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The Transformation of Building Envelopes in the Middle East

By: Abdulmajid Karanouh

The Status Quo

The contemporary perception of building envelopes in terms of design and function have been heavily influenced by a major paradigm shift that impacted the built environment following the industrial revolution. The latter paved the way for modernism which became widespread in the second half of the 20th century. The industrial yet minimalistic approach of modernism resulted in the oversimplification of architecture and building envelopes, where minimal consideration was given to passive design and other functional aspects in favour of technology, which in return over complicated building engineering and construction.

New materials and over sized building services equipment and structural frames had to be introduced to compensate for thinner, weaker, and lower performance envelopes which resulted in building products that consume significantly more energy to build and to operate.

Sustainable Architecture Design at The Bastakiya Heritage Village The Bastakiya Heritage Village in Dubai presents an excellent example of context considerate sustainable architecture

The ripple effect of modernism reached the Middle East in the form of the “one size fits all” International Style as Western influence grew in the region. Ultra-thin, fully glazed, and fully sealed envelopes with little to no consideration to the urban and environmental context spread rapidly as the region grew into a major oil producer and consumer. Consequently, this resulted in an over dependence on fossil fuel-derived power to construct, operate and maintain most of the built environment in the urbanised part of the world, especially in the hot and arid region of the Middle East and the GCC.

The above conditions created a highly unsustainable and unhealthy environment in many highly industrialized and urbanised parts of the world. Global and local bodies and related “green” initiatives and “visions” (2030) may indeed open many doors and opportunities to turn things around. However, the roots of the problem require close examination to be able to provide genuine and effective solutions. There are various sustainable design principles and related features used in past vernacular architecture and passive design that are responsive and very well suited to the context of the built environment that we can learn from.

Once Upon A Time…

Hadramoaut in Yemen a Vernacular Architecture Design The vernacular architecture of Hadramoaut in Yemen where buildings (over 400 years old) that appear to integrate naturally with their context presents another excellent example of sustainable design

Prior to the growing popularity of the international style, building envelopes were more deeply rooted in the design and functionality of buildings. They played a more dynamic role in terms of offering a higher number of vital functions when compared to contemporary building envelopes of the 20th and 21st centuries.

World Trade Centre Dubai UAE - Building Envelopes
World Trade Centre Dubai

Exterior walls, for example, were a key element of the supporting structure of the building, and were known as being load-bearing. In addition to structural considerations, that resulted in most cases in thicker and denser walls, passive design played a critical role in terms of defining the orientation and form of the building and the articulation, size, depth, location, shading method, and operability of the envelope’s openings. Building envelopes, therefore, contributed to more effective natural ventilation, admission of natural light, insulation, and cooling/heating due to higher thermal mass that can better store and radiate energy (cool/ heat) internally. In the Middle East for example, building envelopes were further augmented with additional passive features such as wind catchers, humidifiers and dehumidifiers, dust filters, shading screens and vegetation among many others.

Buildings generally, and envelopes particularly, were predominantly made of locally sourced natural materials that have already withstood the test of time. Therefore, they were naturally more compatible with their environment and therefore were by default more durable and sustainable than contemporary materials that ubiquitous building envelopes are made of. Therefore, the obvious question that comes to one’s mind is why can we not draw inspiration from past proven techniques and revive them in a genuine yet contemporary fashion? Do we remain firmly attached to the near one-century old pre-conceived notion that “the lighter and more transparent the more advanced and attractive” even when the laws of physics and the performance of the end-product clearly point in the exact opposite direction?

Index Tower Dubai UAE Index Tower Dubai

The contemporary “green” or sustainability movement started growing in the built environment with the establishment of the US Green Building Council in 1993, where the development of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) began. “Green” quickly developed into a global trend with Al Gore’s Global Warming campaign which snowballed with the release of “An Inconvenient Truth” in May 2006. This trend was immediately picked up by key regional players in the Middle East. The UAE launched the Emirates Green Building Council in 2006 and Abu Dhabi followed by announcing the Masdar City project the same year.

Building Envelopes at Residence 22 Dubai UAE
Residence 22 Dubai

This was followed by several regional initiatives, including Qatar’s National Vision 2030 in 2008, GSAS in 2009 (Qatar), Estidama in 2011 (Abu Dhabi), and just recently Sa’fat in 2018 (Dubai). While these initiatives have achieved various degrees of success and failure alike, they continue to affect the built environment and the building industry in the region. Certain requirements directly impact the design, engineering, material sourcing, energy performance and energy sourcing (renewables), construction, operation, and overall budget and delivery programme of buildings. Such an impact is likely going to increase exponentially in the next few years due to the highly ambitious targets set by the “2030” visions. However, how well are these initiatives and visions set up to genuinely tackle and uproot the challenges and problems facing sustainable design?

Maze Tower Dubai
Maze Tower Dubai

While it is nearly impossible to find two identical definitions for the term “sustainable design”, the following definition was formulated for the purpose of making a case for potential solutions to our global sustainability and environmental challenges. A “sustainable design” suggests a project/product (a building for example) where all the resources (human, financial, materials, energy, air, water, plants, animals, etc.) required to design, construct, operate, maintain, refurbish, or decommission it can be recycled and renewed within the whole project life cycle without harming the well-being and habitability of the planet.

While undoubtedly well-intended, there are still too many gaps and loopholes in the system to enable the establishment of sustainable design as a genuine and applicable practice. In addition to resistance to change and firm attachment to old perceptions (or rather misconceptions) as alluded to earlier, there are also many geopolitical, economic, and commercial challenges facing various stakeholders across the building industry. Some of those challenges, for example, are the fact that oil production and consumption of oil-derived energy remain as the main source of revenue for most key players in the Middle East and the GCC. In that respect, it would be difficult to imagine an oil-free economy and subsequently, oil-free built environment and building construction industry any time soon until such conditions change.

Building Envelopes
Table of past sustainable architectural systems and solutions

Any attempt in that respect to develop and build a genuinely sustainable building under the pure definition of “sustainable design”, as suggested above, would require considerable R&D investment in terms of time, effort, and resources. This is in order to avoid ending up with exact replicas of traditional vernacular solutions that may not be entirely suited to today’s requirements while also avoiding masking existing ubiquitous solutions disingenuously. However, this may not be feasible to a single project owner or investor unless it becomes a motion sponsored and promoted by the highest authorities and financial bodies in the country. Importing solutions that work in other regions like, Europe or North America, without at least proper adaptation to the region’s context and the environment is only bound to make things worse. Having a balanced transparent v/s solid envelope ratio and utilising the main frame and external shading elements to reduce heat gain can improve the performance of the building while adding character to it.

Improving Present Building Envelopes

Considering the status quo and the current state of “sustainable design” presented earlier, stakeholders across the built environment will be facing surmounting challenges in the next few years to develop genuinely sustainable building envelope solutions. However, while fully sustainable solutions may not yet be feasible or attainable for every project, the following are proven principles and techniques that can significantly improve the technical and financial performance of building envelopes in the Middle East.

Insulation v/s Shading

In colder regions like Northern Europe, greater emphasis is placed on insulation as opposed to shading and ventilation as the intent is to retain heat during long cold seasons while keeping cold air out. Therefore, while additional insulation and admission of light that double-skin glass envelopes provide may be useful in colder regions, it can be challenging in hotter regions as the temperature of the air gap between the two skins can reach above 100°C – requiring an increase in size and ventilation speed to make it work. However, heat gain due to the energy exchange between the external hot air and internal cooler air only accounts for 15-20% of the total heat gain of the building while 80% is due to direct exposure to sunlight. Therefore, if the external glass skin is removed and the incorporated blinds are transformed into a robust shading element, it can reduce heat gain and subsequently the required cooling loads and energy consumption of the building by over 50%.

Transparent v/s Solid

Al-Bahr Towers, Abu Dhabi
Al-Bahr Towers, Abu Dhabi

In sunny regions like the Middle East, fully glazed envelopes cause major challenges in terms of glare and heat gain. Therefore, designers resort to using glass with special reflective/darker coatings and internal blinds to reduce the admission of both visible light and heat. This does, however, compromise visibility and the ambiance especially when no direct sunlight faces the envelope. A more optimised solution would require a more balanced ratio between solid and transparent areas of the envelope. Accordingly, narrower yet higher openings can help in admitting more balanced amounts of natural light while allowing deeper spaces to be naturally lit as well.

The solid parts of the envelope can, therefore, become structural members as part of the mainframe of the building offering better insulation and shading on the outside and more thermal mass on the inside. This will also reduce the requirement for internal columns that obstruct internal spaces and reduce the total usable area and efficiency of the building. The solid part of the façade can be used architecturally to contribute to the aesthetics and character of the building. Lastly, avoiding fully glazed envelopes automatically reduces both capital and operational costs of the building.

Future building envelopes will incorporate digitally (smart) driven adaptive systems that respond to the dynamic nature of users and the environment, like the Al-Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi. Future building envelopes will incorporate natural adaptive systems that respond to the changing seasons of the environment while requiring less maintenance than mechanically driven solutions, like the students’ accommodation for the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

Digitalisation (smart and artificial intelligence-based solutions) is the new rising trend that is expected to spread across the built environment within the next few years. In that respect, we may expect to see traditionally fixed or manually operated building envelope elements like blinds, and shading screens, operable windows and skylights be linked to smart systems with incorporated sensors. Smart systems can, therefore, detect changes in the environment and behaviour of occupants and adapt the building envelope and internally related building services like artificial lighting and air conditioning among others, to optimise the overall performance of the building and improve the wellbeing and comfort of occupants.

On the opposite side of the of the spectrum, another rising trend is the incorporation of natural adaptive systems into building envelopes that can respond to the changing environment while requiring less capital and operational cost than mechanically driven solutions normally do. We may expect to see the use of vegetation that rapidly grow on external building walls during sunny seasons to provide shading and milder microclimates.

Renewables like photovoltaics are still a long way from being incorporated efficiently into building envelopes in the Middle East, especially in the GCC, due to a number of reasons, including:

a) They are expensive to buy as they are imported from industrialised nations,

b) They are expensive to maintain due to the dusty and rainless nature of the environment,

c) They are not yet very efficient from an energy output as it stands

d) Their surface temperature can reach above 90°C – in return, radiating heat back into the building.

Accordingly, PV panels are currently best used in accessible low-rise areas placed up-right[ish] and offset from the building envelope by at least 2 meters to allow them to cool off through convection without impacting the building envelope, while also acting as an effective shading screen. We may also see more serious attempts to explore ways to use the abundant amount of sand in the region as a building material. Contrary to common belief, most sand types in the region are not used for producing glass or even in the concrete mix!

Abdulmajid Karanouh

International Director and Head of Interdisciplinary Design & Innovation

Abdulmajid Karanouh with a background in Architecture (BSc), Computation (MSc), Engineering (MSc) and Design Communication (PhD), he has developed over the past 20 years from a passionate specialist in complex architecture into an inter-disciplinary design lead in the built environment. His journey includes working on some of the largest masterplans in the world and on many record-breaking and award-winning projects involving high-profile organisations in Europe, the Middle East, and South East Asia. He is especially focused developing context-considerate integrated urban solutions and innovative buildings systems using BIM-augmented algorithmic thinking and computation. Abdulmajid Karanouh currently heads the Interdisciplinary Design & Innovation group at Drees & Sommer.

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