Estidama: The Arab World’s First Green Building System

by Susan Brautovich, LEED AP

Dubai may be whipped by recession and racked with debt, but Abu Dhabi is humming along just fine. A go-slow policy and fat oil reserves helped insulate Abu Dhabi from the worst effects of the credit crunch and the Gulf building frenzy that almost sank Dubai. Despite some slowing, plans to turn six square kilometers of Abu Dhabi desert into sustainable, car-free, carbon-neutral, zero-energy Masdar City forge ahead (3p Founder Nick Aster happens to be there right now).  Ditto the staggeringly ambitious 2030 Vision master plan, a near-total national overhaul intended to steer Abu Dhabi away from oil dependence and to accommodate an expected tripling of the population. Both feature some of the most innovative designs, materials, and systems seen anywhere in the world today.

All in all, it’s a lot of building, and Abu Dhabi intends to lead the way for the rest of the Gulf region in sustainable development. Estidama (Arabic for sustainability) has finally rolled out and it has some lofty goals. The Arab world’s first green building rating system, Estidama is Abu Dhabi’s answer to LEED but is designed around its own culture, environment, and ideas about sustainability (which might surprise you in their breadth).

Originally announced in 2008, the Estidama Pearl Rating System was intended to “promote thoughtful and responsible development while creating a balanced society on four equal pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, social, and cultural.” This broad charter sweeps up energy efficiency, resource conservation and other green building elements right along with principals of universal design (i.e., ADA-style accessibility features) and design elements that “enrich Arab physical cultural identity and improve the lives of its residents.”  Whew.

Estidama’s developer, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, aimed to benefit from the experience of predecessors LEED and the UK’s BREEAM but saw no reason to re-invent the wheel.  As such, Estidama is another point-based rating system offering flexible paths to compliance, measured in one to five “Pearls.”

Hailed as a fresh approach to green rating as it was baked into the local building code and permit process, was environmentally-specific to the region, and would address on-going building performance after commissioning, Estidama had been long awaited by dozens of construction firms and architects with projects on the boards. Although training classes (mostly NOT available online) began in late 2010, builders were still finding Estidama procedures not fully available at year’s end. Officially, however, all new private buildings in Abu Dhabi are required to comply with Estidama’s minimum One Pearl rating (two Pearls for new government buildings).

Meanwhile, some developers seeking green ratings for their buildings were going the LEED route. While we can debate the fine points of LEED’s applicability and effectiveness in the U.S. building environment, applying LEED standards in a building environment like the United Arab Emirates has some obvious problems because LEED naturally tends to reflect Western building conventions and lifestyles. Although the USGBC has promised to offer some level of “international options” in 2011, the current standard does not allow for regional differences.

Take LEED’s Sustainable Sites point category.  In the UAE and the Gulf in general, developers may win points for building in proximity to services and transportation, but brownfield development is generally less of an option. (Credit for avoiding wetlands may be a no-brainer, though.)  Provisioning for storm water runoff is also a different consideration where annual rainfall averages less than five inches.

Likewise, designers take a different approach to daylighting and designing for occupant views where temperatures average 90 degrees F year round and regularly reach 115. As for the bicycle rack credit – the LEED critic’s favorite whipping boy – and its attendant showering and changing facilities, the idea of cycling to work fits neither the region’s weather nor its cultural norms.

Lastly, the availability of locally-sourced, green (or greener) construction materials and options for debris disposal and recycling that address other LEED credits is naturally going to vary in this region. Water conservation, the environmental impacts of Abu Dhabi’s near-total dependence on desalination, and the energy required for active cooling are much weightier issues.

Estidama promises to address all of these regional differences and to close many of the loopholes that LEED and other established rating systems are criticized for – particularly around future building performance. This first year of implementation may show how viable that promise is for a region undertaking one of history’s monster building projects.


Follow along with more Masdar and Abu Dhabi coverage here.

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One response

  1. Susan, good to hear that although
    “Dubai may be whipped by recession and racked with debt, but Abu Dhabi is humming along just fine. A go-slow policy and fat oil reserves helped insulate Abu Dhabi from the worst effects of the credit crunch and the Gulf building frenzy that almost sank Dubai.”

    Dubai needs to follow a more sustainable example…

    Dubai reaches for the sky
    CNN –

    “This is Las Vegas on steroids,” said Terry Mock, executive director of Sustainable Land Development International, an organization that promotes development that balances economic, environmental and societal goals.

    Burj Dubai is a symbol of unsustainable development, Mock said, adding that the emirate’s recent economic bailout by neighbor Abu Dhabi is proof that Dubai is going about it the wrong way.

    Dubai lacks the oil resources of its neighbors, Mock said. He wonders how the emirate will produce the millions of gallons of fresh water its developments — including its famous palm tree-shaped artificial islands — require every day. Where will it produce electricity in the future? Where does its garbage go, he wondered.

    “I’m certainly not suggesting they ought to tear the building down, but there are ways to make these structures more sustainable,” he said.

    For starters, Mock suggested retrofitting the tower’s 24,348 glass panels with a film to let them double as solar panels. Contracts and agreements would have to be reworked to address economic and societal issues over time, he said.

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