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Revitalising the UAE’s ageing buildings for a net zero future

Retrofitting By Scott McKeever, Country Director – UAE & MENA Head of Building Services – 15 June 2022

Illustration of buildings with sustainable wind farms and solar panels.


Scott McKeever in Cundall Dubai office

Scott McKeever

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This article was originally published in the MEP Middle East's June magazine.

While we all treasure heritage buildings, in the UAE we have a looming problem with buildings that were designed in the late 20th century and are now losing their appeal in the age of smart buildings and net zero.

Many of these buildings are operating with plant, systems and equipment designed and installed 20 years ago or more which are now nearing the end of their operational life. Plant starts to break down or malfunction, systems may not be operating as per their design set points and energy costs are high and not likely to reduce unless something changes.

Simply replacing end-of-life equipment with the same systems is not the ideal solution. For one thing, many of these mechanical and electrical systems are from the era before energy-efficiency regulations when designers often over-sized equipment imagining continuous peak load operation. There was also little consideration for optimising building design to minimise energy use requirements and optimise performance.

However, there is an upside. There is now a huge opportunity for owners of older buildings to take a major leap forward in their asset’s performance through undertaking an effective, smart retrofit programme of their property. This is not only important from an operational cost perspective, it also needs to be considered in the context of broader changes, including the global commitment to the 2050 net zero target of the Paris Accord and the UAE Energy Strategy 2050. The UAE aims to reduce individual energy consumption while maintaining ongoing economic growth for its growing population.

These two targets – the local and the global – make it essential for building owners to develop an effective plan for attaining net zero and attracting and retaining tenants. We know from the trends in global real estate that poorly performing buildings are likely to become stranded assets that cannot then be leased or sold for a reasonable price. This is because investors and businesses aim to align themselves with buildings and companies that are energy efficient and demonstrate social responsibility in relation to carbon emissions reduction.

How to revive a building

There is a common saying in building performance services – you can’t manage what you don’t measure. This is why the first step in improving existing properties is an energy audit. This process goes beyond the simple numbers of energy bills to investigate where energy is being used in a building and can then target the improvements which will deliver the best, most cost-effective outcome.

For example, our audit might discover that the HVAC systems had originally been designed to operate continuously during business hours, but in reality the building has a fluid occupant usage profile. The new system retrofitted for the property can therefore be a smart system that responds automatically to actual occupant location, thereby using less energy over any given month than the previous system.

The retrofitting of smart building elements is an important part of enhancing performance and reducing energy consumption. Many people think smart buildings are only new, premium buildings, but this is far from the case. Smart building technologies such as sensors and controls that respond to daylight to increase or reduce lighting levels, sensors on mechanical and hydraulic systems to reduce pumping energy whenever possible and even opportunities for switching off the air-conditioning systems when the outside conditions are suitable can all be retrofitted, along with many more smart technologies.

There are multiple further advantages to using smart technology on retrofit projects, including the ability to utilise cloud-enabled building management platforms to have real-time visibility of where energy is being used and how it is being used. Facilities managers can track energy use against targets, see where unusual use is occurring and take appropriate action.

Some of these systems could also incorporate alerting functions that notify the appropriate person if equipment is about to fail, or even be programmed to automatically order a replacement part or lodge a maintenance request when required.

In addition to the implementation of smart energy reduction technologies, retrofit programmes must also consider the integration of renewable technologies into building systems to drive the net zero target. This is not an end point, however, as it is vital building services systems should be flexible and capable of integrating new or emerging renewable technologies. To future proof a building, we design for the capability to adapt to and incorporate change and innovations.

Beyond examining the age and condition of existing building services systems, implementation of smart technology and renewable technology, a thorough, and more comprehensive audit may also examine thermal comfort, air quality, water use, and daylight levels. Furthermore, forward-thinking building owners may wish to extend this to also consider acoustic and productivity modelling to improve user experience and staff productivity.

Developed by Cundall, our digital Productivity Mapping tool quantifies the monetary benefit of good design in terms of productivity gains.

This means we can demonstrate what the positive financial impact will be of improving conditions for occupants through better indoor environment quality. It can also be linked to capital costs and forward cost planning to show the financial return on investment for any retrofit intervention. We find these kinds of metrics extremely valuable not only for making the business case for upgrading ageing or inefficient building systems but also for determining the order of works.

Our approach to retrofitting existing assets looks to encompass all the above and takes full advantage of digital technology. It also adds value for the projects we work on. We undertake all auditing, modelling and analysis digitally, and on our improvement and retrofit projects, we use digital engineering to design and test all relevant building systems.

We look at buildings not merely as concrete, glass and steel structures that provide places to work, live and play. We believe we serve clients and their assets best through treating buildings as an interactive set of mechanical systems and human functions that, when fine-tuned, can potentially serve us well into the latter half of the century, and beyond.