Last month, Carboun an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in the Middle East celebrated its second anniversary. Headed by Karim Elgendy they have certainly come a long way in very short space of time. Since its launch Carboun has moved from producing some great infographics highlighting environmental issues in the Middle East, to playing an active role in green projects in the region. As well as a growing team of representatives, they are hosting an event at the UN Conference of Parties (COP 18) at Doha in December and have also launched 24/7 Electricity, a research project that looks into energy generation challenges in Lebanon. I caught up with Karim to find out more about Carboun, themajor challenges ahead and what sustainable design can do for the region.
I understand you work as an architect and a sustainability consultant – why is sustainability important to you?
The architect’s role is to ensure a balance between human comfort and enjoyment on one hand, and the efficient use of resources on the other. This balance is at the core of the global sustainability discourse, with much of the current efforts focused on finding ways to reduce anthropogenic impacts on the environment, while maintaining the current economic development levels and the improvements in quality of life they have brought. In the developing world, including the Middle East, sustainability is all about establishing functioning economic models with this balance built in.
What motivated you to setup the Carboun initiative?
Carboun was founded to promote sustainability in the Middle East. I was motivated by a fundamental belief in the global need to transition to a more sustainable development model for our cities. I was also motivated by a desire to reverse the adverse impacts that the Middle East’s prevalent development models have had on its economic development.
Additionally, Carboun’s knowledge emphasis was born out of a concern I had regarding the scarcity of basic information about the region, especially where it relates to the built environment. This particular concern helped shape Carboun’s mission to include creating a body of regional knowledge that others can build on – ultimately helping to establish a knowledge foundation for sustainable development in the region.
What common misconceptions are there about green buildings and green architecture?
The term ‘green buildings’ itself is rather problematic since there is no clear definition of what this means. As a result, the most common misconception is stakeholders’ partial understanding of how to reduce the impact of a given building on the environment. As a result of this incomplete understanding, buildings branded as ‘green’ have very different sustainability emphasis even when in close geographical proximity.
This leads to the second common misconception about green buildings. In the absence of a clear definition of a sustainable design, many have resorted to equating it with certification using one of the common rating systems such as LEED, BREEAM, or Estidama’s Pearls.
While rating systems are useful since they help us benchmark building performance, they also differ greatly in their emphasis and are themselves in a continuous state of development. A building certified under LEED in 2007 for example has a much lower level of “greenness” than one certified in 2011. In addition, this equation between the two led to a check-list design culture that often stifles innovation.
How does sustainable architecture help countries deal with other environmental issues such as energy use and water?
Buildings – both commercial and residential – are responsible for a substantial portion of any given country’s energy use. And while the size of this portion varies by region, reducing energy use in buildings has the potential to substantially reduce carbon emissions of that country.
Ensuring that new buildings do not compound our energy and water challenges is a mandatory first step. This must be followed by much larger efforts to reduce energy use in existing building stock. Sustainable architecture can also play a positive role in reducing water use, encouraging the use of public transportation, reducing the impact of a development on global resources by considerate use of materials and on local ecosystems by careful planning.
What green project has inspired you architecturally and why?
I am generally most inspired by projects where innovative design solutions, rather than technology, have been employed to make buildings more sustainable. One of my favorite buildings is the Tjibaou Cultural Center in the south Pacific islands of New Caledonia
Clearly, water shortages and water scarcity are big issues in the Middle East so what can those looking at green buildings do to help preserve this precious resource?
Water scarcity is a major challenge in the Middle East that sustainable design professionals in the region are beginning to address. However, the significance of buildings in the overall water picture varies across the region. In Egypt and Iraq for example, fourth fifths of water is diverted towards agriculture with only 6% and 3% respectively going to domestic use in buildings. Conserving water here is better done through improving the predominant inefficient agricultural methods.
In the Gulf sub-region on the other hand, domestic share of water use is around 25% of total use, and much of the water comes from non-renewable and energy-intensive desalination processes. Reducing water water in this sub-region’s buildings can help bring energy, environmental, and economic benefits.
In the past, you have criticized some green buildings in the Middle East for using “high-tech aesthetic developed by European architects” such as glazing which is unsuitable for the region. Has the region been able to move beyond this and work around its own environment and develop its own strengths and aesthetic?
The practice of sustainable design in the Middle East has indeed moved beyond this. In fact the turn around started happening a few years ago, and I am beginning to see a variety of balanced design approaches in new projects around the region.
What is the most challenging aspect of bringing together sustainability and architecture?
One of the main challenges in bringing sustainability and architecture together is the fundamental contradiction between the process of creating new buildings – an energy and resource intensive process with an ecological footprint beyonds its site boundary – and conserving natural resources and the environment. Because of this contradiction, some go as far as suggesting that the most sustainable building is a building that already exists. However, given that population growth and economic development are creating a continuous demand for new buildings, the challenge here is accepting the need for development but trying to reduce its ecological footprint.