polymer-modified bitumen in government road tenders. “The expectation is that it will increase costs. The method of construction is more costly, but when you increase the standards of the materials themselves, you get longer-life roads.”

This logic of sustainability is beginning to permeate many elements of the Qatar’s construction agenda.

While it may take some time for private developers to adjust to the potential prospect of higher upfront costs, the implementation of the QSAS for all government buildings by 2016 and for all new commercial and residential buildings, both public and private, beyond this, should ensure a uniform set of sustainable codes, placing Qatar at the vanguard of green building globally.

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