Feb 28 2010 | Pulkit Sharma
Going beyond the applicability of a rating system for the built environment, I am writing this piece to analyze briefly the story behind the growth of Estidama (Pearl) rating system and its coming role in shaping the built environment in the Middle East in a post-LEED era. Before coming to MIT whilst I was preparing for the LEED AP certification last year, I became intrigued and wanted to understand more about the applicability of the USGBC (US Green Building Council)-developed LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system to the dry and arid ecology of UAE, and of the Middle East in general. I think I have developed a little bit of understanding about it this past year. LEED falls flat, in my opinion, on most of these counts. Does Estidama (Pearl) do any better?
LEED in the Middle East
I feel that the best practices developed by USGBC through the innovative and iterative LEED rating system from mid nineties (version 1.0) to version 3.0 (2009) as it stands today have provided a very useful benchmark and practice manual for the world , it definitely remains to be seen if the applicability of the LEED rating system is universal. My slight skepticism stems from the fact that most of the Credit ratings in the LEED system are derived out of codes and regulations taken out of American standards. After a quick review of the LEED NC one can easily come to the conclusion that some of the credit definitions which projects obtain in the LEED rating system are totally out-of-place for a desert ecology. If you consider carefully points like Site Selection (flood plains and wetlands), Bicycle storage and changing rooms, Storm water Design, Certified wood and Maximizing of Day light and Views then they all fall flat on this yardstick. Having said that it is very important to understand that the majority (>90%) of credits offered by LEED are very well thought out and are relevant universally.
Moving further, the debate in some academic circles of a need for a rating system and eco labeling as a legitimate means to promote sustainability is a separate question which I don’t want to delve into at this point. My affirmative answer for the above question is however a “yes” .The difference which quality urban environments make can be thought of in very simple terms as a difference between a garden full of flowers vs barren land, or as a Toyota prius vs. a gas guzzling motor car or as a mineral water bottle vs. water from a polluted source. Ask yourself which one do you want? Which one would you gift your future generations? Now think of a tool which lets you differentiate between these (on a broad brush level for complex urban environments) and also helps you differentiate between the incremental quality of the garden, fuel efficiency of the car and quality of water. Why won’t you such a useful tool? It will help you not only to benchmark quality but also increase the competitiveness of all stakeholders involved in producing quality products, it will thus become a matter of survival for them in the long run. Also I feel that a system and process to implement something “sustainable” which has a long-term impact is absolutely critical to long-term success of nations ( as they begin to tackle energy issues in the future) .
Let me analyze the evolution of Estidama from what I have read and understood:
“Launched in May 2008, Estidama – which means ‘sustainability’ in Arabic – is Abu Dhabi’s contribution to the global debate on how to create sustainable communities, cities and enterprises. Based on the four pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic, social and cultural – it aims to pull off the admittedly difficult trick of balancing all these concerns against the simple pursuit of progress and a better life for all.
Custom-tailored for the Abu Dhabi Emirate, Estidama was initially conceived as part of “Plan Abu Dhabi 2030”, under the direction of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, in collaboration with a number of agencies and developers who share a common vision to make Abu Dhabi a model of sustainable urbanization, recognized around the world.
This plan led in turn to “Community Sustainable Responsibility”, a totally pragmatic initiative that takes the impetus even beyond existing sustainability initiatives, by bringing in a strict program of monitoring, enforcing clear procedures and taking on the all-important task of clarifying and delegating responsibilities.”1
The key drivers which led to the initiation of this program was primarily the need to cater for huge, world-class developments such as Masdar City, among others, which are projected to increase the size of Abu Dhabi City from about 930,00 to 3 million people by the year 2030! The rising demographics are slated to pose a significant challenge in terms of energy consumption, natural resource impacts, housing affordability, traffic congestion, pollution, water conservation, and social harmony, just to mention a few.3
Now in this light it is important to understand the underlying dynamics of the Middle East as a region, and the drivers that have led to the development of Estidama as a concept. The combination of a need for a set of guidelines which are specific to the region in addition to the fast-decision-making regime (unlike the bureaucratic system in the west) is what makes the implementation of something as intense and path breaking as Estidama easily achievable. The present economic situation which has given a time for reorganizing the practices I reckon gives an additional impetus to focusing on quality over the quantity boom which was on say a couple of years back across the emirates.
Putting it in perspective, Abu Dhabi is an oil rich economy (9% of total reserves) but has an arid ecology with over 200 islands and huge coastline. It is expected to witness a huge population boom in the next two decades and thus it is definitely taking the steps in the right direction by focusing on a systematic and sustainable path of urban development. The formulation of the Estidama code in line with the 2030 Master plan highlights its strategic objective of making it a sustainable place to live for its future generations and for people and investors who flock to this emirate from all over the world. The fact that the oil reserves are finite and the communities that will be built today will last for decades if not centuries is a realization that has encouraged them to look at development form the eye of building a sustainable habitat which I am sure will be a benchmark for the rest of gulf which faces a similar dilemma of balancing rapid urban expansion for its growing populations.
Taking a deeper look the program has six main elements that are being carried out and complied simultaneously:
1. New Green Building Guidelines
2. Institutions and Pearls Rating System
3. Existing Building Guidelines
4. Public Building Guidelines
5. Industrial Buildings Guidelines
6. Community Guidelines
Each of these main elements has a series of sub elements which as I understand are being comprehensively drafted to provide a local best practice manual for sustainable growth.
Pearl Vs LEED: breaking it down
The Pearls Design System (PDS) (Analogous to LEED) that I am focusing on this article is a voluntary green build rating tool for master plans and individual developments. This is the rating tool that has been developed under estidama for the local ecology. PDS has a 1 to 5 (best) Pearl Rating and has six main categories each with a different % age contribution to the total just like the broad categorization in LEED. The six categories are: living systems (12%), livable communities/buildings (30%), precious water (22%), resourceful energy (22%), stewarding materials (12%) and innovative practice (2%).
Reflecting the importance of energy conservation similar to the Energy and Atmosphere Credit category ( 35% weight in V3.0 for New Construction) in LEED the PDS “Resourceful energy” category has the maximum sway of 22% of the overall rating with three pre-required points and seven additional credit areas with one of those a necessity for reaching a fifth Pearl rating.The Pearl Rating system similar to LEED is a voluntary program, available to developers who want to achieve recognition for pursuing a higher level of green building and development.
An important advantage of Pearl vs. LEED is that the Prerequisites for Pearl Ratings will be embedded in the development codes and regulations, as opposed to being isolated in the rating criteria, which effectively moves them towards becoming a requirement rather than an option.
This is a unique innovation and implies that every project developed in Abu Dhabi will achieve a higher level of sustainability by meeting the code. It will thus also provide greater support and encouragement for those developers who positively aim for a higher quality of sustainable development.2
Pearl also has a well-concieved “Alternate Compliance Path”. It recognizes that significant industry knowledge and capability has already been created around widely adopted green building programs such as BREEAM, LEED and Green Star. Rather than create yet another set, the Pearl Rating system endeavors to harmonize the criteria that currently exist within these programs. So developers and consultants can work with a program they are already comfortable and familiar with and still achieve a Pearl Rating. This adds a layer of flexibility and harmonizes it with the developments in rating systems globally. In sum it is a positive step and shows leadership and commitment on the part of the government of Abu Dhabi.
“How well is it implemented on the ground? How well is it accepted by the communities? How much of an impact does it make? How fast is it adapted by other stakeholders in the Middle East? How much is it backed by the government? Answers to these questions will unlock the doors to the future of sustainability as a way of life in the Middle East!
3 IESG Guidelines August 2008