It looks like any other Abu Dhabi villa with a majlis, sun terrace and carport, but visitors to the Estidama-compliant Home will find a rarity: a sustainable property that’s designed to be the new norm.
It is a housewarming party like no other. At this week’s World Future Energy Summit (WFES), global leaders and up to 30,000 environmental scientists, technicians, policy maker, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and investors – the great, the good, the knowledgeable and the wealthy – will be invited to cross the threshold of an apparently unassuming Emirati villa in Adnec’s hall 10, the “Estidama-compliant Home”.
Built by property developer Sorouh Real Estate and Estidama, Abu Dhabi’s sustainable development initiative, the villa is familiar fare; it has a carport, sun terrace, majlis – even furniture from Pottery Barn.
Visitors to WFES might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about – but in a country more often associated with architectural largesse, the Estidama-compliant Home is a rarity, a project born of an overarching ambition that is also profoundly pragmatic.
It is this down-to-earth quality that Edwin Young, Estidama programme manager at Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council is keen to discuss.
“This is the World Future Energy Summit. We could have created a house of the future, but this is very real. This is standard stuff,” he says.
“We haven’t tried to build something that’s unobtainable, we’ve tried to show products that are readily available and are cost sensitive to the market.
“This is bottom-line Estidama that anybody can go out into the marketplace and get. This is the new norm.”
The Estidama-compliant Home exhibit is a life-size prototype villa built to showcase the environmental benefits and expertise not only of the Estidama Pearl Rating System – Abu Dhabi’s sustainable building code – but also of the suppliers and products that will make daily life in the emirate healthier and more sustainable.
The improvements may read like standards taken for granted elsewhere in the world – air conditioning units free of ozone-depleting chemicals; windows that allow more light to enter a building than heat, vital in reducing reliance on electric lighting and air conditioning; and solar powered water heaters. But the implications in Abu Dhabi are immediate and significant, as Mr Young explains.
“Take domestic paints. Volatile organic compounds are what you can smell when a room has been painted,” he says. “If you have that smell, it’s not a low-VOC paint.
“Kids in the UAE spend a lot of time in their bedrooms, so in all government-built houses the bedrooms are painted with low VOC paints so you don’t get that emission and you’re not getting that exposure to the paint that goes on for a long time after you can smell it.”
In an Estidama-compliant home, savings in electricity and water of up to 35 and 50 per cent are possible. The use of sealable windows and doors alone can reduce energy consumption by between 5 and 10 per cent and prevent the bacterial growth and mould, both of which can be associated with respiratory health problems. This then is home improvement with serious intent, and the house illustrates the intimate connection that exists in Abu Dhabi between urban development and broader strategic concerns in an environment in which the cost of both electricity and water is dependent on heavy government subsidy, where groundwater is predicted to run out within 50 years, and where 70 per cent of all energy consumption is used for the production, transportation and treatment of water.
“From a government point of view, from a power subsidy and a water point of view, something that saves 35 per cent minimum on energy and 25 to 40 per cent on water, depending on your behaviour, is invaluable,” Mr Young says.
For the exhibit’s designer, Dr Hassan Ibrahim, senior manager for master planning and sustainability at Sorouh, the benefits of life in an Estidama-compliant home come not only from its positive contribution to health and sustainability, but also from its recognition of Abu Dhabi’s culture and traditions, something that makes the scheme unique among green building codes.
“We are trying to offer a better building industry that delivers a more healthy environment that also responds to the culture of the Emirates,” he says. “Each house has a majlis, a family living area and a bedroom zone, and privacy is maintained and considered throughout the layout of the house.”
In designing the exhibit, Dr Ibrahim was able to draw on his and Sorouh’s experience of developing new Estidama two-pearl villas and communities at Al Sila, in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region, and Al Ghareba near Al Ain, where 600 villas are due for completion later this year.
As he explains, one of the key aims behind the design of these new communities is to reduce residents’ reliance on their cars.
“At an urban scale, the public realm is more friendly and more comfortable, walking distances have been considered to playgrounds and community facilities, we have playgrounds, local parks and larger parks and the walking routes to these are shaded and can be reached by cycle,” he says.
So far, Estidama has sought to achieve its aims through the regulation of products, materials and the construction market, and the design and delivery of Emirati housing.
About 6,500 Emirati villas have already achieved a pearl rating, 5,500 are under construction, and an average of between and 3,000 and 4,000 pearl-rated villas are planned.
Thanks largely to the Government’s mandate, all new residential buildings are required to achieve a minimal one-pearl rating, while government-funded housing has had to achieve two.
Not only did the government mandate create a level playing field among contractors and developers by committing them to certain basic standards, it also removed the temptation to cut corners and costs and led to the introduction of new, Estidama-compliant products into the Abu Dhabi construction market, as can be seen on display at the Estidama-compliant home.
While this may have created something of a virtuous cycle between consultants, developers and the regulator in which certain basic sustainability rules are accepted as standard, experts such as Mr Young know that the real task, of winning over the public’s hearts and minds, is yet to begin.
“We changed our attitude two years ago. We’re now much more customer focused,” he says. “Hopefully, a local visitor [to the Estidama-compliant Home] will see that they have the opportunity to talk to us.”
It is in this context that the Estidama-compliant Home and the many other Government initiatives that are being launched at WFES should be seen.
A baseline has been set, regulations are in place, but the next challenges are to raise awareness, build support, change the public’s behaviour, and for organisations such as Estidama to shift from being industry to consumer-focused.
If that is not enough, it is also clear that Estidama has even broader aspirations. At the moment, it is a widely regarded but Abu Dhabi-only green building code, incompatible even with legislation in neighbouring Emirates.
Dubai is introducing its own legislation, as is Qatar, but it is clear that there is an opportunity for the Estidama-model, with its head-start, regional and cultural sensitivities, to be exported further afield.
As Mohamed Al Khadar Al Ahmad, executive director, development review at Estidama explains.
“From an international perspective we want awareness,” he says. “People coming from Europe may think that people in the GCC use lots of energy and carbon because we have a lot of oil.
“They won’t be aware of Estidama, but we are more than just a ratings agency. We want to be present at the Federal and the regional level.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi