“Over the last decade we have made significant progress towards promoting and creating sustainable built environments throughout the UAE”: Habiba Al Marashi

Habiba Al Marashi, Co-Founder, Vice-Chair & Treasurer of Emirates Green Building Council speaks about her experience in the environmental sector and the role of the Council in promoting sustainable best practices in the UAE’s construction and hospitality sectors in an interview with Swaliha Shanavas.


HabibaTell us a bit about yourself. As the Vice-Chair and Treasurer of EmiratesGBC, what does your role involve?

As a Co-founder of Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC), my relationship with the Council has a strong history and whose work I am very much involved with. So far it has been an extremely rewarding journey and over the last decade we have made significant progress towards promoting and creating sustainable built environments throughout the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In my capacity as Vice-Chair I’m involved in executive decisions on how best to achieve the strategic goals of EmiratesGBC, in addition to collaborating with the rest of the board members on our annual areas of focus. As Treasurer, I manage the financial aspects of the Council.

What sparked your interest in the environmental sector?

I have always had a deep connection with nature and the environment from a young age and these values grew with me into adulthood. Once I started working in the government sector, the UAE was going through economic and social growth and I knew that I wanted to work to achieve a unity between this growth and environmental sustainability for my nation.

I have since worked to co-establish the Emirates Environmental Group in 1991 with the aim of working with businesses, individuals, and public and private institutions to create awareness and promote environmentally friendly practices. This then led me to initiate the first corporate social responsibility (CSR) network in the country in 2004, which has evolved into the independent Arabia CSR Network. In 2006, I became a board member of the UN Global Compact and President of the UN Global Compact Local Network for the GCC States.

The next step was to bring the concept of sustainability into the UAE’s building and construction sector. As one of the founders of EmiratesGBC, I have witnessed a dramatic growth of the organisation over the years, and today I am proud of the level of awareness and engagement which have been created among key stakeholders and the government to encourage sustainable building practices.

What are your views on the developments in the UAE with regard to energy and sustainability? What are the key issues that need to be addressed?

The UAE has been among the first movers in embracing green building design and implementation, as early as 2007. With buildings accounting for 70 to 80% of the nation’s total energy consumption, the federal and local government entities focused on encouraging sustainable practices led by demand-side energy management and energy sector diversification. Today, the UAE Energy Plan 2050 and the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050 serve as significant roadmaps for all industry stakeholders to actively pursue sustainable practices.

Overall, and in a relatively short span of time, we have witnessed transformational progress in driving green buildings in the UAE. This is particularly steered by a strong governmental resolve and the support of both public and private sector entities, who are increasingly and voluntarily investing in a sustainable built environment. Several factors have contributed to this including the launch of the Pearl Rating System by Estidama in 2010 as part of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030; and the introduction of the Dubai Green Building Regulations by Dubai Municipality in 2011. I would confidently say that the UAE today has set a clear benchmark in its concerted efforts to drive sustainability within the built environment.

What are the main challenges when it comes to building sustainable structures in the region and the issues related to retrofits/refurbishments?

One of the main challenges with regard to building sustainable structures in the UAE and the region is a general lack of awareness of building owners or developers. The initial building design may be an efficient one, but persuading owners can prove challenging as they tend to be hesitant to invest in the initial capital expenditure (CAPEX). The knowledge capacity to create and build sustainable buildings exists in the UAE and it’s a matter of using established case-studies to highlight the benefits of building sustainably to the client. On a more technical note, HVAC systems particularly is the main concern in building sustainable structures, given the climatic conditions of the region. HVACs account for up to 60% of the energy consumption of the buildings, which is higher than the global average consumption. It is not always about adopting the most efficient energy systems to reduce energy consumption, but rather to look at the design of the building in its entirety; from insulation, reducing solar heat gain and passive design features.

As for retrofits for existing buildings, it is vital to start with the low-cost solutions before moving towards the more complex solutions such as the use of energy-efficient lighting and appliances. One of the critical issues for the retrofit of complex structures is the lack of the number of professionals and the right expertise who are able to perform them. To overcome this, we have launched a Building Retrofit Training (BRT) Programme in partnership with the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy and Masdar (Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company). The course is aimed at bridging the knowledge-gap regarding best practices for retrofitting and building sector efficiency among all stakeholders in the industry.

What is the role of EmiratesGBC in the construction and hospitality sectors, and how have you been able to influence companies to engage in sustainable practices?

The Council has several initiatives to promote sustainable best practices in the construction and hospitality sectors. For instance, in September 2016, we launched the EmiratesGBC Energy and Water Benchmarking for UAE hotels – the only report in the region focusing on energy efficiency of hotels with the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of this sector. The data collection and analysis were generated with the help of our expert team of professionals who drew information from 46 hotels across UAE on their property’s general, physical and operational characteristics as well as annual energy and water consumption data. The findings of this report can be used by government entities, tourism authorities and hotel decision makers to better understand the performance of the sector and to assist them in developing and implementing innovative policies that advance the efficiency of the sector.

Following this, in partnership with DSCE, we have initiated the Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA) pilot project in the UAE to benchmark the energy performance of 100 Dubai-based hotels, shopping malls and schools. The Council is the National Operator for Green Key, a sustainability certification programme for hotels and accommodation that was developed by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), which covers areas such as environmental management, water usage, waste management and energy use efficiency among others.

What is the significance of reuse and recycling of material as part of green building practices, and EmiratesGBC’s initiatives to encourage this trend across sectors?

Reuse and recycling are a significant part of green building best practices and we actively promote both to our stakeholders and the community at large. Both are prominently featured in our Green Building Tooltips, a rich online resource serving to provide useful information on green building practices. This resource provides relevant information for an audience of varying levels of technical capacity and is a valuable referral place for home owners, developers and commercial building owners and tenants, architects, interior designers, planners, educational institutions and healthcare providers.

We also encourage the adoption of the Greywater System, whereby sustainable home projects can further reduce their consumption of potable water by installing plumbing systems that can use captured greywater from flush fixtures for landscape irrigation. Furthermore, we recommend the use of separate recyclable waste bins for effective waste reduction through segregation of paper, plastic and metals that help divert waste away from landfills. We also encourage composting so there are fewer garbage bags.

What are EmiratesGBC’s key achievements? Tell us about your future plans and the changes one can expect in the coming years.

Over the years, we have played a pivotal role in facilitating a dialogue between the public and private sector, to support green building initiatives in the region, aiming to make the UAE a leader in sustainable development. We have served as a catalyst in Energy Efficiency in existing building stock through introducing technical programmes. We facilitate the growth of the energy efficiency market, and work to increase awareness and capacity building.

For 2018, we have set nine priority areas, or initiatives, which align with both the UAE’s Vision 2021 National Agenda and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and develop and expand the work we commenced over the years. Among our successful initiatives apart from the ‘Green Building Tooltips’ mentioned earlier, we have the EmiratesGBC ‘Energy Efficiency Programme’ (EEP), which consists of an online database that serves as a catalyst for all stakeholders to support the growing number of building retrofit projects. We are also driving the concept of ‘Nearly Zero Energy Buildings,’ which is an essential measure to support the UAE’s pledge of combating global warming at COP21 in 2015, its ratification of the Paris Agreement in 2016 and the sustainable development goals outlined by the UAE Vision 2021, Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 and Dubai Plan 2021.

I would like to highlight that our Building Retrofit Training programme is the first of its kind in the region and has been carefully created to address specific requirements of the region, and outlines actionable steps that can help achieve the green vision of the nation. The Benchmarking and Building Efficiency Accelerator aims to support Dubai’s commitment to the global ‘Building Efficiency Accelerator’ programme and expand EmiratesGBC’s benchmarking efforts to help operators and owners gauge their building and operational performance, and ultimately offer a measurement to encourage stronger energy efficiency measures.

Since the inception of the EmiratesGBC in 2006, there has been significant change in the attitudes and demands related to the sustainable built environment. Today, the stakeholders in the construction and building industry are aware of the need to develop sustainable built environments, and I am honoured to be part of this transformation. Within the last decade we have achieved many milestones including the launch of the Energy Efficiency Programme and the ‘Technical Guidelines for Retrofitting Existing Buildings,’ the Energy Efficiency Online database, nZEBs, and various workshops and networking sessions. There is still work to be done, but we have reached a point where there is a mutual understanding of the fundamental importance of sustainability, which was not there when we first started.

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