Francis Alfred, managing director of Sobha Realty, spoke to Technical Review Middle East ahead of the company's participation in the MENA Construction 4.0 Forum to be held in Dubai from 24-25 May, on new technologies driving sustainability and circularity in the sector
What changes would you suggest to address the challenges of decarbonisation in real estate?
It is well-known that the built environment is responsible for over a third of global emissions end to end. The word decarbonisation is more of a complex metaphor for simpler approaches that resonate well with the vast community. They include thoughtful active/passive designs, energy efficiency strategies, resources optimisation, design for installation and maintenance, real-time monitoring or management, the use of local and recycled materials and several others. These time- tested and logical approaches form the bedrock of sustainability which in the race to net zero, are being debated under the broader theme of decarbonisation. The decarbonisation journey begins with the developer’s commitment to build truly performing sustainable assets. These commitments alongside quantitative indicators such as energy intensity, water intensity, open areas, renewable energy, and others, when articulated in the right way, have immense potential to transform the industry.
Decarbonisation is best achieved when initiated right at the conceptual phase of the project. A deep exploration of design choices is a compelling need to reduce the net energy demand of the proposed asset. Currently, there is a lack of focus on reducing the embodied carbon in the design, which needs to change. Sustainable material considerations should be internalised in the design and procurement process to achieve deeper emission reductions. The decarbonisation journey does not end with mere design and construction activities but moves very actively into the operation phases too. The operational phase sustainability is the key missing link between aspirations and performance which is often shrouded by the industry’s obsession and enthusiasm over notional certifications.
In summary, we need to address the built environment in a holistic manner. The industry should start working on metrics and KPIs to push the boundary and achieve deep emission reductions.
How can new technologies, materials and design processes help to make buildings more efficient and sustainable as well as help improve circularity in construction?
There are several design principles and technologies for the building industry that are available at our disposal. These include BIM, digital technologies (BMS, IOT), AI, smart materials, and several others which if deployed in the right way can drive sustainability and optimise the consumption of resources. Building Information Modelling (BIM) should go beyond 3D visualisation and collaboration to important domains of energy efficiency analysis, workflows, and resources reduction. Building Management system should come out of its shadow of a glorified building monitoring station to a more impactful system that uses the power of integrated circuit to drive energy efficiency through trending, scheduling, peak load reductions and other possible ways. I am strongly of the opinion that several functionalities of currently available technologies have been left unexplored either due to paucity of time or lack of knowledge or lack of interest or all of them. We need to revisit them from the point of view of sustainability and circularity. Our design processes and methodologies should focus beyond energy and water efficiency into constructability, ease of installation/repair and waste minimisation that play a major role in achieving circularity. An effective construction waste management plan that lays emphasis on reutilisation and recycling of the remaining waste has a large bearing on achieving circularity. With these approaches, the construction industry can significantly reduce the amount of virgin materials needed and waste generated.
We should be on the constant lookout for game-changing materials and technologies that have successfully come out of R&D and are well into the commercial deployment. While high efficiency solar PVs, super insulation materials and others have gained good traction, there are several others such as big data, digital twins and cloud systems that are at the cusp and it is a matter of time before they get infused into the industry.
How do you see the role of construction technologies in driving sustainability evolving in future?
Taking cue from global discussions, there is a sense of urgency in climate action with nations committing to net zero and the sectors following suit to support the national ambitions. Building sector is no exception to this trend which, however, is rendered extremely challenging largely due to the carbon intensive nature of cement. As the most widely used commodity today, cement production currently accounts for at least 8% of global CO2 emissions and is a huge strain in the environment. While its demand continues to grow, the emissions surrounding it is its Achilles heel, negatively impacting the environment.
Cement is the subject of active research covering not only process efficiency, reduction in clinker content and the associated process emissions but alternative materials to reformulate the cement chemistry itself. It is appropriate to reiterate that global climate action will be ineffective without addressing this core component of built environment. Green concrete is another forerunner of what is unfolding in this so called hard to abate sector.
Construction is still an untapped sector. Future sustainability solely rests on our ability to reduce carbon emissions not only from the design and operations but on the embodied carbon within the portfolios of assets. The latter is governed by the choice of materials and technologies that we embrace during the construction. It is encouraging to mention at this point that the industry is witnessing rapid technological advancements which I believe would play a decisive role in reducing emissions. Renewable energy, advanced insulation materials with exceptional qualities, cool roofs, smart glasses, better façade technologies, water efficiency technologies, smart appliances, smart FM, and several others stand testimony to this, and these are being integrated into construction in various scales. AI and IOT technologies surrounding real-time monitoring and analysis would play a dominant role in the operations phase and steer operational sustainability by providing decision friendly reliable data to property managers.
Please shed some light on the emerging technologies that Sobha Realty is using?
Sobha adopts a host of design and construction technologies in its projects, which in combination with its highly successful backward integrated model has delivered outstanding sustainability benefits to all the stakeholders. All its design activities are carried out using BIM 360. It further uses PlanGrid, a paperless system for monitoring and supervision, that lets the stakeholders benefit from real-time access to project plans, issues, and much more.
Sobha construction practices include the use of the electric automatic climbing system as compared to the conventional hydraulic automatic climbing system and formwork vibrators to get a better compaction of concrete. It further utilises advanced anti-collision system on tower cranes to avoid safety gaps. From the point of sustainability, it has been utilising AAC blocks, PODs, MEP modular corridor packages, battery operated tools etc. As a pilot project it has also explored the possibility of drones to monitor progress and use of 3D videos to assess the quality of constructed items.
We are delighted to be a part of the MENA Construction 4.0 Forum, as it brings together numerous stakeholders to discuss the necessity of digitalisation in the real estate sector to expedite project delivery and improve efficiencies, while meeting global sustainability goals. MENA Construction Forum will be an ideal platform for us to connect with other industry experts to discuss practices that have the potential to maximise efficiency, foster best sustainable practices and develop high-quality homes that buyers are seeking.