“When we took the land in Dubailand and talked about our plans to launch a sustainable project, many thought we were just bluffing. Today, when people come and see our project they are simply amazed,” says Faris Saeed, sitting in his temporary office in one of the solar-powered villas in The Sustainable City.
Ironically, the new city is the result of a failed development called The Lagoons, which had been planned for Dubai Creek. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, many of the multi-billion-dollar real estate developments across Dubai were put on the back burner.
When The Lagoons stalled, Saeed, CEO and co-founder of Diamond Developers, agreed to swap his three plots in the development for a 5 million sq ft block of land in Dubailand, then a remote area of the desert.
Today that desert strip has been transformed into a “green city” where 250 families live and experience a sustainable lifestyle. Their homes are run by solar power, their unused water is recycled and residents travel within the city only by walking or in electric cars.
Saeed, a civil engineering graduate from Yamouk University in Jordan, moved to Dubai to establish a maintenance and interior design company in 1995. It was in 1999 that he and his university friend Wassim Adlouni, an architect, set up Diamond Developers.
The company thrived during the emirate’s real estate boom. Between 2000 and 2008, they built six towers with over 1,000 apartments in Dubai Marina, 150 townhouses in Jumeirah Village and four commercial buildings in Arjan.
The community features a number of initiatives that aim to conserve resources and save money.
Then came the financial crisis that saw Dubai property prices crash by up to 60 percent. Diamond Developers’ expansion plans were put on hold, but Saeed and Adlouni remained confident the market would eventually bounce back.
The economic slowdown, in fact, gave them the opportunity to revisit their development plans.
Despite being part of the conventional construction industry, they firmly believe that the breakneck speed of development in the emirate has been detrimental to the environment.
“Dubai’s per capita carbon footprint and water consumption are among the highest in the world. Many housing units here have poor insulation and are overly exposed to the sun, which results in high energy demand for air-conditioning,” Saeed says.
The concept was influenced by a trip in May 2010 when the partners visited the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) and learned about a new sustainable community — West Village — which was being built as a “net zero energy development”. Back in Dubai, the engineer-architect team began designing a sustainable city that was financially feasible without forgoing quality and profitability — not an easy task.
Construction on the $354m The Sustainable City began in 2013. The city is surrounded by a 30-metre-wide green buffer zone of 2,500 trees, which Saeed says reduces air and noise pollution. The first phase is complete and includes 500 residential villas, 11 biodome greenhouses running the length of the central green spine, 3,000 sq m of urban farming and a 15,000 sq m mixed-use area including offices and retail.
The Sustainable City is the region’s first fully-integrated sustainable community.
“The first phase is ready. We expect residential occupancy levels of between 80-90 percent by year-end,” says Saeed, who will move from his temporary office to the commercial building in the next few months.
The second phase will include Hotel Indigo (the first net-zero energy hotel in the Middle East), an environmentally-friendly school and an innovation centre that claims to be the first negative carbon building. Construction is due to begin in the first quarter of 2017, with the entire city expected to open by the end of 2018.
Even the construction phase will contribute positively to the environment, the developers claim. A 2015 report by The British University in Dubai found the GCC states produce approximately 120 million tonnes of waste per year, with 18.5 percent associated with solid waste from the construction industry. The Sustainable City promises to reuse construction waste rather than dump it.
“We will be using most of our construction waste from the first phase in the hotel. In every bend, you will find a recycled material done in a beautiful way. Wooden waste will be used in the gardens or corridors, while the steel waste will be used to manufacture tables and green walls,” Saeed says.
“The waste from tiles will be used for building jogging and walking tracks, while the green waste will be used for agriculture. Within our project, we will try to use as much recycled material as possible.”
The innovation centre will be self-sufficient in both water and energy, generating about 140 percent of its operating energy, offsetting emissions released during its construction and operational phase.
“Our biggest challenge during development of the centre will be to select the appropriate building material with the lowest carbon footprint and maintain the lowest possible cooling requirements to match with the lowest energy footprint. Increasing daylight penetration and ensuring a healthy indoor air quality are challenges,” Saeed says.
The Sustainable City produces clean energy for its five residential clusters of 100 villas each.
Even the school will be environmentally-friendly — including for the students.
“The school layout incorporates features that will allow classrooms to open out naturally to cooled areas ventilated by wind towers, while various facilities such as the biodomes, science museum and innovation centre will open the educational institution as learning centres,” Saeed says.
Though the general perception among industry players is that sustainable developments are costlier than conventional buildings, Saeed disagrees.
“This is a myth, and we managed to prove it with The Sustainable City — the cost can be just as any other product. Sustainability should not come at a premium,” he says, revealing plans to build “affordable, sustainable apartments”.
The company will launch two seven-storey buildings with 190 sustainable apartments before the end of December in Arjan.
“The building will have solar panels, a water recycling system and a small farm that will be used by tenants for education and fun purposes. Our prices will be comparable to market, but the cost of running the building will be cheaper over the long run,” says Saeed.
Service charges have been a bone of contention between developers and unit owners in Dubai for years, but that is not the case in The Sustainable City. Here, owners pay no service fees.
“We have created a support system for the economic sustainability part. Owners pay no service fees as they get a share from the revenue generated by our mixed-use facilities (retail shops and offices). The income will be sufficient enough to cover all their fees,” he says.
Besides, when it comes to operational cost residents save 50 percent on electricity bills and 25 percent on water bills compared to the normal villas. Residents can even export electricity to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority’s (DEWA) power grid.
“Some of the villas have started to export electricity. Owners get credit for their export which they can offset in their electricity bills when they consume energy during night time.”
The Sustainable City claims to be the first real estate project in Dubai that considers the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability.
Currently, the city is generating 6.5 megawatt (MW) peak and will produce another 3.5MW peak when the second phase gets completed. When 10MW peak is generated, the project will be a net zero city, thus producing all its energy from renewables.
The city’s transportation strategy encourages residents to rely less on motorised transport and more on walking and cycling. Residential clusters are car-free zones and are only accessible on foot or by electric buggies through a narrow alleyway that links the city together.
“For now, residents use communal electric buggies to travel within the city,” says Saeed. The developer is offering a $2,725 (AED10,000) subsidy to owners who wish to buy electric cars, but none have opted.
“We think in the next two years, everything will be different. More people will opt for electric cars,” he says.
Though many residential towers in Dubai are falling short of sinking funds — money kept in a separate account to be used to replace big ticket items such as lifts, facade cladding, and air-conditioning units — the developers say they will have sufficient funds to meet any significant expense.
DEWA CEO Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer (centre) listens to a presentation by Diamond Developers.
“Sinking funds are insufficient because they haven’t been calculated correctly. When the time comes to replace any item within the city and the villas, our sinking fund will be enough to cover all the replacement costs,” he asserts.
Emirates Green Building Council, a not-for-profit industry association, estimated in 2015 that many of the 120,000 buildings in Dubai were built before energy efficiency or sustainability regulations were put in place. While efforts have been made to ensure old buildings become energy efficient, few owners are complying.
Saeed says he has approached owner associations at his previous developments in Jumeirah Village and Arjan, offering to retrofit the projects with energy-efficient devices.
“We have offered all of our past developments some sustainable solutions, such as changing their air-conditioning system and installing solar panels. Retrofitting makes business sense as unit owners will be able to save on electricity usage in common areas, which means service fees will reduce by 20-25 percent,” he says.
Each family living at The Sustainable City will benefit from the homegrown produce.
Saeed says he also has been approached by investors who want to replicate The Sustainable City model.
“We have received enquiries from many countries who are interested in duplicating our city. We are negotiating with them. We, however, do not wish to be [known as] developers, but technology providers for building and operating sustainable cities.”
Despite government initiatives from framing legislative structures to supporting clean energy policies to setting up a $27.24bn Dubai Green Fund, Saeed says the time has come for developers in the UAE and wider Middle East to embrace the sustainable development path.
“All developers must adopt sustainability as it saves a lot of money for end users and investors and meets the purpose of the government, which is to make the UAE a sustainable city. Our project, which will be fully operational by the end of 2018, can be a model for everyone who wishes to build a sustainable development,” he says.
Dubai’s Clean Energy Strategy 2050 aims to diversify the energy mix with clean energy generating 7 percent of the emirate’s total power output by 2020, 25 percent by 2030 and 75 percent by 2050. The emirate is also building the $13.6bn Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which is expected to produce 5,000 megawatts by 2030 and save 6.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually.