When it comes to sustainable design in the GCC, many are talking the talk, but few are walking the walk. FM Magazine reports on Dubai’s first green building initiative, the Pacific Controls headquarters in Dubai Techno Park.
“I am not an expert in green building,” admits Dilip Rahulan, Chairman and CEO of Pacific Control Systems, a leading systems integrator. “But I am pioneering the first green building, with solar air conditioning and solar lighting, because my company has a policy of supporting initiatives globally for green building.”
Pacific Controls is building a solar powered four-storey headquarters building at the Dubai Techno Park. The half-moon shaped building will be covered in solar panels wired to a battery stack and will use solar energy for 80 per cent of its energy needs. Energy production and consumption is just one of the six criteria for a ‘green building’, according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – see box overleaf) standards. But it is one of the most important and was the driving force behind Pacific Controls’ decision.
“Given that solar energy is so abundantly available here, we found an enormous opportunity in the field of controls for it,” explains Rahulan, adding that the costs of providing solar energy have fallen by more than 50 per cent over the past 10 years. “This opportunity led us to explore possibilities of working with local companies on this, until we realised there is nobody who has done a project which actually proves the worth of employing solar energy. So we focused on trying to do a pilot project but found that nobody would give us a building to do it. Then we made a corporate decision to build our own building. This was an opportunity for us to implement what we believed in.”
Pacific Control Systems LLC is a subsidiary of Pacific Control Systems Australia Pty Ltd, established in 1984 in Sydney. With a regional presence since 1992, the company has comprehensive experience in industrial, commercial and residential automation with a primary focus on energy. Its new premises at Techno Park will be involved in the manufacture and development of equipment to ensure a continuous supply of electricity and to facilitate large-scale automation.
Core to any solar electric system are the solar cells and the solar collectors. Using technology related to semiconductors, the solar cells convert sunlight into usable electricity without any moving parts, noise or pollution. The hot water generated by the solar collectors drives the absorption chiller to run the air conditioning system. With the pumps, lights and fan motors being powered by electricity from the solar cells, a totally energy efficient system is achieved.
“We will be using a systems engineering approach to produce a scale that uses 40 per cent less energy,” explains Rahulan. “The building will be engineered to minimise energy loads so that most of the electrical needs can be met by the solar energy system. We will have a state-of-the-art research and development centre, which will focus on developing environment-friendly products and remote-monitoring systems.”
The new facility will be spread across 200,000 square feet within Techno Park, set up by the Government of Dubai as a world-class industrial complex in Jebel Ali and managed by Dubai Ports, Customs and Free Zone. Rahulan says the company picked this location because of its infrastructure facilities and support services. With a total investment of Dhs 50 million ($13.6m), Rahulan aims to be strolling through the front door ready for business as early as December 15, 2005.
The question that inevitably arises is whether a green building is worth the investment – or, more accurately, what the investment actually is. Common perception would have you believe that ‘going green’ costs you an arm and a leg. Not true, say its proponents. Comparing like for like, a green building should cost marginally less to build and have much lower operating costs.
The high-cost misconception is born out of the fact that often it is not like for like that is being compared. A green building usually has a much greater aspiration, function and comfort level than a ‘regular’ building. The fact that a green building aims to generate its own electricity, and sometimes even sell back surplus power to the grid, makes it an entirely different concept.
We calculated the initial 15 percent increase in capital costs associated with installing solar-powered air conditioning would be repaid within two years.
“As a mechanical engineer and authority as far as controls, refrigeration and air-conditioning is concerned, I’ve always pursued the economic value of employing solar energy against paying for electricity,” says Rahulan. “The cost of energy is going up substantially and it is therefore prudent to find substitutions for paid energy. We calculated the initial 15 percent increase in capital costs associated with installing solar-powered air conditioning would be repaid within two years.”
This sort of talk is exciting many in the industry, given the huge potential for solar energy in the GCC. This will be the first time solar energy has been employed to such an extent in a building in this region. This ‘green HQ’ is likely to be watched very closely by other developers.
One such influential developer with an interest in how this building fares is Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman of Dubai Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation and Techno Park, and Chairman of Nakheel. As guest of honour at the groundbreaking ceremony, he heaped praise on the initiative and made it clear that if it succeeded, Nakheel would be sure to follow suit.
“I’m very happy to see a project such as this with a specific emphasis on energy conservation,” said bin Sulayem, head of the region’s biggest property developer. “I think what Pacific Controls is doing is a very bold and courageous decision. I’ve never seen anything like it. I hope it will lead the way for other companies. We will look and watch this project. If this building operates efficiently, I don’t see why we do not emulate this technology in everything we do.”
Central to bin Sulayem’s analysis of the merits and shortcomings of green building is the cost of construction and the cost to the end user. While there are across the world many case studies of the costs of green building construction and operations versus those of conventional buildings exist, what the likes of bin Sulayem want to see is a local study proving these benefits.
“I am continuing to build the way everybody builds – until somebody tells me, ‘you are wrong because this is cheaper’,” says bin Sulayem. “And if they prove it to me, I’ll do it. Everything is economics. Let me ask you: if you are going to live in a villa, and I tell you I am sorry this villa has to be 200,000 dirhams to rent [rather than much less], but you are helping the environment, would you rent it? If you would rent it, then I will build it.”
With its new building, Pacific Controls hopes to prove this perception of increased costs wrong. Rahulan says the company has a wealth of information on solar energy and how to optimally exploit it – and is willing to share this with all interested parties. It is expected that with the advent of more and more green building initiatives in the UAE, the cost of the technology involved will fall.
From an environmental perspective, a green building is the ultimate in architectural engineering best practice.
While economics is evidently the most important criterion for major developers to consider going green, there are obviously huge intrinsic benefits to society at large and to the environment. “From an environmental perspective, a green building is the ultimate in architectural engineering best practice,” says Habiba Al Marashi, Chairperson of Emirates Environmental Group (EEG). “A symbol of man’s responsibility towards his environment without compromising his needs and wants. It is science, environment and economics in equal proportions.”
Also a guest of honour at the Pacific Controls groundbreaking ceremony, Al Marashi expressed her appreciation to the company for taking this “very important first step” towards a green and sustainable UAE. Moreover, she was keen to quash misconceptions that environmentalists are not in favour of development.
“They say environmentalists do not always appreciate growth,” she said, “because it brings in its wake ecological pressures resulting from additional resource extraction, consumption and wastage. We beg to differ. Yes, it does mean that more resources are consumed in the process. But growth can also be transformed into growth with an eye towards sustainability. Green buildings offer just the right opportunity and bright example of growth and dynamism going hand in hand with environmental sustainability.”