The greenest buildings in the UAE

It’s not easy being green, at least in the UAE, where scorching summers make air conditioning as essential as the millions of gallons of desalinated seawater which keep most of the country’s plant life from turning brown and crispy. But while the region has a well-founded reputation for having one of the largest carbon footprints on the planet, the news is far from all bad. Here Irena’s HQ, and five other projects demonstrate how environmental principles are at the foundation of many of the countries most exciting new developments.

The Irena building

Determined efforts are being made to introduce the first principles of sustainability in many aspects of life. Some of the most significant improvements have been made in construction, best illustrated by the official opening of the Abu Dhabi-based headquarters of Irena, the UN agency for renewable energy.

Located in Masdar, the community which has come to represent the country’s community to a cleaner environmental, the Irena building will use 1,000 square metres of solar panels on its roof to cut its energy needs by 40 per cent and also using half as much water as other typical buildings in the city.

As a result, the building has become the first to receive a four pearl rating from Estidama, the certification system which measure the sustainability of new buildings in the emirate from the architects’ drawing boards onwards, for everything from villas to schools and offices.

Green airport

Due to open in 2017, the Midfield Terminal will be the largest expansion in the history of Abu Dhabi International Airport, allowing over 20 million people to pass through each year by the end of the decade.

While the airline industry is often criticised for its carbon footprint, on the ground the Midfield Terminal will be the largest building in the world to win environmental certification. It has already been awards a three pearl design rating from Estidama.

What that means in practise, is that the terminal’s design and construction materials will consume as little energy as possible, including a high-performance double glazing to keep out the heat of the Sun and “smart” air conditioning, lighting and ventilation on the inside.

An indoor park, with Mediterranean and desert themes will use recycled water, with water consumption reduced by 45 per cent and electricity use also significantly lowered.

Even the terminal’s construction is better for the environment, using recycled materials whenever possible and keeping up to three-quarters of building waste out of landfill dumps.

Green museum

Now approaching the final phase of construction, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has also been given a three pearl rating for its design.

The museum’s architecture, as well as being spectacular, is also highly energy efficient.

Much of the structure, on Saadiyat Island, will be covered by a 180 metre diameter dome, which can be pierced by the Sun’s rays which reducing its heat.

Known as the “rain of light”, this feature will shade visitors while reducing energy consumption by a third.

It will also cut heat gain — the heat absorbed by buildings as they bake in the sun, by at least 70 per cent.

It is not just the visitors to the Louvre Abu Dhabi who need protecting. The museum will be home to hundreds of precious antiques and artworks, including the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Middle East.

To prevent damage, the use of windows has been minimised, along with an energy efficient ventilation system and an irrigation network for the landscaping around the museum that is expected to reduce water consumption by over a quarter.

Green mosque

When it opened for worship last July, the Khalifa Al Tajer Mosque did not just welcome up to 3,500 people, but also opened its arms to environmental principles.

Built in Dubai’s Port Saeed district, to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) requirements, it has inevitably been dubbed the “green mosque” and hopes to win silver certification from the US Green Building Council.

Among the innovations in the building’s design are controls on the water flow from the ablution taps and using waste water from washrooms to irrigate the plants around the mosque.

Solar panels are used for water heating and the lights that illuminate the mosque, and its 25 metre high minarets

Inside the building uses LED energy-saving lights, with a control system that automatically dims the interior outside prayer times.

Built by an anonymous sponsor, the mosque claims to be the first of its kind in the Islamic world, with the Awqaf and Minors Affairs Foundation (AMAF), the city’s religious authority saying it is looking at a second green mosque in collaboration with the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers area.

Tayeb Al Rais, the secretary general of AMAF has said he hopes the mosque: “reminds worshippers of their duty to the environment.”

Green skyscrapers

Rising to 145 metres, the twin Al Bahr Towers have already made their mark on Abu Dhabi’s skyline, as well as making the top 20 for innovative buildings in the 21st Century by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings.

Built as the headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, the structure’s most intriguing and noticeable feature in an exterior covered in what looks like hundreds of parasols.

The umbrella-shaped shades are inspired by something much older; the mashrabiya or lattice screens that were used the shade buildings in the Arab world for nearly 1,000 years and which is increasingly being adopted by modern architects.

The “umbrellas” are automatically programmed to open and shut with the rising and setting of the Sun, keeping out the heat while allowing in light.

The facade is said to reduce the heat transfer to the buildings’ interior by half, reducing carbon dioxide emission caused by air conditioning by 1,750 tonnes a year. The towers have been given one of the first LEED silver ratings in the UAE.

The designer, Abdulmajid Karanouh, says: “When you’re building in literally one of the sunniest areas of the world, then you start questioning the wisdom behind using fully glassed buildings.”

Green warehouse

One of the most innovative and experimental projects also uses some of the oldest and most time-tested architectural principles.

Based in Al Ain, the Sabla project aims to solve the problem of food storage in the developing world with the help of the date palm.

The shelter being built is a series of domes and arches from woven palm fronds to create a strong but lightweight building.

It is inspired by the traditional arish homes, once found across the country until the advent of oil made concrete homes, with electricity and air conditioning, the norm.

Using fronds and ribs from the palm, the arish is literally one of the greenest structures ever known. Walls, fences, roofs and floors can be built from mats of locally-harvested palm, along with the ropes that bind them.

It can also be combined with the wind tower, a structure aligned to the prevailing breezes to cool interiors in a natural form of air conditioning.

The team behind the Sabla Project includes craftsmen from Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, specialists from BuroHappold Engineering and Sandra Piesek, a Polish architect who has spent six years experimenting with arishin Al Ain and Liwa.

What the project shows, she says: “That the material, when combined with modern architectural and engineering thinking, can do other things that are new and innovative.

Why it pays to compare

A comparison of sending Dh20,000 from the UAE using two different routes at the same time - the first direct from a UAE bank to a bank in Germany, and the second from the same UAE bank via an online platform to Germany - found key differences in cost and speed. The transfers were both initiated on January 30.

Route 1: bank transfer

The UAE bank charged Dh152.25 for the Dh20,000 transfer. On top of that, their exchange rate margin added a difference of around Dh415, compared with the mid-market rate.

Total cost: Dh567.25 - around 2.9 per cent of the total amount

Total received: €4,670.30 

Route 2: online platform

The UAE bank’s charge for sending Dh20,000 to a UK dirham-denominated account was Dh2.10. The exchange rate margin cost was Dh60, plus a Dh12 fee.

Total cost: Dh74.10, around 0.4 per cent of the transaction

Total received: €4,756

The UAE bank transfer was far quicker – around two to three working days, while the online platform took around four to five days, but was considerably cheaper. In the online platform transfer, the funds were also exposed to currency risk during the period it took for them to arrive.

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