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Zero carbon design is not a luxury, it’s a necessity

Sustainability By Abdalla Ghoneim, Engineer, Structural Engineering – 20 April 2022

Dubai Marina high rise buildings and turquoise waters


Abdalla sat at a boardroom table looking to camera against a grey wall with a single plant

Abdalla Ghoneim

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Since I joined Cundall as a graduate structural engineer in 2018, I’ve always been interested in reading about all the sustainable features implemented in our offices around the world. Not too long after I joined, we started designing our own new office in Dubai, and although the structural team was not very involved in the fit-out, I would always sit and listen to what other teams were working on and how “different” our office would be from any other typical office space.

In the months that followed, I was enrolled in the Cundall Diploma course, where I was taught the basics of sustainable design from perspectives of different disciplines. Since then, my interest in learning more about how to draft our designs to be more sustainable has continued to grow.

When I heard the call for advocates to join Cundall’s ‘Zero Carbon Design 2030’ initiative, I decided that volunteering to be part of the learning journey from the very beginning was something I needed to be involved in. As a young engineer, preparing net zero carbon design is not a luxury anymore but a necessity. It is our responsibility to understand and implement it in our designs, it is also important to educate all individuals about it, especially the younger generations. The ZCD2030 initiative was a great platform to do this, and I was excited to be part of it.

When I asked my team, “What do our clients in this region want?” They gave me the honest, yet slightly disheartening answer, “they want cheap buildings that look expensive”. This is certainly a challenge in the MENA region, and no doubt in other regions as well, but it is within our power as consulting engineers to show our clients that they can make sustainable decisions that don’t necessarily cost the earth.

Our goal here as a team is to keep creating efficiently designed structures by utilising our design and use of materials without having a major impact on the cost and integrity of the structure. We understand that some of our clients aren’t yet in the same place as us when it comes to zero carbon design, but we also recognise that it is our responsibility to have the conversation and help them get there.

This is just the start to achieving our goal of having 100% of our projects as zero carbon in design by 2030, and there remains unlimited opportunities for us moving forward.

“It is within our power as consulting engineers to show our clients that they can make sustainable decisions that don’t necessarily cost the earth”

There is a common misunderstanding that sustainable, zero carbon design mainly falls within the operational period of a structure, and that the responsibility of providing a reduced carbon design would fall mainly on sustainability and MEP professionals. I found it a bit surprising and interesting how significant the roles of civils and structures are to achieving zero carbon, especially at a very early stage of any project. This starts with our role in optimising the design and selecting appropriate frame and foundation options, specifying low carbon alternatives to common structural materials that can be locally sourced, and designing for ease of deconstruction and re-use.

When it came to ZCD2030, the immediate global collaboration of all structural advocates was really motivating as I was able to hear from different offices and identify the training needed, tools required and gain knowledge from a variety of professional design experiences. It is also rewarding having the sustainability team in MENA joining our ZCD2030 team and working together to upscaling our skills and knowledge.

It has been exciting and rewarding to see how keen my colleagues here in Dubai and Doha are to learn more about zero carbon design and drive this initiative at an early stage. We have a very technically talented structures team, as well as in BIM and digital engineering teams, and I am looking forward to seeing how this combination will work together to achieve all our milestones.