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Architects work to address a 'fundamental problem' with city buildings using the latest technologies and age-old techniques — here's what's changing

"It was a different time, but also a different place."

"It was a different time, but also a different place."

Photo Credit: iStock

They say you shouldn't throw stones at glass houses, but architects in Dubai are learning a new lesson — you shouldn't have built the glass houses, or skyscrapers, in the first place. 

As The New York Times detailed, an oil boom revolutionized the city around the same time air conditioning became widely available in the 1970s. Construction shot through the roof — literally, as it led to the creation of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa — and developers commissioned futuristic buildings made of steel, concrete, and glass. 

However, the world has changed since then, with global rising temperatures among one of the most significant changes. Glass buildings trap heat, and air-conditioning use surged in the city, where temperatures regularly reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the hottest months. 

Statista reported that in 2022, the Emirates had the world's sixth-highest electricity consumption per capita. The region is also one most affected by Earth's rising temperature, and the more they rely on dirty-fuel-hungry air conditioners to keep these buildings cool, the more demand there will be for the energy. This, in turn, contributes to more planet-warming, creating a vicious cycle. 

While some countries, like Spain and Britain, are changing their working hours to keep employees out of buildings during the hottest part of the day, architects in Dubai are changing the buildings themselves. 

As reported by the Times, Dubai is the first city in the Middle East to receive platinum certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Cities program (LEED) and currently has nearly 400 LEED-certified projects. 

Architects are working to make buildings more sustainable using a mix of the latest technologies and age-old techniques from well before the dawn of air-conditioning. 

Known as passive cooling — a system scientists at Washington State University, among others, are working to perfect — the designs use methods like orienting buildings away from the sun, building in tune with wind patterns for natural ventilation, incorporating traditional Islamic architecture, such as perforated panels that emulate traditional Egyptian screens, to create shade, and, of course, minimizing the use of glass. 

However, as architect Todd Reisz pointed out, the effectiveness of old practices is limited as Dubai's temperatures continue to rise.

"It was a different time, but also a different place," he told the Times. "Temperatures are higher. Wind patterns are changing, water currents are changing. So we can't really talk about a total return, but maybe we can talk about how humans relate to the environment around them."

Rob Cooke, the sustainability director at Buro Happold, an engineering consultancy with clients in the Middle East, further pointed out that for every sustainable building built in Dubai, more yet continue to disregard the changing climate, something he sees as "a fundamental problem." 

Reisz believes that even more important than building sustainable skyscrapers is investing in walkable cities, something that has been proven to benefit human health and the environment. 

"How much can we do with technology," he said, "and how much do we need to look at changing the way we live?" 

Making small changes to how we live, like walking or taking public transportation and reducing our reliance on dirty energy and single-use plastics, will help keep Dubai and the world a cooler place.

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