Not every company can trace its lineage back 350 years, but French firm Saint-Gobain can. The company kicked off its year-long celebrations in January, and earlier this month held a two-day forum in Abu Dhabi as part of a global tour of its key construction markets.
The forum was split into four main sessions covering water, environmental impact, energy and multi-comfort – a topic that was divided into acoustics and sound quality, façades and glass.
In his opening address, Hady Nassif, Saint-Gobain’s regional managing director, said: “From 1665, we have accompanied every revolution in architecture. We continue to achieve our goal of improving habitats and making daily life better for people.”
Nassif explained that the four themes of the SG350 event – water, environment, energy and multi-comfort – “are the key challenges we have identified, and for which our businesses can offer solutions. We’re helping to make construction more efficient and rapid, and producing buildings designed to last longer, to reduce expense and increase efficiency.”
Speaking on the importance of innovation, he added: “One in four products now sold by Saint Gobain did not exist five years ago. We employ lots of R&D scientists creating technology and filing for patents – whether that’s a new render, dry wall or fire resistance technology.
“And we aim to create more awareness of these opportunities among all our industry partners – regulators, consultants and contractors.”
The Water Forum raised some startling statistics. As the world’s population increases and becomes more urbanised water supplies are an ever-increasing concern for world governments.
This is especially important in the Middle East – with some experts predicting that water could replace oil as a source of conflict between nations.
“Water resources are scarce in many areas of the world and especially in this region,” said the firm’s general manager with responsibility for water technology, Bruno Langlais. “We have seen a large increase in population locally and this is due in part to the influx of refugees fleeing the ongoing critical situations in Iraq and Syria.
“Saint-Gobain is a world leader when it comes to designing piping systems which are easy to install and require little or no maintenance throughout a long life.
“The company’s work starts at the design stage and carries right through the life of each system. Long experience and cutting edge research and development has enabled us to meet the needs of clients in the water supply industry.”
Tapping ground water supplies isn’t without consequences, either, another expert said.
Dr Peter Werner, director of the National Water Centre, UAE, said: “Groundwater usage [in the UAE] is 20 times higher than the natural recharge rate. This has to change. Water is being consumed, but not reused.”
Nearly two-thirds of water consumed in the UAE comes from groundwater, compared with 29% from desalination plants and 6% from water recycling.
“We are seeing a significant depletion of groundwater aquifers. Based on current water consumption levels, groundwater in the UAE will be depleted 50 years from now,” Werner added.
He warned: “That will cause land subsidence, which could have a big impact on construction and roads.”
Werner told Construction Week that subsidence was a general, rather than a specific, risk of groundwater depletion, depending on soil types. But he pointed to groundwater-related subsidence in Frankfurt, Germany, as evidence of the problem. There, groundwater levels were depleted by 50m-60m, leading to land subsidence of up to 2m.
“Fast-growing cities tend to build without replenishing their groundwater. There’s a focus on short-term profit and nobody sees the long-term view. But I hope that can be prioritised in the Middle East,” said Werner. The Environmental Impact discussions also raised interesting points.
Greener building is no longer an option – it is an obligation to secure the environment for generations to come, according to the co-founder of a sustainable engineering consultancy based in Lebanon.
Mario Saab, manager and co-founder of SEEDS, told conference delegates that the green building regulations and certifications that are being introduced throughout the region are driving the performance of buildings in the UAE and the MENA region to the next level.
And he added that the factors affecting the environmental performance of buildings were “mostly architectural” – materials, HVAC, building envelope, orientation, lighting and water efficiency. “So the later we intervene, the lower our impact will be,” he said.
Saab explored four globally-recognised certification programmes: LEED (from the US), BREEAM (UK), Estidama (Abu Dhabi), and QSAS (Qatar). In some regions these are mandatory, and in others there are financial incentives to comply.
Energy efficiency represents a varying proportion of the scoring system for each, but Saab said that software simulation studies on individual components and the whole building can help make informed decisions about the most cost-effective options.
He added that the four challenges to improved environmental construction performance are human, cultural, technical and resource-based.
One of the most effective means of cutting energy costs is to simply address poor building insulation.
Thicker insulation can reduce building cooling needs by as much as 57%, and reduce the required dimensions of HVAC systems by half, according to studies completed by Saint Gobain’s research and development (R&D) teams.
Grace Mouawad, who works in R&D for the company’s Isover division, shared the results of Saint-Gobain’s studies in the Middle East to show how improved building insulation can achieve financial payback in less than two years.
She revealed that external insulation is more effective than internal insulation in countries with hot climates because of the impact of thermal bridges. ”External insulation of the same thickness provides better energy efficiency,” she said
In an experimental study in Kuwait, 12cm of external insulation on a residential building led to a reduction in HVAC peak load of 41% and a reduction in cooling energy of 46% versus no insulation. For 6cm external insulation, the figures were 31% and 39% respectively. In both instances, the payback period was less than two years.
In a further computer modelling study, it examined the effects of turning off HVAC in a typical villa during daytime working hours (7am to 6pm) in external temperatures of up to 42° C – a practice that can lead to 10% energy savings.
The indoor temperature in a villa with no insulation rose from 23° C to 31° C. But with Saint Gobain’s ETICS external insulation the internal temperature increased to just 27° C, “leading to bill reduction and better comfort levels”.
While technology can help in planning for a greener and more efficient future, it is also important to remember that true innovation requires a human touch.
Dr Adel AnouJaoude of Lebanese engineering firm Khatib & Alami said: “All cities in the GCC are in a race to build megaprojects for water storage. And all those projects have specific challenges. We have at our disposal mathematical modelling tools, but they lack the engineering sense and innovation that comes from people. Computers never provide new solutions, they can only validate them.”
He added that it is important for engineers to work with product suppliers. “They’re leading the technical innovation. As engineers, our approach is to solicit them to share their R&D, and bring their technology to life.” Dr AnouJaoude pointed to the role of compacted concrete, which has only been in existence for three decades. “That has allowed the construction of higher dams and mega reservoirs. No one would have dared to design those projects without it.”
He said that the Middle East was currently particularly attractive to engineers: “There is a very high density of megaprojects in the region, which is dictated by demographic growth and the scarcity of water. And Gulf countries have the means to invest in them.”
Saint-Gobain continues its year-long celebrations with a series of conferences and a global travelling pavilion detailing the company’s list of achievements.