Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pearls of wisdom

I generally listen to what passes for Talk Radio on my 90-minute daily commute. Dubai Eye (103.8MHz) does that Business Breakfast thing from 6am until I drop out of range at about 6:45 and have to switch to Radio 2 (106MHz) as I approach the capital. The journey home is marginally better because the BBC World Service (87.9MHz) is in English until 6pm.

On Wednesday I was tuned to Dubai Eye after 6pm, having put in ten of my contracted eight hours (less half an hour for lunch) and I was commuting home. Fortunately, the amount of foopball news was minimal; instead, there was an interesting half hour feature on ‘green buildings’.

Sorry, but as I was driving I wasn’t in any position to take notes, so no names, no firms, no phone numbers.

The presenter had a whine that, following years and years of living apartments, he’d moved into a villa. The air conditioning upstairs was apparently poor, and Mr Maintenance advised him that this was because of the sun. Apparently, sunlight heats the roof which, in turn, radiates heat into the building. Imagine that, eh? Strong sunlight in the Gulf. Who’d have thought it? The solution offered was to run the air conditioning at full throttle for three days until the ceiling and wall slabs had been cooled.

Here we have the problem. Buildings constructed “six months ago” are to the same standards that were considered appropriate for the region in about 1975. A typical build comprises a reinforced concrete frame on a concrete pad foundation, a single skin of hollow concrete blocks make the outside walls, and reinforced concrete slabs compose the upper floors and the roof. If it isn’t flat, the roof slab gets tiles nailed to the concrete. The walls, at least those bits that aren’t windows or doors, are rendered outside with cementicious stucco, and inside it’s plaster.

Where is the insulation? An air gap of about four inches really doesn’t have much insulating effect, particularly when it’s bridged by the block construction, the mortar and whatever the brickies dropped down the gap during construction.

But it’s cheap. And this is why energy inefficient buildings continue to be constructed. This is despite, as the radio article pointed out, “around Dh3000 spent on insulation” yielding a “Dh15000 saving” in terms of smaller air conditioning units running for fewer hours, to say nothing of not having to leave them on for three days. And at four kilowatts per unit, that’s a shedload of electricity.

Most real estate in the Gulf is owned by citizens: nationals. Those who pay little or nothing for their electricity have no real incentive not to run the air conditioning on maximum at all times. Heat pours into the building, and gets pumped out again essentially for nuppence. There’s a perceived financial advantage in throwing up a bespoke villa as cheaply as possible, and someone buying a developer’s house doesn't really have to worry about electricity bills either. You won’t realise your Dh12000 saving if your running cost is zero.

What about the other 85% of the population? Those who don’t get free electricity? These residents either rent or buy cheaply-built concrete boxes. Either way, the incentive is to build at minimum cost because the consequences of no insulation are borne by the tenant or in the latter case, the ‘freeholder’.

There's little incentive for a tenant to undertake substantial environmental building improvements. Even if the landlord allowed it and it were practically feasible, in a year or two you might have to walk away from expensive solar panels - or even compact fluorescent light bulbs, so the long-term benefits wouldn’t happen to the environmentalist or his wallet. And why, incidentally, do the so-called ‘long-life’ CF lightbulbs purchased at additional expense invariably fail within a few months? So much for the alleged ten-year life...

But there is good environmental news on the horizon. In Abu Dhabi there are moves towards more environmentally sustainable buildings. Estidama, which is Arabic for ‘sustainability’, promotes a so-called “Pearl Rating” that includes insulation requirements and a whole lot more besides. Proximity to public transport, non-toxic building materials, grey water recycling, bicycle parking, painting the exterior white, solar panels for free domestic hot water, and even advice on planting native plants outside that don’t drink vast quantities of water. One suggestion is even to use ceiling fans (anyone remember those?) instead of air conditioning in the spring and autumn.

I have downloaded the PDF blurb about villas. Whilst it’s not worth trying to retro-fit insulation in the Crumbling Villa, there may be some useful pearls (ba-doom, tsch!) of wisdom applicable for the Cyprus retirement palace.



EyeOnDubai said...

It's a welcome start. Even simple tactics such as shading your flat roof with a simple canvas sail will have a beneficial effect.

But what I'd really like to see is a building designed and constructed to take advantage of the local conditions - solar hot water, perhaps ground-scource cooling, intelligent use of indirect light and inclined walls with shaded covering etc etc

The potential is there, the benefits huge. Know any good architetcs?

toddjames said...

Excellent post on exterior insulation. As explained in your post, insulation products are an essential ingredient to quality build construction projects. A great resource to start with is the McGraw Hill exterior insulation directory. I work for McGraw hill and can vouch that I have never seen a more useful directory full of top quality solutions. You can get lists of products, manufacturers, detailed information, images, and even download CAD details from their site. Hope this helps.

samuraisam said...

I switched from carpet to tiles in my villa several years back and I noticed the AC worked about 50,000X better overnight. It was awesome.


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