Air-conditioning is often overly credited as one of the scientific world’s greatest gifts to countries in the Middle East where scorching summertime temperatures can make modern living a nightmare outside of a reasonably pleasant indoor environment. But, as energy conservationists would like to point out, air-conditioning can also gobble down up to 40 per cent of the energy consumption of a typical residential home or building — rising to 70 per cent in summer.
With rising concerns about the economic and environmental cost of fossil-based energy use, both within Oman and abroad, the lack of regulations governing the design and construction of homes and buildings is a source of consternation for experts and conservationists alike in the Sultanate.
Not surprisingly, the conundrum generated a lot of debate at a recent seminar hosted by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Oman on the theme, ‘Identifying Opportunities for Collaboration on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency’. A number of officials and experts cited, among other concerns, the absence of a ‘green building code’ as an impediment that could potentially offset gains accruing to the Omani economy and the environment from a slew of renewables and energy conservation initiatives due to come on stream shortly.
According to Bushra al Maskari, Senior Policy and Strategy Specialist at the Authority for Electricity Regulation Oman (AER), most people are generally unaware of the design and construction of energy efficient — or green — buildings can help slash energy costs. While awareness is relatively strong in how people perceive energy efficiency in home appliances and equipment, they are somewhat clueless about how homes must be an energy efficient way — through the use of a correct design and materials to help reduce consumption, she said.
Building thermal performance
Significantly, a scoping study of residential energy use in the Sultanate, commissioned by the Authority in 2013, showed potential for significant energy savings from very modest improvements in building thermal performance.
The majority of the homes surveyed were uninsulated, the study found. The thermal performance of the installed glazing was also poor, with 70 per cent of homes being single glazed and only about 10 per cent reporting the presence of some form of reflective coating on the glazing. External shading, such as shutters, were present in about 10 per cent of homes and just over half reported some shading from neighbouring buildings or trees. It noted that the size, shape and orientation of a building as well as the thermal properties of the building fabric all contribute to the overall efficiency of the home.
Muscat Municipality acknowledges that the absence of regulations enforcing green building standards in the Sultanate stymies its ability to embed energy conservation principles in buildings in the capital region.
“It is important that we have a building code in place,” said Shamsa Zahira al Abri, Architectural Engineer — Building Permits, Muscat Municipality. “Once the code is issued by the Supreme Council for Planning, we can use it as a reference for energy efficient building regulations in Muscat, and take it forward from there.”
But key to the successful implementation of building codes, when eventually rolled out, is the need for a wider policy on energy conservation in general, CO2 emission reduction, and so on. The absence of such guidelines, she noted, could potentially erode benefits associated with, among other initiatives, the embrace of renewable energy resources, for example.
“Once these targets are set, it will be possible to formulate guidelines for building codes,” said Shamsa, adding that the Municipality is already working with the Authority for Electricity Regulation in drafting standards and codes for small-scale solar rooftop installations — a landmark fossil-based energy conservation project.
Drawing from the past
The design of a building code is under way at the Supreme Council for Planning (SCP), although as part of a wider national initiative — the Oman National Spatial Strategy (ONSS), according to Kairawi Khimji, Urban Planner at the Supreme Council.
The spatial planning strategy, she explained, is being developed by the SCP in line with the directives of His Majesty the Sultan. “This is being done on a national and regional level from a very strategic perspective,” Kairawi said. “We have kick-started this strategy. There are many authorities in Oman drafting all sorts of policies and regulations on energy efficiency, economic diversification, and so on. What we do is accumulate all of these strategies, put them together and look at them from a special context.”
“The ultimate goal of the ONSS project is to develop a land use plan at a national and regional level. We are looking at this at a very strategic level, but this includes the whole idea of building codes in planning regulations,” she noted.
Despite the absence of a well-structured building code regime, the capital city and other parts of the Sultanate abound with examples of sustainability in design and construction, notably in old-style architecture and water systems.
“As a university graduate in the UK, I did lot of research on Oman showing that sustainability has been a design principle based on which energy efficiency can be achieved,” the Urban Planner recalled. From my experience, if you lived in the likes of the Wilayat Muttrah, or looked at the aflaj system, they involved innovative and creative techniques in actually reducing energy loss in relative terms.”
Energy conservation and sustainability principles are evident, for example, in Muttrah’s narrow streets, recessed windows of residential homes, and so on, said Khairawi, adding that Shatti Al Qurum is also designed in a similar fashion.
“How could building planning, standards and policies be drafted in a sustainable manner in order to achieve energy efficiency and sustainability in general while localising Omani culture and heritage? So they oriented Shatti al Qurum slanted along the coastline of Oman — and not as a T. The windows are recessed, while the infra utilities like water and sewage running below ground level. Yes, we do have wide roads, but the idea of having pockets of green spaces as gardens, high trees, palm trees, and so on — all support sustainability and efficiency in general. So this thinking had been embraced in the past.”