AESG champions net-zero carbon building in the GCC

AESG unveils a new tool it hopes will shape attitudes towards net-zero carbon building in the UAE and across the GCC.

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Head of energy and sustainability at AESG, Phillipa Grant.
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Head of energy and sustainability at AESG, Phillipa Grant.

People who put together buildings used to only care about having their masterpiece etched on to the skyline of a city.

Once you’ve put a silhouette on the horizon it becomes a permanent figure on everything from postcards to panoramas, popping up in profile pictures and textbooks.

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But nowadays architects, contractors, consultants and clients are looking at the bigger picture. What are these buildings really adding to the skyline? In this more critical age the answer is C02. 

It is why AESG has announced the launch of its new Pathway to Net Zero tool – an application that the consultancy will apply free of charge to all projects from the start of 2020 to demonstrate how clients can achieve more eco-friendly structures.

Head of energy and sustainability at AESG, Phillipa Grant, told MEP Middle East that the tool has been designed to help shape attitudes towards net-zero carbon building, and follows on from commitments made to the World Green Building Council earlier this year. She said: “Earlier this year AESG became a signatory to the World Green Building Councils’ advancing net-zero buildings commitment.

“We made this commitment because we really believe it is our duty of care as designers, as engineers, to contribute towards net-zero targets, and ensure our projects are pushing the boundaries and that we are pushing our clients to push their boundaries and achieve more sustainable developments wherever possible.

“The principles of the pathway are to provide design and engineering guidelines for how a new development could pursue a net-zero carbon ambition. That’s looking at embodied carbon as well as the operational carbon of the building.

“This can be a variety of different principles across the design process. At pre-concept design stage we are looking at passive design measures, then into active design measures.

“We are looking at the engineering, architecture, we are looking at things like the local climatic conditions.

“Effectively the pathway is going to be an advocacy tool to provide insights and advice on how projects can target these more aspirational sustainability ambitions.”

The tool is being offered to all clients free of charge. At a time when a firm eye is always fixed on the bottom line the tactic stands out as an unusual one.

But Grant explained that for AESG, subsidising the cost of the tool was an expense the company was willing to take to drive forward people’s understanding of net-zero, and its ever growing importance.

“We believe it is our duty of care towards people, towards the planet, to be pushing and advocating these principles,” she said.

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to take this step regardless of the cost impact it has on us.

“I believe it is going to require a collaborative and co-ordinated effort from the whole industry to reach these high-reaching targets.

“So we can’t get there without pushing ourselves, without taking on board that we need to do something as well as the clients and architects. We are fully on board and happy to be part of that drive.”

Grant admits there will be challenges ahead as she and her colleagues take up the mantle of net-zero champions.

Moving away from traditional building methods is a gauntlet run by few firms in the region, and fostering a new approach to working will be an uphill task.

Grant concedes the problem is somewhat chicken and egg.

“Within the Middle East it is quite a new concept and hasn’t been targeted on that many projects yet,” she said.

“And because it is new to the market that creates a lot of uncertainty and that translates as risks on projects. This inhibits people’s desire to target net-zero aspirations.

“It’s going to take a co-ordinated effort for people to be on board, to be assessing things like cost at an up-front stage, to be exploring new technologies and approaches to design, and not just approaching things as we have always done.”

But AESG is prepared to fight the good fight, and is further arming itself and others with knowledge to help stimulate smarter ways of working.

“We are always trying to conduct research and look into the wider sustainable built environment that needs to be considered,” said Grant.

“We regularly release white papers on different issues. We’ve recently released a report on urban resilience looking at climate change and the impact that is going to have on cities and how cities should develop to be resilient to changes that are coming.

“We’re trying to encourage our employees, push ourselves to be conducting research, and that feeds back into our projects and allows us to evolve and develop as consultants.”

AESG is currently contracted to provide consultancy services on the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020.

Such a pioneering project makes for a great case study that the firm can point to as it advocates for net-zero concepts in building design.

But stumbling blocks remain when trying to introduce these cutting edge concepts into residential and commercial developments.

Grant said: “It’s typically down to cost. In order to apply new and latest technology on projects they need to have been rolled out to the mass market so that they are in an affordable price range.

"A good example is solar PV panels, which used to be considered really high cost. But as demand increased the manufacturing practices became more efficient, and solar PV is now really affordable and is being installed on nearly all of our projects in the UAE and across the Middle East.”

With this in mind, could we expect to see a time when net-zero building – or at least elements of it – becomes mandated for all new builds? Grant explained: “There are quite a few call for actions now globally for net-zero carbon buildings.”

“The World Green Building Council has targets of 2030 and 2050 for all buildings (2030 for new buildings), while the UK has committed to being net-zero carbon and has put that into legislation.

“A lot of cities have signed up to the WGBC’s call for action. It is a trend and I see there is a lot of market uptake from these call to actions and legislative requirements. I see it becoming more and more commonplace.

“The UAE has historically been pushing the boundaries for sustainable development and I hope and expect they [the leadership] will also be having these discussions.”

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