Even better than the real thing? A look at the benefits of artificial grass

Using artificial grass is one way to combat water wastage and scarcity in our desert climate. We learn about its environmental and economic merits, while questioning whether it can rival real turf.

Artificial grass at the Sofitel hotel on The Palm, Dubai. Courtesy Easigrass
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It's no secret that the UAE is one of the driest countries in the world, yet per capita, it still uses significantly more water than the global average. According to a 2014 report entitled Achieving a Sustainable Water Sector in the GCC, compiled by Strategy&, part of the PricewaterhouseCoopers network: "Saudi Arabia and the UAE consume between 10 and 39 times the amount of renewable water available to them, depleting their aquifers at much faster rates than they can be replenished by rainfall."

This unquenchable demand for water is only going to increase as more projects, residents and tourists arrive in the UAE. It’s predicted that the demand for water will increase by 44 per cent by 2025, according to the United Nations ­Environment Programme, leading to fears that groundwater supplies could be depleted within the next 40 to 50 years.

Read more: Artificial grass options to consider

For the UAE to reduce water wastage, it has to, quite simply, reduce water usage. Among other recommendations, the Strategy& report suggests “a focus on irrigation efficiency by promoting xeriscaping, which uses minimal amounts of irrigation for gardening and landscaping; and the use of ‘grey water’ recycling for non-potable purposes (such as greenery and fountains)”. Another way to make our green spaces more sustainable is the increased use of artificial turf in private and public spaces, notes Ben Bloomfield, the director of Easigrass, a Dubai-based supplier of artificial grass that has installed its products in iconic projects such as Madinat Jumeirah and Wild Wadi.

This isn’t a new concept; the State of California, for example, actively encourages the use of artificial grass to reduce water consumption by offering subsidies to those who have it installed, Bloomfield notes.

While there will always be those who favour the real thing, the ­Easigrass team has seen a noticeable attitude shift towards artificial grass in the past year or so. “2015 seemed to be the point at which the tide turned in terms of people’s perceptions,” says Bloomfield. “Artificial grass is so advanced now that some of the high-end products really do resemble natural grass, so in this case, the grass does the talking more and more.”

Dhilip Kumar, the chief executive of Platinum SDI, a leading sustainable-­development consultancy firm with several years’ experience in the region, makes a point of recommending artificial grass to his clients. “If our clients insist on using natural grass, we always advise them to use a native or adapted species that requires less water,” he explains. “If they do not insist on natural grass, then we will always advise them to use artificial grass, as Pearl and Green building regulations also mandate a significant reduction in annual landscape irrigation demand on every project.”

One of Dubai’s most innovative landscape-architecture practices, Desert Ink, was an early adopter of artificial grass, and has specified it in many recent projects, which include the Midtown by Deyaar residential complex in ­Dubai’s International Media Production Zone and a five-star hotel on The Palm, Jumeirah. Will ­Bennett, a landscape architect at Desert Ink, says that “despite being a proponent for all things natural in the softscape, we actually prefer to use artificial turf in many of our commercial projects for three main reasons: it provides a permanent ‘green’ surface all year round; environmentally speaking, it has far less effect on our water resources than real grass; and when we studied the numbers we found that it cost much less than irrigating real lawn, saving our clients’ money.

“Artificial turf, in this part of the world, is a better option than real turf in most scenarios. Its hard-wearing nature makes it ideal for intensively used areas such as playgrounds and sports pitches. It gives us great versatility to design with, because we are much less restricted by the maintenance requirements, compared with natural turf. For us, it adds value to our designs, and can bring the ‘wow’ factor that our clients expect from us.”

But there have been challenges along the way. A difficult part of the learning curve has been dispelling misconceptions that “green is really green”, Bennett explains. “It’s a false impression that vegetation equals green environmental credentials in this region. This might be correct in temperate climates, but in the desert, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Maintaining a lush lawn is incredibly intensive; it requires large quantities of water, pesticides and fertilisers, as well as labour.”

With a growing number of increasingly natural-looking options now available on the market, the argument no longer stands that artificial grass can never look or feel quite as good as the real thing. “Believe it or not, artificial grass comes in many different shapes and sizes, and not all green, ­either,” says Bloomfield. “The most obvious difference is in the height of the grass. For landscaping, the height of the grass will range from about 50 millimetres down to 20mm. Generally speaking, the longer it is the more natural it looks.

“Each individual blade of grass can be moulded, during the manufacturing process, into different shapes or profiles, and each shape has a different characteristic, look and feel. A V-shaped blade, for example, is very rigid and stiff, which is great for commercial areas, where the grass needs to be able to stand up to a high amount of traffic. You then have a C-shaped blade which is much softer, so great for family gardens, but not so good for really busy areas. Artificial grass is essentially a carpet, so things such as the stitch rate and the width between stitches will greatly affect how the grass feels.

“Some products come with a shorter brown-and-yellow grass below the green grass to make it look like there is old dying grass around the roots. This makes it look incredibly natural. The dead-root zone is probably the biggest step forward in terms of how the grass looks, but just as important is the shape of the blade. Natural grass isn’t flat — it has a shape to it. And now artificial grass can mimic this shape, so it really helps it appear more like real grass.”

It’s also a quick fix. It only takes Easigrass one day to fully install artificial grass in a 80-square-­metre garden, and two days for a 200-square-metre space, including removing any old grass.

The average size garden that Easigrass works with measures between 30 square metres and 80 square metres, and starting prices for the full installation, including removing old grass and preparing a new base, range from Dh4,500 and Dh12,000 respectively. If the grass is being installed on top of tiles, then starting prices range from Dh3,000 to Dh8,000 for the same size areas. Easigrass and ­Desert Ink have developed a cost-analysis study to see if artificial grass is more sustainable from an economic point of view, as well as an environmental one. The conclusion of the study is that after two and a half years, the money spent on maintaining a natural grass lawn of 80 square metres surpasses that of artificial grass. At this point, the savings could be as much as Dh4,332 a year. For a larger commercial installation of 2,000 square metres, for example a hotel, the return on investment is three years. After three years, the savings can be as much as Dh87,202 a year.

Taking into account water usage figures in the UAE, it’s clear that action needs to be taken to reduce general water consumption, but more specifically, water wastage. Artificial grass is something of a no-brainer: it offers a solution that looks and feels like natural grass, is easy and cost-effective in the longer term, and requires no water to keep it green.