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Addressing the elephant in the room - future proofing existing buildings

Retrofitting By Marc Lynch, Associate, Building Services – 09 November 2022

Skyline of downtown Dubai with Burj Khalifa at the center


Marc Lynch in Cundall Dubai office

Marc Lynch

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This article was originally published in the November edition of MEP Middle East.

The MENA region has its own unique challenges and opportunities including ensuring our energy supplies, water resources, and urban fabric can meet the needs of a growing population into the future. Climate change will not leave us untouched, with rising temperatures, rising sea levels, changes to weather patterns and growing requirements globally for disclosure of national, portfolio and business carbon emissions.

The challenge of net-zero carbon is all around us and probably the toughest task lies in addressing the performance of our existing buildings that are fundamental to our everyday lives – homes, workplaces, schools, universities, malls and public spaces.

The built environment is responsible for almost 40% of global CO2 emissions and, although new construction is decarbonising fast, a daunting 80% of the buildings that need to be decarbonised are already built and are expected to still be in use by 2050.

The task is enormous and multifaceted but, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has observed, it is also one of the quickest wins for reducing our collective carbon emissions. The crux of the problem is that the majority of existing buildings were constructed with techniques that had limited awareness for their carbon consequences and measures required to ensure reduced emissions.

In the UAE, due to rapid population growth, economic activity, and high consumption rates, energy efficiency is a constant challenge. According to a Strategy& report overall electricity consumption has more than doubled in the past 10 years. This is a trend that will make it difficult to provide sufficient energy resources for in the long term. Even with our abundance of solar power potential, an enormous amount of new infrastructure would be required to support new renewable energy capacity to meet demand growth – unless we address demand.

The retrofitting opportunity

A considerable proportion of building developments in the UAE were built during the construction boom at the turn of the century. Since then, new buildings have embraced the benefits of best practice sustainability standards to ensure all MEP systems are optimised to maximum potential and these assets can now act as a benchmark for the older building stock in the region. Older buildings also offer the most significant opportunity for improvement as their performance is so far behind best practice, so measures to close the gap represent a significant uplift in efficiency and corresponding reduction in energy demand.

The coming crisis for asset owners is by 2030, many existing buildings will start to lose stature in the market and become unsaleable and unlettable stranded assets. Retrofitting buildings as a solution can ensure up to a 30% saving on energy consumption, with green certified buildings bringing economic savings to owners and environmental savings for the planet.

The initial challenge is understanding the building and its systems. At Cundall we are fortunate to have a breadth of engineering expertise from building physics to the detailed engineering of pipe systems and valve arrangements. You need all those skills and the knowledge of different disciplines to provide a coordinated answer. Once you’ve got that engineering understanding then you can really get to work.

Even the perceived quick wins pose complex engineering challenges to effectively integrate these into existing systems whilst maintaining the building’s function and setting it on a path to net zero carbon. Often you can identify some straightforward signals of inefficiency. We can make 10% to 15% energy savings improvements just by managing assets more efficiently before we move into fundamental changes. MEP systems and controls technology have rapidly progressed over the last decade, making it easier to manage buildings remotely and plan preventative maintenance measures ahead of time.

There also needs to be wider adoption of innovative building technologies, materials, and systems which substantially improve the efficiency of buildings. Materials such as structural insulated panels, high efficiency glazing, and reflective insulation products are already used in other markets as they deliver benefits in building efficiency as soon as they are in place.

A blueprint for change

Cundall is at the forefront of net-zero carbon design which is forming a blueprint for industry, clients, developers and peers to learn from and collaborate for a brighter, more sustainable future. We are committed to achieving net-zero carbon design on all projects by 2030, aligned with regional and global net zero targets.

There is a mountain to climb for individuals, businesses and society as we move towards a greener, low carbon future and we need everyone to wake up to the scale of this challenge. It is central to combatting climate change and safeguarding the environment for future generations.