Green UAE school is a living, breathing blackboard jungle

Liwa International School in Al Ain is a model of environmentally aware building, with a wall of plants helping cool the building, rooftop solar panels providing power, and two tanks filtering "grey" water for irrigation purposes.

A staff member walks past the main entrance of Liwa International School in Al Ain on Wednesday, April 13, 2011. The school is the first in the UAE to be draped by plants in an effort to save energy and promote a environmentally friendly attitude. Pawel Dwulit  /The National
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AL AIN // When nine-year-old Mohamed came home from his first day back at school, his parents struggled to understand what he was telling them. The walls, he said excitedly, were breathing and permanently dripping water.

It looked, he told them, like a jungle - perhaps the last thing any parents expect of their child's school in a desert country.

Curious, Mohamed's mother, Khowla, went the next day to see for herself. And what she saw was extraordinary.

Where once Liwa International School had been an ageing, nondescript concrete block nearly two decades old, now it had come alive, the concrete hidden beneath a mane of 35,000 plants. The only visible gaps in the foliage were the windows.

"He was right," she said. "The school had come to life amid this desert."

The transformation was the idea of a group of 12th-grade students. For a class project, Alyazia al Me'mari and four of her friends sketched plans for an environmentally friendly school.

Little did they expect, as they submitted their plans to an energy summit last year, that the project would be so enthusiastically seized upon by the principal.

He, along with the school board, decided to put it into action, and now, the deputy principal, Fayez Jalloul, claims, Liwa International is "the only school in the whole of the Middle East that has green walls".

They had two options for the walls, Mr Jalloul said. The first was to twine climbing plants on trellis work against the walls and let them scale the building. That, though, would have blocked the windows.

"The other idea was the one we did - to fix boxes and place them around the school, covering a total area of 3,000 square metres."

On top of that, the school has installed 102 solar panels on the roof and reuses "grey" water for irrigation.

"We collect all grey water, from bathrooms, in two tanks. It goes through a filtering system for treatment, until it becomes good for irrigation. And we test it every few weeks.

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"Of course, if it is not enough during holidays, when no students are here, we use municipality water."

The "breathing" walls, he says, increase the oxygen level around the school, and attract birds. And the solar panels generate enough electricity to keep the school campus lit through the night.

"One of the worries we had was what kind of insects would come, but there has been no change," he says. "And no one has had any allergic reactions to the plants. Many parents asked how we did this and want to do it in their homes."

One parent from the neighbouring Etihad School visited the campus to see what had been achieved. "I just came to take a picture," she said. "It looks great. I guess it's nice for the children to know that they aren't trapped in school, but actually come because they feel comforted by the cool surroundings."

The project has become a draw for university professors and students keen to see the effects of putting green technology into practice.

One study found that the temperature around the school had dropped by as much as 5 degrees Celsius, enough to be felt by everybody, and a difference that will be appreciated all the more keenly as the summer rolls in.

"Now we are paying less for air conditioning. If we compare November 2010 with November the year before, there was about a 20 per cent decrease in costs. And people feel the effect in the building," Mr Jalloul said.

The school is quieter, too, with the foliage acting as a sound baffle. "It reduces temperature, saves energy, reduces carbon dioxide around the school, and has a social effect on students," he said.

For Mr Jalloul, those benefits make the project well worth the Dh2 million spent so far, as well as the further Dh3m it is expected to cost, even if it will take many years to recoup the original investment in energy savings.

"The most important point in this project is to have students thinking about the environment," he said.

He admitted a major worry was that pupils would damage the plants during play time. "But we have found that they play away from the building, even without us telling them," he said. "We have to think for the future, all politicians think about environment. We want to build this idea into the students' minds."

And on that score it seems to be working. Unusually, perhaps, for a nine-year-old, Mohamed wishes his home were more like the school.

"I would like a jungle house," he says. "It would be beautiful."