Dubai welcomes new green building regulations

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The Dubai Municipality’s decision to introduce Al Safat, a green building rating system for new buildings in Dubai is set to improve corporate sustainability in the UAE. The rating system has been designed to achieve high sustainable performance of buildings by strengthening their planning, design, implementation and operational phases.

It is now mandatory for all building owners, investors and developers to meet the Al Safat’s minimum bronze rating – those failing to meet the minimum rating criteria will not be given permits. According to the Dubai Municipality, by applying Al Safat standards a building can produce savings in energy use of up to 34 per cent – currently, more than 90 per cent of buildings in Dubai constructed after 2001 already meet the necessary criteria to qualify for the bronze certification.

The introduction of Al Safat is a promising move by the Dubai Municipality – since Dubai pledged to make Expo 2020 the first sustainable Expo the UAE Government has made very clear its intention to become a successful model of a sustainable economy and has put in place some ambitious targets to make this vision a reality.

The UAE Government’s implementation of plans and policies such as the Al Safat System are highly important in helping to promote and enforce policies to reduce its carbon footprint. Dubai’s commitment to becoming a world leading ‘green’ city provides businesses with an opportunity to understand and implement strategies that can translate to their bottom line.

Millennials influencing workplace design in the UAE

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The UAE’s commercial fit-out market has experienced a greater demand for office workplaces that meet the expectations of the ‘Millennial Generation’ who are reshaping workplace design in the UAE. This ambitious, tech-savvy generation has notably different working styles and preferences than other generations and place much higher value on the office environment and workplace culture. Designers, architects and workspace experts have started to introduce these principles into their projects to increase user satisfaction and productivity.

Millennials look for collaborative working environments where they can share ideas and learn from their colleagues. As ‘digital natives’ they rely on 24/7 connectivity to technology so they feel less reason to be tied to a desk. Offices that are designed to encourage collaboration via cleverly integrated sharable ‘digital spaces’, such as a top-of-the-range conference rooms, help to foster collaboration and improve creativity and productivity within the workplace.
Transparency is one of the top qualities that Millennials look for in leaders – honest, open cultures where there are limited barriers between management teams. This is reflected in office fit-outs where the focus is shifting towards open and airy spaces. Glass partitions for office cubicles are increasingly favoured over gypsum partitions. However, these open spaces also need to be balanced with private areas. Millennials want to know their colleagues are always approachable, but also want to enjoy their own privacy when they need to concentrate.

‘Rethinking’ the use of space has fast become a top priority for companies in order to encourage employee engagement. Many Millennials want to feel that their company really cares about their wellbeing and this has seen a rise in the demand for health amenities in the workplace. From yoga rooms, to pantries stocked with free and healthy foods and sleep corners, companies are increasingly understanding the role that the physical environment plays in promoting wellbeing at work.

‘Millennial offices’ are firmly shaping the future of the corporate real estate industry. By 2020 Millennials will form 50% of the global workforce and, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the UAE is the top emerging market destination for young professionals looking to further their careers. Interestingly, a survey carried out by HSBC’s private banking arm showed that the UAE has the youngest successful entrepreneurs in the world.

Investing in the workspace should not be considered an extra cost, but an investment that has a positive impact on employees’ happiness, productivity, and loyalty. This will, in turn, enhance the organisation’s overall success. As Millennials continue to dominate the workforce, companies must adapt to new ways of doing business in order to retain employees and encourage productivity.

Increased corporate sustainability awareness needed in the UAE

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

Despite the progressive measures the UAE Government is taking to make the country a successful global model of sustainable development, UAE businesses are still considerably behind their Western counterparts when it comes to implementing sustainable practises.

Since Dubai pledged to make Expo 2020 the first sustainable expo, the UAE’s sustainable development agenda has been thrust into the global spotlight. The UAE Government has made very clear its intention to become a successful model of a sustainable economy and has put in place some ambitious targets to make this vision a reality.

In 2015, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050. This aims to make Dubai a global centre of clean energy and green economy by providing 7% of Dubai’s energy from clean energy sources by 2020, 25% by 2030 and 75% by 2050.

The UAE through its diverse strategies and investments in clean and renewable energy is leading global efforts in this area, despite having the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Since the recent unveiling of the new cabinet including the appointment of Thani Kharkhash as Minister of State for Climate Change and Environment, much effort is being put into diversifying the UAE’s economy away from oil by 2021 to create a business environment that ensures economic and social stability.

Although there has been an increased interest in building green in the past few years, the corporate and economic benefits of sustainability are still underestimated in the region. Being green is a lifestyle choice and a business strategy, which, if done well, positively impacts the company’s bottom line. People will be more engaged and work better together, costs will be managed more efficiently, and the company will gain credibility in the market.

As a company that walks the talk, our clients, partners and the business community in general look to us for advice and knowledge when it comes to integrating sustainability into their business operations. From our own experience, the most common mistake companies make when they want to embrace sustainability is having too narrow a vision: setting just a few goals and metrics for measurement, and then following those without looking at the big picture.

Sustainability has always been at the forefront of Summertown’s operations and we will continue to pioneer the ‘green’ movement here in the UAE. We look to inspire and help other companies to integrate ‘green’ practises into their business strategy to help sustainability become the standard modus operandi, both in the UAE and worldwide.

Air pollution control in the UAE – both outdoor and indoor

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This year’s edition of the Little Green Data Book by World Bank Group, the highly reputable reference on key environmental data for over 200 economies, welcomed the inclusion of two new indicators on ambient air pollution.

Worryingly, the findings highlighted that in many countries, exposure to air pollution is increasing at a fast rate and has in fact become the main environmental threat to health. In the UAE, the emphasis on air quality is treated as a serious matter which is led by the Ministry of Environment and Water.

Although the results of both new indicators for the UAE proved to be much higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines, the Ministry has been working hard to combat the issue and continue to improve the region’s air quality. For example, the introduction of a further eleven air quality monitoring stations are to be built as part of a new monitoring system called UAE Air Quality Network.

Although this is a commendable feat for the UAE, we believe that it is also just as important to raise awareness of indoor air pollution and put in place controls to reduce it. According to the Dubai Municipality’s Public Health and Safety Department, “people spend an average of 90 per cent of their time indoors”. Therefore, tackling indoor air pollution is a necessity, as the pollutants indoors can be just as high as outdoors and can cause harm to both the family home and working environment.

For example, indoor air quality invariably impacts the overall working atmosphere of any office space. If indoor air is polluted, employees are more likely to feel sick and uncomfortable, resulting in a negative impact on productivity levels. Indoor air can be polluted by a number of factors ranging from furniture materials used, a lack of proper housekeeping or even as a result of occupants’ activities.

What we have found is that it is also important to ensure the building or office occupancy quota does not exceed standards in workspace design as the extra bodies will impact air quality. Pollution caused by poor quality furniture and fixtures can be easily avoided by specifying or installing products and materials with low or no Volatile Organic Compound levels.

When it comes to maintenance and housekeeping works, be sure to use cleaning products that are environmentally friendly. Those that are not tend to cause micro levels of air contamination. Occupants’ activities such as smoking close to the building can be easily taken care of by ensuring designated smoking areas are away from the building.

Air pollution can also be caused by a general lack of fresh air supply. Having the right ventilation system design at the time of construction and, an operation and maintenance policy that is adhered to, will help to monitor supply of fresh air. At our LEED Gold certified showroom, sensors have been installed in closed meeting areas to ensure fresh air is pumped in when carbon dioxide levels are high. In this way, we have been able to provide 30% more fresh air in our offices than ASHRAE standards.

During the construction of our office we ensured we used low-emitting adhesives, paints and sealants, certified eco-friendly system furniture and seating, and implemented a two-week flush-out period before occupancy.

While we don’t have specific research to prove this, it is logical to say that indoor air quality can be harmed if the level of pollution outdoors is high. If your workspace is located in an industrial area or even within a busy city where the air is more polluted, it is likely to damage air quality indoors, especially if you are trying to pump in ‘fresh air’ from the outside.

Looking ahead, we are confident that decreasing air pollution will be a high priority for the Ministry of Environment and Water. However, it is important to note that it is not only the government’s responsibility, but all segments of society.

From small to large businesses, we all have a part to play — a part that can be beneficial for the business, the community in which it exists, and the planet as a whole.

Want to increase productivity? Think about indoor air quality

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By Paul Briers, Projects Director, Summertown Interiors

A healthy employee is a happy employee. Many companies now recognise employees as their most important asset. They have also realised that by focusing on employee wellness they not only improve their market reputation, but also levels of employee engagement and productivity, which positively impacts their bottom lines.

There are various workplace initiatives taking place across the UAE to promote and support a healthier lifestyle, from offering guidance on healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise to free health check-ups. As a fit-out contractor specialised in green interiors, Summertown Interiors is encouraged to see more companies rethink the way they fit-out their offices in order to promote and support a healthier lifestyle for their employees.

There is, however, an issue which is often overlooked: indoor air quality. Although a survey by the Environment Agency Abu-Dhabi shows that people are significantly more aware of the importance of air quality, with awareness rising from seven per cent in 2013 to 90 per cent in 2014, the issue of indoor air quality goes largely unnoticed. This is most likely due to a misconception that while the air is polluted outside, we are safe once inside our homes or offices. The truth is indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, some alarming news considering we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors.

What exactly makes the indoor air so bad? Among the pollutants in an office are chemical emissions coming from conventional building materials, furnishings, cleaning products, paints or even office products such as printers, mould and poor ventilation. The latter is particularly relevant to the UAE, where access to fresh outdoor air is not possible most of the year, making us dependent on air conditioning systems.

Having the right ventilation system design at the time of construction and, an operation and maintenance policy that is adhered to, will help to monitor supply of fresh air. At Summertown’s LEED Gold certified showroom, sensors have been installed in closed meeting areas to ensure fresh air is pumped in when carbon dioxide levels are high. In this way, we have been able to provide 30% more fresh air in our offices than ASHRAE standards.

To improve air quality, the countless toxins found in our indoor environment—such as formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few—must be reduced as much as possible. Besides having a proper ventilation system, this can be done by using green certified fit-out products and materials with low or no VOC levels, proper housekeeping, and by making sure the office occupancy quote does not exceed standards in workspace design.

Adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality and recently we have seen an increase interest in adding green walls, which are panels of plants grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness for its occupants.

The role of bespoke in interior design

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

I recently attended a panel discussion at Design Days Dubai on the role and value of bespoke in interior design. The panel included members from Capsule Art, Pallavi Dean Interiors and the UK Crafts Council, and the main focus of the discussion related to commissioning bespoke art for interior design projects.
Bespoke is a subject that is close to my heart, not only because Summertown Interiors recently commissioned bespoke art for our office from Mawaheb, a local art studio for adults with special needs, but also because of the highly personalised service that we offer our clients, particularly for green fit-out projects. A number of points raised during the talk resonated with Summertown’s business, and I left with the impression that from a designer’s point of view there are many similarities between convincing a client to commission a piece of art and convincing them to opt for a green fit-out.

It was agreed that there is a common misconception that commissioning bespoke art is a risk, whereas buying something that is ready-made and tangible is a safe option. The opposite is in fact true. A bespoke piece of art or furniture is personalised – it has been created to be just right for the client and to fit their brief as closely as possible.

The same can be said for a green fit-out. When looking at ways to reduce waste and carbon emissions while creating a healthier workspace, the designer and contractor take must take into account the individual behaviour of the occupants, paying close attention to the workspace and maximizing it to the full.  Green fit-outs, particularly retro fit projects, also encompass a number of creative resourceful solutions that are bespoke through the reuse of existing materials. For example, in one of our projects The Change Initiative, we removed the marble flooring and reused it in the kitchen, and reused wooden flooring to make the wooden wall paneling.

Another point raised during the talk was that clients felt commissioning art was expensive. This is also a main factor that is considered when it comes to a green fit-out. A green fit-out costs only marginally more than one that is not – approx. 1-2% for a project that is certified at the lower level, and up to a 20% increase for the higher rating; ‘going green’, however, delivers major benefits in the long run due to operational cost savings for the building occupants.

Again we see a similarity with original art work in that green design really comes into its own as time passes. Landlords will see their building appreciate in value as the benefits of the project start to be felt. We estimate that ROI for a green project is between 1 and 8 years, depending on the size and scale of a project.
The talk ended on a positive note – the design industry in Dubai is one of the most exciting in the world. UAE projects want to push the boundaries and be the biggest and the best. For everyone in the industry this is great news. Once clients understand the role of bespoke, green, and customisation, and value their many benefits, we will start to see some major developments in the industry and, knowing the UAE, it will happen sooner than we think.

The Evolution of Office Design

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I am sure by now you would have heard the somewhat alarming statistic that over 30 per cent of our life will be spent at work. We all know that colleagues can become like family and equally the office can become a second home.  Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of providing employees with a workplace that they look forward to coming to everyday – this not only applies to the people they work with but the environment that they are in. It has been proven that the built environment can not only inspire but also relieve and heal as with the case of Maggie Cancer Care Centres, for example, in the United Kingdom. Office design also plays an important role in ensuring that you get the best from your employees, and its evolution over the years has developed to reflect this.

We have witnessed a marked shift in the way offices are designed; the market has moved away from fixed bespoke joinery items in favour of more flexible off-the-shelf furniture. In order to meet the demands of a mobile workforce, companies are choosing open plan, activity-based layouts to facilitate a more collaborative approach to work and personal accountability.

Workplaces today increasingly reflect this requirement for transparency where solid wooden doors and partitions have been replaced with glazing set in aluminium or steel frames. Also, long shared desks with mobile pedestals are increasingly replacing single workstations.  Efficient use of office furniture increases maximizes available floor space and provides opportunities to introduce breakout areas where staff can gather and collaborate, an important requirement among the millennial generation.

Along with an open plan office deign, we are also seeing an increasing awareness of environmental concerns such as recycling stations and energy saving lighting. This is for several reasons including cost savings, enhancing the company’s image, and of course saving the earth!

Gone are the days of dark, monotone offices – office design is now considered an essential part of an organisation’s image and brand. It is the ‘face’ of a company and is often a critical factor in recruiting and retaining talent. Given that the future of this trend is focused on making employees lives that much more enjoyable at work, this is good news for 30 per cent of all our lives!

Don’t just be environmentally friendly – keep that practice going!

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By Shakeela Moosa, General Manager – Operations, Summertown Interiors

We recently shared a post on our new integrated CSR strategy and the benefits we are already seeing as part of implementing this approach. What has really got us motivated lately are results of some basic measures we implemented to reduce our water consumption at our Jebel Ali headquarters.

Let’s go back to how this started. Earlier this year, we implemented a ‘green’ audit which involved assessing our consumption levels in six chief areas – water, electricity, fuel, general waste, sewage and paper. The audit is an ongoing process, and our initial results were quite a surprise.. Despite operating in a LEED Gold-certified office, we discovered that our water consumption levels were higher than expected – each employee consumed an average of 178 litres of water per day!

We had a few brainstorming sessions with our team on what measures could help us reduce our water consumption. The team first identified seven ‘water zones’ across the office premises – areas that were using up a large amount of the total water consumed in the company. They installed a sub-meter on our main water line to monitor consumption by each zone and found that a large amount of water was being supplied to the garden area. A further evaluation showed that re-landscaping this area could decrease consumption by a massive 4,700 litres per day and, if this happened, would mean annual savings of at least AED 15,000 in operational costs.

The landscaping project began in May and will finish after the summer but the financial benefits of this are already going beyond what we estimated. Our overall water consumption from May to July reduced by 58% compared to the same time last year and we’ve already managed to save AED 8,000 in these three months!

The measures we’ve implemented are by no means expensive or complicated to apply, but have completely proved to be worth our team’s time and energy. It is not only encouraging to see a massive drop in our expenses, but to be conserving a very important natural resource, albeit in small ways!

Constructing a green office is a great way to be environmentally-friendly, but is certainly not enough. Monitoring and continuous improvement are critical if you want to remain committed to your green cause. An article I recently came across by Neutral Fuels CEO Karl Fielder also provides a great example of sustaining your ‘green’ efforts.