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In this article, Daan Elffers, Founder and CEO of EMG, explores the meaning of sustainable real estate and advocates a more holistic view of the concept. With offices based in Amsterdam, Cambridge, London and Dubai, EMG is an advisory firm that is on the cutting edge of corporate social responsibility (CSR) thinking, strategising, and implementation. In 2014, Elffers initiated the “Islamic Reporting Initiative” (IRI).


June 2015


Sustainability is at the centre of most discourses these days and as such, strongly influences our decision-making – from the food we consume and the car we drive, to the way we conduct business. With population growth and climate change, the real estate and related industries are experiencing increasing responsibility to ensure that our buildings are ‘sustainable.’ While sustainable real estate is considered mainstream, there remains considerable ambiguity in what the phrase actually means. The debate spans the terminology of ‘light green’ architecture and ‘dark green’ architecture, but more often than not, limits the conversation to one of energy and resource conservation. Energy is of course, a primary concern in the real estate and related industries, with increasing numbers of companies looking to reduce their ecological footprint primarily through building efficiencies and, given that buildings account for an estimated 40% of the world’s energy usage, this comes as no surprise. But is there a more holistic interpretation of sustainable real estate to be had?


Credible assessment methods – such as BREEAM and LEED among other sustainability and CSR reporting techniques – have become a recognised and accepted benchmark for a sustainable building. More demanding certificates of sustainability may arise with the gradual uptake of the green or circular economy, but both existing and future paradigms demand answers of what is truly a sustainable building. This ambiguity is because so many materials and construction methods seemingly require a trade-off or compromise – for example, to create a healthy environment for a workforce requires inert and natural materials – but these may require extensive transportation or may come from non-renewable sources. As such, understanding sustainable real estate from a more holistic perspective enables clarification of these ambiguities.


The Middle East is an example of a region that is not only reactive to the effects of population and climate change, but proactive. The UAE’s ‘Green Growth Strategy’ – rolled out in 2012 – demonstrates a manner of implementing the concept of green in a systemic and holistic way. The strategy provides national and Emirate-level development plans to transform the economy to one that is green, and there has been considerable support through diverse public and private initiatives. The strategy reveals a deviation from the region’s previous approach whereby sustainable architecture was applied at the scale of the individual building – through building based initiatives such as green building regulations – to one far more complex at the scale of an entire city and beyond. It champions a range of architecture traditional to Arabic culture – such as small squares and pedestrian alley ways – to pioneering technologies. This serves to not only manage resource conservation, but encourages a change in human behaviour. For example, having a smaller and more compact city makes sustainable lifestyle choices easier, whether that be walking rather than driving, or consuming food that has been produced locally and organically, for example, the UAE’s hydroponics project, whereby the government is investing in advanced sustainable agriculture.


The International Medical Centre (IMC) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has embraced this holistic interpretation of sustainable architecture. Drawing on a ‘healing by design’ concept, it merges traditional technologies incorporated centuries ago in the earliest hospitals with those of today. The architectural philosophy lends itself to not only the healing and welfare of the patients, but extends to that of their families and the natural environment. This balance is achieved through many distinguishing features in its interior and exterior design – a combination of advanced building materials and technologies, such as a water treatment and purification facility, to an intelligent understanding of spatial relationships, which all work together to achieve a holistic healing of the body, soul and environment, hand in hand with Islamic values. It has been proven that exposure to a pleasant and natural environment improves patients’ mood, accelerates recovery, decreases the need for pain medications and even reduces nurses’ fatigue and stress levels. As such, it can be understood that the IMC have incorporated a definition of sustainable architecture that looks beyond the green credentials of a building, and one that incorporates a culturally rooted, socio-economic stance, demonstrating investment into society. The IMC, accredited with numerous awards for sustainable design, have recently announced partnership in the development of the newly launched Islamic Reporting Initiative (IRI) – a holistic CSR and sustainability reporting standard that is aligned with Islamic principles and values.


Holistic initiatives such as the Green Growth Strategy and the IMC’s healing by design concept demonstrate that there is a transformative shift in our understanding of green real estate – in both the scale and complexity of it. Buildings are no longer seen as individual entities, but spaces that can encourage responsible attitudes and behaviours. How best to measure our sustainable efforts remains a challenging task, but to take a holistic view, which the IRI does, ensures that the bigger picture is addressed.



UAE ‘Green Growth Strategy’ (2012)

IMC 2012