Dubai: a pioneer in energy efficient real estate


Dubai: a pioneer in energy efficient real estate

Rapid industrialisation has brought great change over the last two centuries – at a cost to our planet. Andrew Whalley, Chairman at Grimshaw Architects, discusses how building design is instrumental in forging a more sustainable future

As the world’s population has increased, so too has our global footprint. Human demand on nature is at crisis point. According to the United Nations (UN) Environment Global Status Report 2017, cities consume around 75 per cent of the world’s energy and emit 80 per cent of total greenhouse gases, including indirect emissions generated by their citizens.

Energy consumption cannot keep pace with population rise

More people than ever live in cities, currently over 50 per cent of the world’s population, and this trend of urbanisation is set to continue. As the global population grows and more people move to and are born in large built-up areas, the challenge is to manage the associated carbon emissions by improving energy systems, transport infrastructure and the way in which buildings efficiently manage their energy demands.

More bodies mean more buildings. And more buildings mean energy consumption is set to rise at an alarming rate. The Paris Agreement, a set of guidelines within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has laid down a number of ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. The main aim is to prevent the global temperature rising by more than two degrees Celsius this century. One of the main options to curb this rise in temperature is a rapid deployment of energy-efficient and low-carbon building design.

As an architect, I see this as an opportunity to restructure future development. Our built environment has put a huge strain on our planet. The building sector has to face facts and rise to the challenge when it comes to doing what’s best for Mother Nature. We need to reduce energy use and create buildings that adapt to and use the environment around them.

I believe we need to go beyond simply constructing or retrofitting buildings to become more sustainable. We need all construction efforts to be net zero by 2030, meaning the total amount of energy used to construct a building and keep it operational each year is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy it produces on site combined with its renewable energy input.

UAE’s call to action to cut emissions

There is no denying the rapid growth of the UAE over the past five decades. This country transitioned from fishing village to thriving business and tourism hub at an accelerated rate. But while the country’s growth has been impressive, in 2006 a report from the World Wildlife Fund revealed it had the largest ecological footprint per capita.

That prompted great change, and the country has since become one of the global pioneers in energy-efficient real estate. Looking at Dubai specifically, the emirate’s vision for energy security and efficiency has been mapped out through a number of energy diversification initiatives. In 2015, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy. With an aim to generate 75 per cent of its energy consumption from clean sources by 2050, we, as architects have a huge role to play here.

The range of resource and energy optimisation measures that architects use to construct new buildings, or retrofit current ones, will help generate a considerable amount of this clean energy. And the UAE has created platforms to help us achieve this.

Comprising five main pillars – infrastructure, legislation, funding, building capacities and skills, and environment friendly energy mix – the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy will eventually see the establishment of the Dubai Green Zone.

This dedicated research and development free zone will help to attract emerging companies and talent in the field of clean energy. Globally, architects have been campaigning to get to net zero by 2030, but in order to do that we need to train the next generation of architects to be fully versed in the specialisations needed to achieve this. That requires a paradigm shift. We cannot continue to design buildings as we have been. We need a swift change in design approach, and creative hubs like the Dubai Green Zone will be the think tanks of the future that pave the way for this change.

Another important phase that directly impacts how we, as architects, respond to new design demands in the UAE, focuses on legislation. Organisations such as Dubai Municipality and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) are consistently working to issue regulations, which focus on the integration of consumption rationalisation technology and energy production in all buildings by 2030.

In 2018, the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy (DSCE) launched a new system whereby all buildings in Dubai must be rated on their environment-friendly efforts. The labelling system has been applied to all residential, commercial and industrial buildings. Measured from one to five (one being the lowest), buildings with low ratings are given time to introduce measures to become more energy efficient.

The system falls under the second programme of the DSCE on ‘Building Retrofits’, where existing buildings are retrofitted or made more efficient in terms of energy and water use. Under another initiative, Dubai Municipality requires solar panels to be fitted to the roofs of all Dubai buildings by 2030.

Green technology to target climate change

The four main areas being utilised to target energy conservation in Dubai are cooling modifications, lighting modifications, water fixtures, and building envelope and placement.

One of the city’s most iconic buildings, the Burj Al Arab hotel, uses a low-emissivity coating to control heat transfer through its glass windows exterior. Placing this thin metal or metallic oxide layer on the glass surface can reduce energy loss by 30 to 50 per cent. But with air conditioning (AC) fitted throughout virtually every building across the city, there is a huge need to look for more efficient ways of using these systems to cool buildings.

One of the by-products of AC is dehumidified air. The condensation created during that process, however, is discarded. Buildings can harvest that water and recycle it, which in turn will alleviate the need to bring in water to cool the systems.

When it comes to lighting, LED bulbs have been the ‘go-to’ option for energy saving. To optimise their use, we should introduce a smart system that detects when people are in a space, so lights can automatically turn on and off.

While this system exists, it should be more intelligent and tuned according to the immediate surroundings. If it could detect the number of people in a space, it could conserve even more energy by only lighting certain parts of that space.

Water-flow reduction is another huge focus for Dubai. But with a rapid increase in population, the demand for water is high. The introduction of low-flow taps is just one way of making buildings more energy efficient.

Looking at building envelope and placement, Sustainable City Dubai, a residential complex in Dubailand, is a blueprint for how things should be done. Air-conditioning units within the residential villas are 40 per cent smaller due to the clever design and placement of each home. The L-shaped houses sit side by side, facing north to shade each other from the sun. And solar roofing helps to prevent the roof from absorbing heat, while producing additional energy.

Buildings need to change with season

Buildings will need to change seasonally to get the most out of the environment – and more importantly, give the most back to the environment. A performative design approach that searches for optimised solutions is the critical and only way forward.

Merely adding existing technology, such as solar panels, to buildings, is not enough. Likewise, static buildings that stay the same all year round will no longer work. For instance, a building with a glass exterior will get hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It won’t adapt to its surroundings. We need to think of ways to make buildings more clever; a building where the skin can change.

In addition, environment-conscious architects will need to make more use of ground source cooling and heating methods. One option, which actually dates back to ancient techniques, requires a very deep bore to be drilled so as the end-user can use the constant temperature of the ground below to cool and heat the unit, through photovoltaic heat pumps.

Expo 2020 Dubai pavilion to put Dubai on map

Looking locally, and delivering on a pledge to make all buildings net zero by 2030, our involvement in constructing the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is the first stand for us in proving this can be done.

When we were invited to work on the pavilion, the ambition for the space proved one thing; the UAE is very much at the forefront of pioneering energy-efficient buildings.

Tasked with creating a net zero building in one of harshest climates in the world, the building will be entirely self-sufficient, generating all of its own energy and water and recycling waste as part of a closed loop system.

The Sustainability Pavilion aims to illuminate the ingenuity and possibility of architecture as society looks to intelligent strategies for sustainable future living. While the roof canopy will consist entirely of photovoltaic panels, we will be placing e-trees, disguised as large sunflowers, around the building that will harness sunlight and moisture from the humid air. Generating electricity and water, and – on days when it generates more power – feeding into the grid, this pavilion will put the UAE on the map when it comes to energy efficiency.

In 1969, man landed on the moon. This giant leap for mankind happened just nine years after passenger jets were commercialised. Heading for net zero by 2030 is the moon shot opportunity for our generation. Emerging architects have the opportunity to respond to the environmentally influenced design agenda to solve difficult problems, but governments, the private sector and society as a whole, need to play their part too.


  • Real Estate
  • Sustainability
  • Design
  • Building Materials