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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: How green can a building be?

Tim Nixon

13 Feb 2019

“One of the key turning points came when we shifted our thinking from “what is the cost premium for green buildings” to “how green can a building be without a cost premium?””

In this interview with Chris Wan, Head, Design Management, Sustainable Real Estate, Masdar UAE, we explore how experimentation in building green has led to a new, scalable and cost-neutral approach to city infrastructure development.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.


Tim: When you first looked at building green at Masdar City, did you expect that it would cost more to do so?

Chris: At the beginning we did expect Masdar City to cost more in terms of initial capital outlay. It was the commonly accepted understanding that green design commanded a premium in capital cost. In response to this, we considered the full lifecycle cost of the project whereby the additional upfront cost would be offset by energy and water savings during operation.

We also believed that there were many intangible benefits that would ultimately lead to more cost savings but these were more difficult to quantify. One example of this is higher productivity and fewer staff sick days due to the better working environment.

Tim: Where did you end up in terms of cost parity vs. non-green alternatives?

Chris: The issue we faced with lifecycle costing was that for many types of buildings the savings benefited the tenant paying the utility bills and not the owner who paid the upfront cost for the green features. Furthermore, few tenants were prepared to pay a premium for occupying a green building.

We had to take an alternative approach. We had to re-frame the question regarding the cost premium for green design. The new question we asked ourselves was is it possible to build green without a premium and, if so, how green could we build?

The Siemens Middle East HQ became the vehicle for finding the solution to our question of how to build without a green cost premium.

Tim: How did you find a solution?

Chris: We set minimum key environmental requirements for energy, water, waste, embodied carbon, and green building ratings. However, given the zero cost premium we were prepared to be flexible on these requirements.

We built a multi-disciplinary team with previous experience in green buildings. The architect was a lead consultant who selected sub-consultants in engineering and specialist disciplines.

And most importantly, we embraced an integrated design process as a collaboration platform for all team members to integrate their various disciplines.

We strongly believed that cost effective green design could be found when different architectural and engineering disciplines were proactively integrated.

We optimised the urban space and building forms from an environmental passive design perspective. For example, buildings were shaped to optimise air flow and included shading to improve outdoor comfort.

We also optimised the building design from a performance standpoint. For example, the Siemens Middle East HQ employs external fire escape staircases, which did away with enclosing walls and staircase pressurisation systems when compared to internal fire escape staircases. This produced a cost saving which could be re-deployed into green building components such as improved insulation, window glazing or higher performance mechanical systems.

We found opportunities to transfer cost from non-green components to green components. For example, we substituted expensive external cladding systems with lower cost and lower embodied carbon footprint alternatives.

We ensured that each design decision was taken with environmental considerations as a priority.

As a result the Siemens Middle East HQ achieved over 46 per cent energy savings (compared with ASHRAE baselines), 54 per cent water saving (compared with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) baselines) and it was the first LEED Platinum-certified building in Abu Dhabi.

Tim: Is this a process which many builders face?

Chris: One of the reasons why we do not have more green development is that we leave green thinking too late in the design process. As a result, the process of “greening” the design becomes one of adding green technologies to make up for the lost passive design opportunities not considered during the initial concept design.

The concept design stage determines the whole design. This includes understanding the microclimate and how the sun and wind affect the design. Altogether, this informs the mass, shape and orientation of the design.

Tim: How do we encourage greener options from a cost/benefit perspective?

Chris: Green awareness is no longer a new concept. Most would agree that green buildings provide cost benefits in the operations phase and a potentially higher sales value. Furthermore, there are health benefits, although these are more difficult to quantify. Upfront cost still remains a barrier to green building. Therefore the zero-cost premium approach would probably remain the best strategy until high-performance green design is considered standard practice.

Many eco-city concept designs remain on the drawing board. The challenge is to figure out how to turn these into reality. This is where Masdar City comes in by moving green designs from the computer screen to solid ground.

Tim: Does Masdar City offer a resource on how to go down the “green pathway”?

Chris: Masdar City demonstrates that with a change of thinking and the correct process in place, it is possible to develop a city focused on sustainability. The city showcases the potential of green buildings with concrete examples that are designed to reduce energy and water consumption by at least 40 per cent compared to ASHRAE standards, and in accordance with Estidama Pearl Building Rating System (PBRS) baselines.

We welcome international delegations and visitors, where we explain how we have achieved the development of one of the largest clusters of low-carbon buildings in the world.

In addition, we share our knowledge with third party developers investing and building in Masdar City. We collaborate with their design teams to maintain and exceed the Masdar City environmental requirements in a cost effective manner.

Masdar also acts as a catalyst for sustainable development by hosting Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), which is a global platform to share ideas on how to take this green path and advance sustainability.

Tim: Do you see it as possible to scale the lessons learned in building-green at Masdar City?  If so, how?

Chris: Scaling what we have learnt at Masdar City both locally and globally is indeed possible. This is because our approach is not tied to a specific location. It is more about a particular way of thinking. One of the key turning points came when we shifted our thinking from “what is the cost premium for green buildings” to “how green can a building be without a cost premium?” We believe anyone can make this shift in mindset and therefore making it possible to scale the approach to green buildings adopted at Masdar City.

 

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