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Feature – Experts discuss the sustainable benefits of retrofit projects

Feature – Experts discuss the sustainable benefits of retrofit projects

In a city known for constructing the world’s tallest tower and largest mall, building refurbishments might come across as a minor necessity.

However, as long-term residents of Dubai will have noticed, key landmarks across the city have, over the years, undergone renovation and refurbishment works, only to emerge as more sustainable and functional spaces.

For instance, a refurbishment programme is currently underway at Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which, upon completion, will offer “a refreshed look for 175 rooms and suites, and upgrades to a number of [the] most popular guest facilities”, according to the hotel’s website. The refurbishment started this May and is expected to be completed in November 2017.

In July, hotel operator Atlantis Resorts & Residences also began a $100m (AED367.3m) refurbishment programme at its flagship property, Atlantis, The Palm.

Announced in 2016, the project will see a three-year refurbishment programme implemented for all rooms, suites, bars, and restaurants throughout the hotel. The plan also includes the refurbishment of 1,539 rooms and suites, with 50 rooms and suites being refurbished every six weeks, to ensure that the guest experience is not impacted.

Indeed, hospitality is emerging as a key sector for refurbishment works in the GCC, and particularly in the UAE. In November 2016, Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC) published a report  titled Energy and Water Benchmarking for UAE Hotels, which recorded unsatisfactory energy-use intensity (EUI) and water-use intensity (WUI) across 46 hospitality properties in the country.

The report drew on information such as the properties’ general, physical, and operational characteristics, as well as their annual energy and water consumption data between 2013 and 2015.

The study found that UAE hotels have “unequal energy and water performance, with high potential for significant savings using viable and affordable existing technologies”, according to a statement by EmiratesGBC.

“There is a strong need to replace old fixtures and ensure maintenance of water systems, with laundry services and landscaping contributing heavily to WUIs,” the statement explained. “The study also found that poor-performing hotels consume three times the amount of energy, and 7.4 times the amount of water compared to the best-performing hotels.”

Hotels built “more recently” were found to benefit from newer technologies and efficient design, as well as stringent codes and regulations. However, this trend highlights the need for older properties to “consider retrofit as a solution to reduce their carbon footprint”, the statement added.

Energy-efficiency is, in fact, expected to play a major role in driving the retrofit and refurbishment sectors across all property classes in the Gulf, Saeed Al Abbar, director of AESG, told ConstructionWeekOnline this June.

In an exclusive video interview, Al Abbar said that while developers might seem to lack motivation to implement refurbishments, retrofits, and building improvements, the gap can be bridged through energy-conscious tenants.

He added: “We’re seeing tenants becoming more conscious and wanting to [use] buildings that are more energy-efficient. We’ve also seen governments trying to create mechanisms of transparency and information that [shows you] right away how much you spend on utility bills.

“Basically, tenants are given the choice and are being empowered to say they want a more energy-efficient building.”

Levent Taskın, president of Danfoss’s Turkey, Middle East, and Africa operation, explains retrofitting will “continue to be a key factor for energy saving, particularly due to the rise in building energy costs”.

He continues: “There is a need to reduce our power consumption, and many buildings in the region were built based on not lifetime running costs or the impact they could have on the environment, but how quickly they could deliver a return on investment. Retrofit technologies are helping reduce energy consumption, resulting in lower running costs and environmental impacts as well.”

Like Al Abbar, Taskın also believes that stakeholders are now more conscious about retrofitting’s energy-efficiency benefits, adding that these parties are now “building systems to dispel the myth that [high-performance structures] are more expensive to design and maintain”.

“In new buildings, it is possible to find simple design solutions that make energy efficiency very affordable, and in existing buildings, energy-efficiency improvements cost approximately 75% less when undertaken at a building’s intervention point or major renovation,” Danfoss’s regional head tells Construction Week.

Taskın also echoes Al Abbar’s views about legislative support, identifying it as a significant driver for local retrofit programmes centred on energy-efficiency targets. However, as Tariq Al Ghussein, chief executive officer of air-conditioning design and supply firm, Taqeef, tells Construction Week, certain pockets of the regional building market continue to view such directives as minimum requirements, not long-term goals.

He adds: “As building energy costs rise, there is a need to reduce our power consumption, and there has been an increase in awareness of the benefits of retrofitting. However, there is still a lack of awareness about the benefits of, in particular, air-conditioning retrofitting.

“The legislations in place that drive retrofitting and refurbishment are necessary in terms of setting guidelines. However, many developers and building owners aim to achieve the minimum requirements set, instead of aiming for the maximum energy efficiency that the building is capable of.

“As a result, we are witnessing shallow retrofits across the industry – developers and building owners opt for quick fixes, such as changing light fixtures and faulty air-conditioning units or chillers, as opposed to taking on the costs of changing the full cooling system,” Al Ghussein explains.

“Air-conditioning systems require between 60% and 70% of the total energy used by most buildings. By looking at the age and design of a building, a new and bespoke energy- and cost-efficient cooling system can be installed.

“This will provide long-term benefits for building owners, stakeholders, and tenants.”

A long-term approach to building ownership and occupation could drive refurbishment growth in the UAE, particularly in Dubai, Chris Hill, branch director at Structural Group, tells Construction Week.

“There’s been a fair amount of repair, restoration, and strengthening work going on in the market, so we’ve been quite busy for the last 18 months, and will be so for the next six months,” he explains.

“The bulk of our [recent] work has focussed on strengthening, which tends to be a result of adaptive reuse or changing use [of the space,] so the real onus behind it tends to be on whoever is taking ownership of the property.”

Projects typically rely on owners or clients for long-term precautionary strengthening works. However, the region is also home to “a fair number of developers that build and sell off [their assets]” without taking long-term ownership, he adds.

“So you can come in with a 20-, 30-, or 50-year life extension solution, but it’s not really applicable to [these developers,] because they’re going to unload the asset in less than 10 years,” Hill explains.

Demand for structural strengthening from developers may “come down to a requirement for extra space, the need for different styles and structures, or a one-time business decision”, he notes.

However, the majority of refurbishment and retrofit projects currently underway in the region cover existing buildings, with their key upgrades, such as air-conditioning, being led by owners that are “typically driven by the increasing energy bills and maintenance costs, as opposed to the energy efficiency, of the buildings”, Taqeef’s Al Ghussein points out.

He continues: “It is important to consider the age and design of the building, as well as its existing cooling system, to ensure that the most suitable solution is proposed when renovating.

“The biggest challenge of retrofitting an occupied building in this region is the logistics of the job. This needs to be approached carefully, as there are around eight months of extreme weather conditions. The project must be executed in a way that causes minimal disruption for stakeholders and tenants.”

The experts appear to agree that refurbishment and retrofit projects will grow in the Gulf’s construction sector, which is striving to achieve greater sustainability at lower costs.

“This is an opportunity to make decisions that are good for both business and the environment,” Danfoss’s Taskın concludes.