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CallisonRTKL Reveals Five Key Trends in Building Net-Zero Cities in the MENA Region

Updated: May 22, 2021

Industry experts from CallisonRTKL (CRTKL), the global architecture, planning and design firm, have revealed five key trends for developing net-zero cities in the Middle East and North Africa region. Experts highlight the need to ensure sustainable construction materials, use design processes and tools to enable sustainable construction, implement smart cooling systems, and foster wider industry collaboration as key pillars of further net-zero development in the region.

Energy used in net-zero cities, be that in development or use, is offset by using renewable energy sources to produce zero net energy consumption. With governments across the region pursuing key clean energy strategies over upcoming decades, including the UAE’s Clean Energy Strategy 2050 and Saudi Arabia’s Green Saudi Initiative, enabling net-zero development across the region is a key aspect of driving wider sustainability savings.

The announcement comes following CallisonRTKL’s recent launch of their new open-source platform, CLIMATESCOUT. The tool combines data with images, allowing planners to design buildings that respond to their environment by providing climate-specific design advice. The company has further committed to two significant goals across its some 2,000 projects under design worldwide. All projects will be net-zero carbon for operation by 2030 and carbon neutral (including embodied in construction materials) by 2050.

Matthew Tribe, Principal at CallisonRTKL, commented: “The MENA region is globally recognised for pioneering new technological sustainability solutions, yet with the region’s climate and economic growth strategies, enabling net-zero cities presents a challenge for planners in the Middle East to overcome. Our vision for regional sustainable development is premised on collaboration across the architecture and design sector, using data-focused digital tools to drive industry-wide learning and understanding.

Matthew Tribe, Principal at CallisonRTKL
Matthew Tribe, Principal at CallisonRTKL

“CallisonRTKL’s pursuit of net-zero development across the global architecture sector is demonstrative of the wider climate issues which the world is facing and how the design and construction industry has to meet its obligations as a sector. Through fostering new forms of industry-wide collaboration, we hope to part of that broader conversation on enabling net-zero development that can benefit all.”

The five key trends for enabling net-zero cities in the region are:

1. Zero Embodied Carbon

One of the central barriers to net-zero development can be selecting construction materials that developers are using. Mining, transportation, and manufacturing building products have significant environmental costs: concrete, iron, and steel production produce around 9% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Not only do materials have environmental costs created solely in their production. They may be inefficient in helping a building optimise its energy consumption and can also be environmentally costly to dispose of.

Net-zero developers in the region have to consider a significant range of factors when designing buildings, choosing materials that are not environmentally costly to produce, transport, or dispose of. While in other regions, materials such as timber enable net-zero development, the Middle East has to be innovative in adapting and reinventing products to offset carbon emissions during manufacture.

2. Performance-Driven Design

Not only do regional designers have to consider a range of environmental performance factors when assessing building materials. The whole design process must be driven by enabling social, economic, and environmental impact throughout the design phase. When designing a net-zero city, architects cannot neglect one aspect for the benefit of another: no one wants to live in a sustainable city with no community spirit or reside in an economic powerhouse with no concern for green space.

Using smart, digital design tools to foster performance-driven design is a critical enabler of wider sustainable development across the Middle East region. Using computational models to assess a building’s lifetime energy consumption and development’s construction requirements can enable wider environmental savings in the future while meeting the community’s needs today. Fostering and enabling design based on environmental performance is an additional central aspect of wider net-zero development.

3. Availability of Digital Design Tools

Any design or architecture project requires careful planning and consultation to be able to bring it to reality. When designing for net-zero, the requirement for careful planning is compounded, as designers have to consider the energy required to construct a building and its operation, alongside its eventual decommissioning. Such a level of planning for the entire lifecycle of a building requires thousands of individual data points to be conceptualised, creating significant challenges for any planner.

Advanced digital and computational tools can help ease the pressure on architects, with modern software now able to match the complex planning requirements of a net-zero project. CallisonRTKL’s CLIMATESCOUT can be freely accessed and provides planners with insight into using suitable construction and design techniques to cater toward sustainable development. The evolution and proliferation of such tools among the architecture and design community will have major ramifications for how regional planners create net-zero cities in the Middle East.

4. Keeping the Middle East Cool

As a region with extreme temperatures, the Middle East has long been reliant on air conditioning to sustain day-to-day life. Analysts have predicted that, by 2050, air conditioning will use around 13% of global electricity and produce 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.[i] For regional planners, being able to innovate new ways to keep cool is a key aspect of designing the net-zero city.

When considering this, there is a key solution embedded in the region’s past. The iconic wind towers of the Gulf region have been tools used for the past three thousand years to increase ventilation into buildings and keep homes cool. By updating traditional structures to match 21st-century requirements, CallisonRTKL’s Xylem Pods leverage technology to use the wind to cool water, which then circulates through pads in buildings to keep areas cool compared to external temperatures.

Combined with other construction techniques that can enable cooler climates, including solar responsive windows and filtered daylight, these cooling systems can create net-zero climate control in the Middle East. While the technology still needs to be developed further before replacing a conventional air conditioning, it nevertheless represents an exciting opportunity for sustainable based climate control in the MENA region.

5. Industry-Wide Collaboration

Enabling both regional and global net-zero development is a task that is greater than any design and architecture firm, both in its ethical imperative and its scale of technological and logistical coordination. Planners and architects from across the region have been. They will be, coming in closer cooperation with one another to solve key challenges presented in the task of net-zero development.

CallisonRTKL recently established its global industry collaboration platform, the CRTKL CoLab. Bringing together industry experts, policymakers, materials management specialists, design professionals, and more, the sessions focused on construction waste in retail architecture enabled key discussions on enabling net-zero development. By participating in and hosting such discussions, the regional architecture and design industry can continue to move toward enabling net-zero development in MENA.

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