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On January 26 the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) and United Nations (UN) Global Compact held their first consultation workshop on responsible business practices for land, real estate and construction sectors.
Held in Dubai, the event attracted more than 100 participants from across the region, including government representatives, civil societies and key businesses. Beyond the UAE, visitors from Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon and Iraq attended, illustrating the region’s increasing desire to adhere to high standards across the building industry.
Rics is an international regulatory organisation, which subjects its 180,000 members to the same minimum standards and compulsory development, regardless of their location. According to its Global Head of Sustainability, Ursula Hartenberger, the decision to collaborate with UN Global Compact illustrates Rics’s commitment to “being a responsible organisation”. Hartenberger reasons that the land, real estate and construction sectors account for in excess of half of global wealth and yet they are currently underperforming when it comes to best practices.
“The global construction industry alone is one of the largest sectors in the world,” she says. “Its contribution to global GDP makes up around one-tenth of the total with a share of overall employment of almost seven per cent. Despite this significant economic impact, the real estate sector is currently only marginally represented among the Global Compact’s business participants.”
Best Practice Toolkit
The consultation’s aim was to contribute to the creation of a document, called the Best Practice Toolkit — a set of compulsory guidelines designed to ensure the highest professional standards. The Toolkit identifies and explains the links between businesses’ activities and their impact on the UN Global Compact’s four main areas of concern — human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.
For the UAE, Hartenberger acknowledges that sustainability and the environment are key concerns but she also points out that these problems are global and not specifically linked to markets such as Dubai. “There is obviously a significant amount of development going on in the UAE and the challenge for the region will be to ensure that this development is undertaken in an environmentally responsible way. This could also mean considering the way the buildings are designed and where. Getting this right is never easy. Dubai, for example, has a high proliferation of highrise buildings. High-rise is traditionally more resource intensive but can potentially help to create greater density rather than allowing urban areas to sprawl and to use up valuable land resources.”
Affordable housing in the UAE is also an issue Rics supports, with Hartenberger stating, “As with other locations, it would be essential to ensure there is enough housing supply and that there is a good mix of owner-occupied and rental stock.”
Focus on environment
The UAE’s environmental sustainability was a recurring theme at the meeting, with participants raising issues from how to manage essential resources in an extremely hot environment to the rising global temperatures. Hartenberger explains, “There was a strong interest in water and energy conservation and the use of renewables, which was also highlighted during the best practice session — during which companies from the regions presented case studies on how they are practically addressing these issues through targeted measures.
“The measures included, among others, rain water harvesting and adopting traditional design and materials that promote natural cooling, using indigenous plants for landscaping, extensive use of photovoltaic systems [solar panels], as well as community urban gardening.”
Human welfare within the land, construction and real estate sectors was also high on the agenda, with Hartenberger explaining, “The health and safety of both construction workers and real estate users during the operational phase plays a central role within the Toolkit.”
In terms of environmental sustainability, Rics would like to see green technologies and features uniformly included in standard property valuation practices.
Rics President Louise Brooke-Smith referred to a Red Book for Valuers, where it is now compulsory for professional members of the Rics to consider sustainable features in their valuations. Hartenberger concedes that the financial impact of these assessments is unknown, but also believes that by ensuring all Rics members record information about the environmental attributes of a building or a piece of land, future valuations can be backed up with statistical evidence.
These assessments are wide-reaching in both depth and scope, covering a range of topics, from the consumption of non-renewable materials during the build and the future life expectancy of a project, to more basic considerations such as a building’s exposure to sunlight and shade or simply its proximity to green and open spaces.
She argues that “valuers will be contributing to the systematic improvement in data that will help ensure that, as markets become sensitised to sustainability issues, appropriate analysis can be undertaken to support future estimates of value.”
One of the key points of the Best Practice Toolkit is what Rics refers to as “social sustainability”. Hartenberger says, “In the context of the Toolkit, social sustainability is all about community engagement and outreach. This starts at the very beginning of a project, with a social impact assessment during the process of land status change, which could affect a community’s traditional shelter and livelihoods, through to creating safe, accessible, healthy and affordable buildings and neighbourhoods that will also foster local employment and skills development and finally, considering community needs when changing the use of a building or neighbourhood.”
With such a broad agenda, does Hartenberger fear such a level of scrutiny and accountability could damage the property industry’s reputation? She is dismissive of this idea. “In fact public concern and scrutiny could never damage the sector’s reputation, because they are natural components of a strengthened real estate sector,” says Hartenberger. “It’s only the revelation of poor practices that is damaging, and the Toolkit is designed to help address this.”
In a recent article for Rics, Dr Samer Bagaeen, a UK-based academic from the University of Brighton Planning School and a specialist in sustainability and low-carbon urbanisation, suggested that the very interpretation of what constitutes sustainability could differ according to different cultures.
In the case of the GCC, Bagaeen believes many projects have emphasised “the pushing of scientific and technological frontiers, using high-tech materials to celebrate human triumph over the harsh climate they endure”. He adds: “Stories and histories about extreme climate conditions are consistently used in the Gulf to emphasise the nations’ ability to conquer hardship, while technological projects that do so are treated as iconic markers of modernity.”
Bagaeen also believes the term “sustainability” is open to manipulation. “Environmental experts haven’t really explored how the sustainability agenda can sometimes operate as mask for the economic interests of those who take advantage of the vagueness of the term,” he says.
Hartenberger believes these inconsistencies are related to a lack of transparency. She feels training and education are very important in changing the overall business culture. “Training should involve representatives from the government, private sector and civil society,” she says.
“The Toolkit demonstrates how all four of the Global Compact Issue Areas, and the practical measures for addressing them, are of universal relevance, including the UAE, but fully acknowledges regional and national differences between companies as to the particular issues they could face and the type and level of their engagement in each issue area.”
The project for creating the Toolkit is scheduled to end this year. Hartenberger adds, “However, the launch represents only the beginning of the journey as there will be a number of activities in relation to its roll-out.”
Source: Peter Feely, Special to PW