By Gavin Gibbon
When the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) signalled its intent to find a new global headquarters, the UAE had every right to be confident that it had the perfect place.
Abu Dhabi is more widely known for its multi-billion dollar oil industry, and, as such, sceptics would have been forgiven for raising an eyebrow back in 2008 when the capital broke ground and embarked on a daring journey to develop Masdar City - the world’s most sustainable eco-city.
But faith in the vision was repaid in spades just one year later, when Masdar City beat off strong competition from applications from Germany and Austria, among others, to secure the hosting rights for the IRENA HQ and, for the first time, see an inter-governmental organisation based in the Middle East.
Chris Wan, head of design management at Masdar City, said: “When we realised that IRENA were looking for a permanent home, in the early stages of Masdar City, we deemed it to be the perfect match. It was a major landmark decision, not just for us, but for the entire UAE.”
IRENA, the world’s fastest growing inter-governmental organisation, is mandated as the global hub for renewable energy cooperation and information exchange by 140 members (139 States and the European Union). Roughly 32 additional countries are in the accession process and actively engaged. The outfit promotes the widespread adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy, including bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, solar and wind energy in the pursuit of sustainable development, energy access, energy security and low-carbon economic growth and prosperity.
Quite the client for Masdar in its Masdar City development. But Wan explained that there was additional pressure with such a high profile tenant coming on board.
He said: “Because it is for an inter-governmental organisation, the alignment of all stakeholders involved in the project was quite a challenge. The developer organisation being Masdar and all our various departments - we are a multi-disciplinary company - the engineers and architects that we work with, and also the end user, which is the IRENA organisation itself. In order to achieve a truly sustainable building, it was imperative that all parties fully bought into the concept. We needed everyone running in the same direction as opposed to each stakeholder only considering their own agenda.
“At Masdar we are fortunate in that the IRENA headquarters was not the first sustainable building we had built. Previously we had the Masdar Institute, we also had the Siemens building which is the first LEED platinum building in Abu Dhabi. So we already had a few green buildings under our belt, giving us the opportunity to continuously learn.”
IRENA moved to its new Masdar City headquarters, coincidentally in the very centre of Masdar City, in 2015 - a 32,000 m2 complex consisting of three interconnected buildings, working together to conserve energy and water and create shared space.
As Wan revealed, there is a tried and tested formula to construction at Masdar City. All buildings are built with design aspects to reduce energy consumption. The windows in the buildings are designed in a way that, 90% of the time, direct solar radiation does not enter the room, which in turn helps to significantly reduce air conditioning–related power consumption. Permanent shades installed outside the windows maximise the light entering the room while minimising the heating effect. And all buildings in the city have been oriented along the direction of typical wind flow, helping to keep the temperature of the city noticeably lower than the outside.
However, the IRENA headquarters also boasts some impressive aspects of its own to make it one of the most advanced buildings in the country as well as one of the most sustainable of any organisation worldwide.
Wan said: “We achieved more than 90% construction waste diversion from landfill. This is more common these days but Masdar were the very first people in the UAE to implement this during our very first building at Masdar City. It was pioneering then but now everyone’s catching on and we are very happy to see this spreading.”
Building construction made use of Abu Dhabi’s green supply chain, incorporating low-carbon, locally sourced, sustainable materials including recycled steel and recycled-content aluminum and cement.
“Of all the materials in your typical building in Abu Dhabi, concrete has the highest energy area, meaning it requires the most energy to produce for construction,”said Wan. “We use what we call a low carbon concrete mix and we do this by replacing part of the cement which is where most of the embodied carbon or energy is, with a material called GGBS (Ground Granulated Blast Furnace Slag - a by-product from the production of steel). By doing this, because it is a waste material, you can reduce the embodied carbon in the concrete by up to 40%.”
A 1,000 m2 solar photovoltaic rooftop system produces 305,000 kWh of electricity annually. In addition, the solar hot water system saves an equivalent of 27,850 kWh, accounting for 75% of the building’s hot water demand. Altogether, the renewable energy systems output of the building covers more than 10% of the building energy demand. The overall complex uses roughly 50% less water than typical buildings in Abu Dhabi.
And thanks to passive design and smart energy-management systems, the complex demands 42% less energy than global energy benchmarks and 64% less than typical buildings in Abu Dhabi.
Wan explained: “On all our projects we recover the energy from the exhaust air. When you exhaust it, that air is still very cold because you’ve cooled it from the outside air temperature of 40 degrees celsius down to an internal temperature of 23-24 degrees celsius. It still has a lot of coolth energy in it. We incorporate systems that recoup up to 75% of the coolth energy before it goes out into the open air.”
These elements combined lead to the IRENA headquarters becoming the first office building in Abu Dhabi to be awarded the prestigious 4 Pearl Estidama Construction Rating Certificate by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC). This is the first green building certification code to be adopted in the Middle East region and is used to assess sustainability performance of buildings, communities, and villas.
It is recognition for the hard work and efforts that went into creating the new headquarters, but Wan also believes it is just reward for sticking to the mantra of Masdar City, where sustainability must follow the three key pillars - environmental, social and economic. In particular, dispelling the myth that sustainability to help save the earth must cost the earth.
He said: “To us, the IRENA HQ building is also profit-driven and cost-effective. We tell everyone you can build cost green buildings while still keeping your financial model intact. We still have so many developers coming to us saying we love what you’re doing but we cannot afford to do what you do. We’re breaking this mindset.
“You choose between putting Italian marble in your bathroom or putting a local equivalent and use that cost difference to buy better insulation. It’s not about spending more money, it’s about deciding consciously where you want to invest your money and that’s what we are doing here. We have a pot of money to build a building and we want to see, from an environmental point of view, what is the best way to spend this money.”
And this format continues to reap rewards for Masdar and Masdar City with the Etihad Eco Residences - 500 residential units to house the cabin crew members and staff of Etihad - which were inaugurated earlier this year. Under a very strict budget, following a similar process to the one for the IRENA headquarters, the building has already collected a clutch of awards and has achieved LEED Platinum status.
“We still continue our journey. We still have many things we can learn and improve on, but I do believe we are on the right track,” said Wan.