Estidama starts to win over doubters

The Imperial College London Diabetes Centre was completed in July and opened in November.

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ABU DHABI // Some developers and contractors embraced the emirate's sustainable building code when it became mandatory in September last year - but many more grumbled.

They warned environmentally friendly buildings would cost more and take longer to build.

But despite their fears, the first project to finish the process - the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Al Ain - was completed on time in July, with motion-activated lighting and solar-panel water heaters. The centre opened to patients on September 28.

"It wasn't cumbersome," said Ihsan Al Marzouqi, a senior manager at Mubadala Healthcare, the centre's developer. "It wasn't a burden on us. We actually benefited a lot."

The diabetes centre is proof the Estidama Pearl Rating System can work, officials said this week.

"It's not on paperwork any more," said Edwin Young, an adviser for Estidama, which is Arabic for sustainability. "It actually exists."

Through a system of required credits and extra points, the Pearl Rating System promotes projects that are energy-efficient, use less water and create a healthier living environment.

Designs are assigned a grade from one to five pearls (the highest). The diabetes centre received a two-pearl rating.

New villas, buildings and communities must achieve at least one pearl. New government buildings must achieve at least two.

Developers reacted to the system in the same way companies everywhere respond to new environmental regulations, said Holley Chant, director of sustainability at KEO International Consultants.

"There was the very small portion who wanted to be considered innovators and they led the pack," Ms Chant said. "And then there were the late adopters, who were the screamers and the shouters: 'Why are we doing this, it's terrible'."

In the final one and a half months of 2010, all but three applications for building permits in Abu Dhabi were rejected because they did not meet Estidama requirements.

"Things are going smoother now," said Humaid Al Hammadi, the associate planner with the Urban Planning Council (UPC).

The UPC has overseen 88 project applications since Estidama was introduced and approved 54, sending 33 back for revision. One is under review.

Other one-pearl applications were approved by Al Ain and Abu Dhabi municipalities. The UPC does not oversee most one-pearl projects unless the developer needs help.

Projects receive a rating for design and another after construction. The UPC is devising an "operational rating" to be given about two years after a project is finished.

On November 21, the Al Ain centre became the first building to receive a construction rating.

Mubadala Healthcare - a division of Mubadala, a government-owned strategic investment company - declined to release the project's forecast and actual costs.

But Mazen Al Dahmani, the general manager of the diabetes centre, said Estidama "had a very minimal impact".

Mubadala hired a consultant for the ratings and construction process, Mr Al Dahmani said.

The UPC has trained about 800 consultants, called Pearl Qualified Professionals, but has more work ahead, officials said.

Some developers still do not realise they must create an Estidama plan until they request a building permit, said Cara Tissandier, the associate head of sustainability in the Mena region for the engineering consultancy Hoare Lee.

Then they must go back and find ways to meet the requirements, prolonging the process.

"For the most part, the larger developers like Aldar, they know they have to do it," Ms Tissandier said. "It's more the smaller developers or those who haven't done a project recently."