Change is a concept that splits opinion in the construction world – particularly here in the GCC.
But for GRFN Consultants – recently rebranded from Griffin Consultants – internal change reflects the company’s view that the Middle East’s construction industry needs to take quicker steps in the direction of modernisation.
Part of the seven-year-old firm’s make-over includes the launch of a business manifesto – a different take on the typical company profile.
Inside the manifesto are technical explanations of how GRFN has been able to achieve energy savings and greater sustainability in some of Dubai’s most iconic landmarks.
“We have many projects that have been selected to be in the manifesto,” explained partner Hassan Younes.
“I think one of the most interesting projects is the Burj Khalifa retrofit; working on a live building with demanding clients, coming up with a new solution.
“When we got the request for proposal it was to install air-cooled chillers, but then we found out the load was wrongly calculated.
“So we suggested that we use water-cooled chiller that cooled using the chilled water that is running in the tower already.
“It uses district cooling as the main source, but the top floors use the return of the district cooling system to cool down the condenser of the water-cooled chillers.
“It was a bit challenging. It’s been a very successful project but a demanding one.”
Younes and fellow partner Omnia Halawani have identified retrofit as a key growth market for the company in the coming years.
Halawani believes the manifesto will help highlight GRFN’s capabilities across both new and operational buildings.
“We have combined the special projects we have done over the years and anyone reading it can benefit from what we have done.
“This sets us up for the coming years, and shows that we are here to advance alongside the country.”
The company has recently been appointed to a significant project in Abu Dhabi that may well become a case study for years to come.
Younes explained: “With retrofit we’ve done a lot since we started GRFN Consultants. The most recent project we’ve been working on is with the Department of Energy (DoE) in Abu Dhabi.
“There are eight buildings we’re working on, it’s commissioned now, it’s in the management and verification period.
“Now we’ve been commissioned to select 150 buildings that will have the same retrofit.
“We’ve got all the data from government buildings in Abu Dhabi and we’ve selected the highest consumers that are under multiple owners.
“We would want to look at an owner that has many buildings and those buildings need to have significant amount of consumption to be selected.
“For now we have a few potential clients for the DoE to approach and finalise the final 150.”
National leadership has seen numerous emirates commit to an overhaul of municipal buildings in a bid to enhance efficiency.
But have government attitudes helped shape the stance of the private sector?
“To be honest we have seen it both ways,” said Younes.
“Some clients are looking at sustainability now in a different way. They have tried it either through retrofit or certification, and some of them are finding that the buildings they’ve built to new standards don’t see a lot of change in bills. Some are sceptical.
“Others are going for it and still believe in sustainability which we think is the right way.
“We have to go the sustainable way to make sure as an economy we can sustain ourselves from an energy point of view.
“We need to diversify the production, which the government is doing. And as you can see in the major emirates most governments are pushing for sustainability through programmes whether it is building codes, retrofit, district cooling so we see it as growing.
“However, we face some projects where consultants or contractors did not do a good job, and it kind of backfired.
“Some clients are hesitant because they didn’t feel they got the value they were promised.”
Halawani agrees there has been a shift in the thought process surrounding energy efficiency as more knowledge surrounding it becomes accessible.
“The government has been doing a lot to share the knowledge and that is reflected in clients,” she said.
“They are more receptive to the idea of having a more expensive piece of equipment that will save energy eventually.
“Clients should require designers to look at the buildings after they are built.
“Seldom do we see designers going back and seeing how their design went through to construction. Was the operational team comfortable with it? How can they optimise their designs?”
Coupled with the news of GRFN’s new guise is the launch of a benchmarking tool designed to spread knowledge of the built environment.
Utilising ‘blind’ data collected by GRFN on the projects they work on, the database allows anyone to compare the efficiency of their existing or proposed structures against buildings across the UAE.
“The benchmarking tool uses a lot of data,” explained Younes.
“We’ve worked with RSB Dubai to work on the benchmarking of Dubai offices, hotels and residential.
“We have a lot of data from DoE Abu Dhabi. We’ve used benchmarking with public and private clients, with Emaar, Meraas – and we thought it was good to share with others.
“We built this tool where anyone can use the website and use it to benchmark their buildings against the huge pool of data we have.
“People can operate and even design buildings to certain criteria without having to assume figures.”
Halawani added: “The benchmarking tool is a collection of what we have learned through our projects.
“We have hundreds of pieces of data on buildings that forms an internal benchmark we use for clients. We thought that part of giving back was to put that out there.
“It is mainly for residential and offices were there are no complications with calculating your energy use index. With hotels and schools it is a bit more complex.
“Anyone will be able to use it to benchmark their buildings and this is the first step of taking on a decision whether they should go forward with retrofits or energy efficiency projects.”
Halawani says the rebranding mirrors the aspirations of the UAE’s leadership to mark 2020 as the year to prepare for the next 50.
“It’s really just a fresh take on Griffin Consultants; we still have the same values, mission and vision, but with a more modern take on our services,” she said.
G is for green; what we’ve been about since the beginning. Sustainable designs and retrofits, and it is integrated into our processes, it’s not an add-on. All our designs are sustainable by nature.
“R is for retrofit; something big we do on the consultancy side. We consultant in energy efficiency whether it be for private clients or governments.
“The F is for functional designs and building. One thing that sets us apart is we work in both operational as well as new buildings. We learn from operational buildings what is not efficient and use it to enhance our new designs.
“The N is where we struggled… but it is nerds, and that is what we are.
“We have built a reputation to take on hard engineering projects, such as the retrofit of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Aquarium, and even the calibration of the DSM strategy for Dubai.
“They require someone who is a nerd and this is what we are.”
Seven years on from its launch in the GCC, GRFN Consultants is readying itself for the coming years.
But it would be impossible not to have noticed trends in the market when it comes to client behaviour. Younes and Halawani believe clients should be taking more responsibility for their developments from conception to handover – and beyond.
“In general I would say we would like clients to focus more on quality than price,” said Younes.
“We see this a lot, clients not comparing apples to apples and end up choosing the lowest price.
“They go through the projects, have problems and then go back, to us in some cases, to fix the problems. Focusing on quality rather than just the fees is imperative.
“Normally, clients look at the technical submission, they pre-qualify the bidders, and then look at the prices.
“In many cases consultants or contractors mention that they comply with requirements of RFB but at the end of the day they don’t have the quality or people to satisfy those requirements.
“I think clients could easily pick up the phone call, the references, and make sure that this consultant, this contractor has done a proper job; look at the CV of the people working on the project and make sure that these people can deliver.
“We have seen in many places projects have failed, especially from an MEP point of view, from not having the right expertise on the team.”
There is also the argument for integration and digitalisation, with Younes believing that too many professionals are choosing to operate “in their own bubble”.
“I still feel many consultants work on the same project but there is not enough integration between them,” he said.
“We talk about design integration a lot but we still see architects working in their own bubble, MEP designers in their own bubble, operations maintenance in their own bubble.
“No designers go back and check the buildings they have designed to see if everything is working properly or not; nobody is learning from their mistakes.
“I would suggest to everyone to go back to their projects, look at things that were good and bad, and make a ‘lessons learned checklist’ for everything they do.
“I’d like to see more digitalisation. Going digital is very important for the industry. I see a lot of potential that the construction industry can use but is not using. A few consultants are using the full potential of digital tools.
“Energy modelling is not being used the way it should be. It’s only being used for compliance with some standards, certification purposes, but nobody is using it as a real design tool to update design based on result of the model, going back, and changing things.
“What I see is that once the design is done, they get the required savings and that’s it. It’s not being used as a proper tool.”
Younes and Halawani were speaking to MEP Middle East at Adventure ParX Cafe, a project in which GRFN has harnessed a real time monitoring of indoor air quality system to ensure a safe environment for children.
Halawani explained: “The device (inset) monitors VOCs and CO2 among other indicators and notifies the administrators when limits are exceeded.
“The CO2 levels are used to modulate the fresh air supply into the space for a more energy efficient performance.”