Building owners who want to achieve high levels of sustainability need to move away from building glass boxes in the harsh desert climate, according to an expert.

Scott Coombes, a director of the Dubai-based building consultancy AESG, said although traditional Islamic architecture in the region is very useful for creating sustainable buildings, it is often overlooked by customers who are predominantly interested in the building’s appearance.

“What worries me a little bit is that we are still designing glass boxes in a country that has got sunlight throughout the year,” Mr Coombes said at an IHC sustainability rountable event at Curtin University in Dubai Academic City on Tuesday.

“We’ve got a very, very harsh climate and then we’re trying to complement these and call them sustainable by putting photovoltaics on buildings and sugar-coating them with what they’re calling green technologies, which isn’t right.”

He said older buildings such as those in Al Fahidi district or the Dubai World Trade Centre tower display many more sustainable characteristics such as thick, concrete walls offering higher levels of thermal insulation and recessed windows that offer shading to keep buildings cooler.

“We had buildings that were incredibly sustainable, built for the environment, with a really low abundance of resources, power, fuel and air conditioning that worked. And then we took this huge departure with the availability of technology because we were able to compromise.”

Alex Davies, the managing director of the facilities management firm Emrill, said that although many designers and engineers talk about the benefits of considering the whole-life costs of a building, a developer’s interest is typically much more short-term.

“If you’re dealing with a developer, their only interest is in ‘how much will it cost to build? How much am I going to sell it for?’ That’s their whole-life cost. They’re not the end user [and] they’re not the bill payer. And I can’t remember seeing a property marketed here that actually has low utilities usage as part of the sales pitch. Until the end user is willing to pay a premium for that … developers won’t invest in it.”

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