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Retrofitting By Scott McKeever, Country Director – UAE & MENA Head of Building Services – 01 July 2024

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Scott McKeever in Cundall Dubai office

Scott McKeever

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The dynamics driving the UAE's construction sector are many and complex. How can a business not only overcome them but work proactively to ensure that they supercharge work, rather than challenge it? During this wide-ranging interview with Middle East Consultant Scott McKeever, Country Director - UAE and MENA Head of Building Services discusses the regional landscape.

While the theme of sustainability is much discussed, to what extent do clients actually request a sustainability commitment as part of the project brief? Is it only something for high-end client projects, or is it now trickling down as a ‘given’ across the board?

Sustainability is becoming increasingly prevalent, and we have seen a positive shift in the level of awareness and commitment from organisations. This shift is largely driven by regional government pledges and COP28. While the demand for sustainable certifications such as LEED and WELL is growing, it does still need to evolve further. Additionally, many government-linked developers are becoming more focused on sustainability to align with their National Visions, further advancing these efforts.

Sustainability is a journey. While it is great to see it increasingly becoming a part of project briefs, the extent of this does vary. We believe that sustainable solutions are available at all levels, and we strive to work with our clients to find the solutions appropriate for their projects and budgets. At Cundall, we are passionately committed to bringing our clients with us on the journey to achieving net zero carbon design.

Of course, the UAE's recent extreme weather events have also acted as a stark reminder of the impacts of climate change and the need to not only focus on sustainable new designs but also to prioritise climate adaptation and resilience. Consequently, we are already seeing an increased demand for climate adaptation in masterplanning.

Ultimately our region's cities must find ways to equitably mitigate and adapt to climate impacts, enhancing community resilience.

There is an increasing trend that we are starting to see when it comes to retrofitting the UAE's existing buildings. What insights can you share about the growing market for retrofits in the UAE?

We are starting to see the beginnings of a trend in terms of retrofitting the UAE’s existing buildings, however it is still far from reaching its peak and where it needs to be. I believe this market will grow exponentially in the coming years as many existing buildings will lose stature in the market and become unlettable stranded assets that do not align with modern tenants’ ESG values.

There are also clear signals from the UAE government that some form of building classification system will be in put in place to rate existing buildings, which could influence rental values, potentially lowering them for underperforming buildings. Proper, well-considered retrofitting of existing buildings can realise up to a 50% reduction of energy consumption, with green certified buildings bringing economic savings to owners, environmental benefits for the planet, and of course future proofing the leasability of the building.

The challenge for building owners is finding quality consultants and contractors to support them on this journey. Retrofitting is often oversimplified, but without experienced consultants conducting thorough surveys, studies and analysis of the building’s existing systems, use patterns and futureproofing potential, many opportunities for additional benefits can be missed. This can result in a superficial retrofit that falls behind sustainability benchmarks within a few years.

More than 80% of the 170,000 buildings in Dubai will still exist in 2050, so finding ways to decarbonise them is crucial for achieving net zero. Of course, with Cundall’s vast experience in this sector and our exceptional Building Performance Services team we are very well placed to support our clients through these challenging times.

Given Cundall’s recent expansion, is it fair to say that you are a ‘locally global’ business, with strong bespoke expertise in each hub, but with global outreach and skillsets?

In short, yes. Every client, in every region benefits from Cundall's strength as a global business due to our highly connected internal operations. This connectivity ensures that each client receives the right level of expertise and experience tailored to their projects, effectively bringing global knowledge to a local level. Our digital infrastructure ensures smooth communication, knowledge sharing and collaboration both internally and externally and additionally, we leverage our global expertise to provide the latest tools, technologies and certifications, ensuring our clients benefit from cutting-edge solutions in their projects.

Locally, we operate with the agility and personal touch of a smaller business, maintaining close relationships with clients and project stakeholders. I’m very proud of our rich multicultural team as this provides us with a solid understanding of local cultural nuances – something that enables us to effectively engage with clients. Our personalised and diverse approach is evidenced through the high volume of repeat business we receive.

We’re hearing a good deal currently about the way that AI is transforming urban masterplanning - and also the shift in priorities away from an anonymous ‘megalopolis’. How is Cundall leading the change, especially in regard to the climate-resilient cities and hubs of the future?

As with most urban centres around the world, the Middle East is becoming increasingly impacted by climate change. It is key that our region’s cities find ways to equitably mitigate and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate on citizens and enhance overall resilience in communities.

Cities are becoming smarter as a result of their rapid progress and AI-powered analysis of the massive datasets generated by managing and maintaining these urban centres. Subsequently, it is fair to presume that smart cities and AI will together influence how society evolves in the future. Urban expansion requires infrastructure that keeps up with the pace of change. AI is supporting this evolution by enabling digital twin modelling and simulation, helping city planners make informed decisions about infrastructure development.

We are taking this one step further at Cundall, by introducing AI generated scripts within GIS, helping to spatially analyse vulnerable land use, buildings and even populations at risk of climatic threats. Our teams are influencing urban areas across the region, with projects nncluding developing structure and masterplans for Greater Muscat City, Salalah Smart City and Greater Salalah.

Today, innovation is everything, particularly in terms of how it’s manifest in digitisation and new-era, generative AI. How is Cundall building market leadership in its approaches to AI? What is its role in zero carbon design?

The recent explosion of AI and generative AI technologies promises to play a pivotal role in decarbonising the built environment and driving the transition to net zero. These innovative technologies are crucial for the evolution of smart buildings and cities, transforming urban spaces into more livable, sustainable environments.

At Cundall, we are actively enhancing our AI capabilities – not only integrating AI into our operations but also fostering an environment where both technology and human skills thrive, driving innovation and excellence in all that we do. While we are embracing AI, we also understand the critical importance of human skills and are continually developing these to ensure our teams are well-equipped to succeed and work alongside AI technologies.

As digitalisation continues to be both a constant and an accelerating force in our industry, we are not only prepared for it – we are eagerly embracing it.

You have spoken before about the MENA regions skills gap. What steps are Cundall taking to address this issue, particularly with in the UAE?

The UAE’s talent shortage is real, and now more than ever we have a responsibility to play our part to address this challenge. Cundall recently launched a STEM initiative in the UAE with local secondary schools, to inspire young people to pursue careers in the construction industry. The programme aims to generate awareness about the vast opportunities within engineering and highlight the positive societal impact the profession can have. This is an opportunity for us to engage with talented young minds and inspire them to consider the construction industry as a viable career choice - and it’s something I am personally very passionate about.

Additionally, our in-house graduate training programme ensures young engineers are not pigeonholed into a specific discipline so early on in their careers with a uniquely structured training scheme.

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be part of the construction industry, and we are proud to be playing our part in creating a more sustainable future for generations to come, not just through our projects, but also through the people we employ and hope to employ in the future.