Saeed Al Abbar from AESG writes on the trends to look forward to in smart city development

While still challenging, the last 12 months have definitely seen an uptick in the market as regional governments and the private sector have adapted to the new paradigm of lower oil prices and set in place strategies and programmes that provide a more economically sustainable development pathway.

As a result of these programmes, the coming year holds much promise for the industry particularly for those well placed to capitalise on the new trends in the market. Despite this, the lower levels of liquidity in the market is certainly driving regional government and private developers to be very strategic with their investment decisions. So, with this in mind, let’s map out the key trends and areas of focus for the building industry in 2018.

Zero and Near-Zero Energy Buildings

Off the back of the historic Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, the world is beginning to set in place a clear roadmap for decarbonizing the global economy. Buildings, which account for over 40 percent of global carbon emissions, form the frontline of the fight against climate change and in order to reach the objectives of the Paris agreement, we need to reach a point where the building stock is net zero by 2050. With regional governments being signatories to the Paris Agreement, the region’s building industry will be faced with the challenge of adapting to this requirement. Those that act now will have a significant competitive advantage once such targets make their way into regional building codes and regulations – something that has already commenced in Europe.

While the adage ‘you can’t get something for nothing’ generally holds true, we are now at a stage where near-zero energy buildings are a reality and can be made possible through cost-effective means. The interest is clear. In fact, even though reaching a point of net-zero is slightly more challenging, it too is gradually becoming more main stream and there are several upcoming projects that have set net-zero targets. We are currently even working with a number of developers that have set near zero and even net zero energy targets on their projects.

Read more on a vehicle-free smart city to be completed in Dubai.


Though commissioning has rarely been given its due attention in the past, it is in my humble opinion the most essential part of the project as it brings all the systems and services together and ensures they work in harmony. I always use the adage that no airline would receive an aircraft that has not undergone a rigorous testing, commissioning and integration regime. Modern buildings, which in many cases have more system components than a jumbo jet and represent a similar level of investment, therefore also need to receive the same care and attention when being brought into service. I always tell clients that if they try and cut corners and save costs in commissioning, they are basically accepting that they are happy to receive a building that does not work as intended – and consequently they are not getting what they paid for. Not only does inadequate commissioning pose a significant risk to the safety and health of those within the building, but buildings not properly commissioned will use upwards of 25 percent of the energy they would have used had they gone through an exercise of optimisation and integration of systems.

As the market has matured over recent years and a number of developers have observed the losses they have incurred during operation of inadequately commissioned buildings, we are now seeing greater focus on this area and most developers are now employing the services of third party commissioning specialists to manage and oversee the commissioning process right from the start of design until handover. This in turn will create greater professionalism and accountability in the MEP sector and significantly improve quality, which in my opinion is much needed in the region. To use another analogy – the historic practices of allowing MEP contractors to carry out their own testing and commissioning is like asking school children to mark their own exam papers without the teacher verifying that they have marked their work correctly or honestly.

Value Engineering

With oil prices unlikely to bounce back to previous highs, a premium will be placed on value engineering and innovation. Reflecting the importance of this has been the emergence of consultancy service providers and contractors whose approach to value engineering is led by technical specialists and supported by cost consultants rather than the other way around. This has proven to be more effective as it enables value and system function to be clearly understood and defined so that value engineering does not become a simple cost-cutting exercise. Many developers have experienced the issues with what I term ‘vandalism engineering’ associated with simply removing cost items from a BOQ without due regard for whether the building will still function as intended.

With our knowledge of the local market, we have been successful at applying value engineering methodology to a number of projects. I strongly believe that consultants and contractors that are successful in 2018 will be those that integrate value engineering into their processes and are able to provide more value at lower cost to the client. To reiterate, those that approach value engineering as a pure cost-cutting exercise without due regard for function or value will soon be found out as the developer ends up with a building that does not work as intended.

Management of existing assets

A number of high-value buildings in the region are aging so there is a greater need for managing these assets to maintain their quality and performance. We have seen a lot of demand for recommissioning the mechanical, electrical, fire life safety and even façade systems of older buildings to bring them in line with modern standards and codes.

A developing trend has been for property owners to request recommissioning for their buildings, which requires a holistic diagnosis of all systems in the building to ensure their proper functionality. This includes a thorough review of vital systems such as air conditioning, the BMS, and fire and life safety systems. Organizations that decided to take this up in 2018 would do well to treat BMS as the starting point, as this is not only where building systems are orchestrated but BMS will also help pinpoint where systems are not working in harmony. This not only validates that the building systems provide a safe and healthy environment for occupants but also provides significant energy savings.

Overall, the outlook for the building industry is bright. As with any industry, there will be challenges to overcome. However, by paying careful attention and adapting to the changes and new trends in the industry, developers will be able to safeguard their investments and ensure smooth operations for years to come. The industry is moving forward at a rapid pace and innovation is finally taking a firm hold on the building sector. Those that ignore these tides of change will simply be left behind.

Saeed Al Abbar originally wrote this piece for Construction Week Online.