Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | November 1, 2017

Sustainable Design in Kuwait

Sustainable design is the balance between reducing the energy needs of a building while maximizing living quality.

When people think of sustainability they usually think of solar panels. You put them on your roof and they start converting sunlight to electricity. That’s great! However in Kuwait air conditioning is the main reason why we need so much electricity and rooftop solar is not nearly enough.

Let’s say you want to be ‘sustainable’ and decide to have solar panels installed. Your house also has big windows because you like sunlight. This heats up the glass which radiates heat into your room which makes the AC work harder using up more electricity. The direct sun is also causing uncomfortable glare indoors and you decide to close the curtains but now it’s dark and you turn on the lights during the day, wasting more electricity.

A better, cheaper and more sustainable solution is to design the building so that windows are not facing the direct sun. Simply shading your windows with overhangs or orienting the building to not face the sun will lower your electricity consumption much, much more than what rooftop solar can ever provide.

The challenge that a designer faces is how to balance the needs of lowered energy demands with maintaining a high quality of life for the occupants. How do you flood the room with indirect natural light without much heat gain? How do you insulate and keep the inside cool without resorting to always keeping the AC on? How do you orient and arrange the building mass to maximize shade while increasing livability? These are all design problems that an architect solves to create a truly sustainable design.

 

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Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | October 31, 2017

Designing a Sustainable Home

Kuwait is an extreme living environment. We live in one of the hottest and driest places on earth yet very few people are designing and building homes that take this reality into consideration.

The issue is that the low cost of water and electricity blinds us from the fact that we live in such an extreme environment. Now that there are plans to phase out electric and water subsidies many are finally realizing the problems that result from the way we design and build in Kuwait.

In the past 10 years I have seen countless homes that could have been designed much more efficiently. Clients are interested in sustainable design but unfortunately it has become a meaningless buzzword that doesn’t really mean anything tangible anymore, and it becomes hard to explain what it should mean.

What i’m planning on doing in the next few weeks is to create a conceptual design of what I believe a sustainable home should be like in Kuwait. It would have all of the ideas that I have been talking about in the past and I’ll have all the plans and thoughts behind every decision posted here for everyone to see and share.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | February 20, 2017

Before the Music Stops

I realized that I didn’t propose a solution to the previous post. I make a point of not simply complaining and pointing out what’s wrong without proposing what I feel needs to be done.

So here’s what I think we could do the help soften the blow of the coming EV (electric vehicle) revolution.

  1. Education, education, education. Nothing can save us without a productive and educated workforce. The education system in Kuwait has failed us. This needs to change urgently and we need to invest as much money and manpower to turn this disaster around. We need to graduate ambitious, creative and highly productive people.
  2. Change the building codes to emphasize extreme energy efficiency. We need to reduce our consumption and there is not much in current building codes that encourage better energy efficient design for homes and office buildings. This needs to change or else our city will continue to waste power (and money) on cooling.
  3. Slowly enact changes in fiscal policy that would push people towards being more efficient and productive. Subsidies feel nice but they encourage extremely wasteful behaviors. Instead of subsidizing fuel, electricity, water and education, just give people cash and let them spend it however they want. Then tax them. That way, citizens will demand much better services from the government since the feel invested.
  4. Build solar mega projects. We need to build so much solar that we have enough energy to survive without having to use any hydrocarbons for local consumption.

I don’t think any of it matters, though. There’s not enough time. The EV revolution will crush us.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | February 20, 2017

When the Music Stops

We are approaching a convergence in technologies that will reshape transportation and the way cities are designed. In about 10 years everything will change and it will be a disaster for the GCC.

Technological change happens very fast. It took only a few years for smartphone penetration to accelerate and go from a luxury to an essential part of daily life. This happened because certain technologies all converged into a single product that made peoples lives better. This is what economists call the S-curve. Once a technology reaches a certain point adoption explodes and everyone wants it. This acceleration is happening at a faster rate because of globalization.

adoption-rates-in-history-of-products

Shrinking electronics, cheaper and better cameras, GPS, sensors, WiFi and touchscreens all came together to create the smartphone, a product that traditional phones cannot compete with. The benefits were just too great. The choice for consumers was simple: once prices were within range, everyone bought a smartphone.

We are approaching a similar pattern when it comes to electric and autonomous vehicles. All the technologies that need to work together are fast becoming cost effective and can finally compete with the traditional internal combustion engine car.

20170120batteryprice

The forecast for battery prices is coming in even lower than expected below $100 in 2020. This will keep getting lower every year. Batteries are by far the most expensive component in an electric car. By 2020 electric cars will achieve cost-parity, meaning they will cost the same as other cars on the market. This is not just Tesla, as every major car maker is developing electric cars to compete. Electric cars will be cheaper.

Electric cars also benefit from being much, much easier to maintain than traditional cars, having no more than about a dozen moving parts compared to thousands. Less moving parts mean less maintenance. Electric cars will be easier to maintain.

ice-moving-parts-png-662x0_q70_crop-scale

Electric motors are silent and can accelerate almost instantly. This makes driving an electric car so much fun. A good electric car can accelerate faster than most supercars like a McLaren or Maserati. In fact, Consumer Reports gave the Tesla Model S a perfect score of 100 and calling it “the best-performing car that Consumer Reports has ever tested”. Electric cars are more fun to drive.

With technology such as LiDAR and better mapping, most of those electric cars will be autonomous meaning that the cars will self-drive using sensors and cameras. This in turn leads to people deciding not to buy a car at all and relying on the sharing economy or on a fleet of autonomous cars to take them anywhere they want or schedule daily trips to work or school. This is already happening in many cities globally. The cost of owning a car is becoming too high. Why pay for fuel, insurance, parking, when you can just order a car on Uber or Lyft? Cars are parked 95% of the time which is is a waste of resources. The phenomenon of cars-as-a-service will revolutionize transportation and urban design freeing up parking spaces and reducing the number of cars on the road. Electric cars will be optional.

Countries like India and China are already planning on investing heavily in electrifying their transportation system and building autonomous fleets. First time buyers in those countries will most likely buy electric. This is beneficial both economically and for the climate because electric cars produce no pollution. Electric cars will be better for the environment.

Generating electricity will be much easier since solar technology is finally approaching grid-parity, which means that it will become just as cheap to produce solar power as it is from traditional power generation. It’s currently cheaper in some parts of the world to invest in solar than in building a natural gas or coal power plant. It will keep getting cheaper with every passing year. The problem with solar is that you need lots of batteries to store excess power to use it at night. What if there was a city-wide fleet of electric cars able to store power during the day and selling it back to the grid at night? Electric cars will be the battery for the city.

These changes are happening right now. These are not hopes and dreams for the future. This is now.

Sounds awesome. So why should we worry? What this all means is that very soon most cars will no longer need petrol and people will need fewer cars in general. By 2030 most new cars will be electric.

The GCC is still entirely dependent on oil. For example. the Kuwaiti government needs to spend about 60 billion USD annually to keep the country running. Most of that money comes from selling oil. If people don’t need as much oil anymore, what happens? We are not prepared and in fact we seem to be refusing to accept this reality, going so far as OPEC saying that electric vehicles will make up just 1 percent of cars in 2040. That is crazy.

We all think that we have decades to figure out our problems. We don’t. Change happens suddenly. We are not prepared.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | May 21, 2015

242.4 Million KD

Photo May 21, 12 35 58 PM Cities are learning the lessons of the 20th century and removing urban freeways. Building more roads is not the answer, as it actually makes traffic worse (more here, here, here, here and here). The website for the project claims that the main objective is to:

  1. Segregate between bypass traffic and local traffic flow.
  2. Increase the Jamal Abdul Nasser Highway capacity thereby minimizing traffic congestion &  reducing accidents.
  3. Meet future traffic demands.
  4. Improve road facilities and services.
  5. Improve road safety standards.

It’s clear that the intention is to ‘reduce traffic congestion’. Let’s disregard the cost for now (at least 242.4 Million KD) and focus on the aim of the project which is to link the west of Kuwait with Kuwait City by bypassing the existing roads and simply driving over them to reach the First Ring Road. Let’s assume that the 3 to 4 lane elevated highway absorbs enough traffic to justify the cost of it being built. What would happen then? The huge traffic flow would pour into the First Ring Road and into those tiny overpasses and underpasses, lining up into the exits waiting for the traffic lights. Let’s assume that merging into those smaller lanes will happen magically and smoothly every morning and the traffic light is always green. What’s next? The enormous number of cars flowing through First Ring Road and into the city have to reach their destination. Most buildings don’t have on-site parking. Parking structures are already packed. Most streets are too narrow. Double parking turns a two lane street into a one way game of chicken. Now picture the same but with even more cars. Imagine a doctor with an obese patient that has clogged arteries, intensely elevated blood pressure and failing organs. Instead of treating him to fix those serious, life threatening issues, the doctor decides to install new arteries to bridge between his heart to his lungs (at a cost of at least 242.4 Million KD). It works fine, the blood flows nicely through the new bridge, everything is working great. But the patient is still obese, with clogged arteries and intensely elevated blood pressure and now he needs to find 242.2 million KD to pay for the operation. The solution is not more highways over highways. The city is already choking but our only plan is to stuff more into it. We must have an alternative to roads and driving. Without the Metro nothing will get fixed no matter how much money we burn.

Edit: Just to be clear, the solution isn’t just building the Metro and calling it a day. Here’s what i’d like do.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | November 24, 2012

Jaber Bridge

Without traffic the bridge will save about 25 minutes from the journey. Let’s say someone lives in Mishref and wants to work in Silk City. In order for that person to drive to the entrance of the bridge they have to go through the traffic leading to it, which is through Shuwaikh Industrial and the port. This area is already congested and will be more so with everyone passing through to get to the bridge. The same will be true on the Silk City side. In the end, I will be very surprised if the total journey is less that it would be to take the longer detour around the city and the bay.

It might seem like the bridge will save about 20 minutes or so from every journey but in order to do so there will be more traffic in the city as a result, having paid KD20 million for each kilometer. The project will be a national disaster. We should not wait for that to happen and we must scrap the project entirely. It is an ecological nightmare, a fiscal disaster and will add to the existing traffic gridlock.

A more fiscally prudent and ecologically sensitive solution would be to just use the existing road to Silk City/Subbiya. What’s wrong with that? We don’t ruin Kuwait Bay, we don’t burn KD700 million and we don’t increase the traffic problems in our already crippled city. In fact, we can use the land there to extend the city further. The bridge would slow this down.

There are far better uses for the money than this terrible idea of the bridge. I understand that it’s an easy way for some to loot public funds, but i’d rather we find a way without leaving us with a 35 km monster for us to forever deal with.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | November 13, 2012

Hidden Taxes in Kuwait

There’s a difference between pride and patriotism. People keep asking for more handouts and assume that we don’t pay any taxes in Kuwait. Sure, our salaries and income isn’t literally taxed, but we pay for our political and social dysfunction in other ways.

We pay an incompetence tax when regulations aren’t enforced and food is tainted, buildings overdeveloped and stocks manipulated. We pay a monopoly tax when land is restricted and severely overpriced while laughably slow internet is unreasonably expensive. We pay an inflation tax as every time the government raises salaries and benefits so does the price of everything else. We pay an inequality tax when insecure parents enroll their children in exclusive private schools that increase segregation and stratification. We pay an opportunity tax when smart, passionate and creative individuals are numbed by an indifferent and hostile bureaucracy into a life of stable monotony or even exile to achieve their dreams.

Money is great but more money is usually a bad thing. It skews incentives and unbalances relationships. I’d rather be taxed at 60% and live in a country blessed with justice, opportunity and freedom for all, but we’re blessed with oil and that solves everything, right? Is it not patriotic to want to be proud of our country?

Posted by: Jasem Nadoum | July 9, 2012

Dialogue

1- Building Codes

Jassem: Building codes needs revisiting by the authorities. We are building way too much on a small piece of land. I can’t think of any reason why someone is capable of building a 40 floors of apartments on 3000 sqm. Where are people are suppose to park their cars? How efficient are the roads leading and surrounding such buildings? If one area has several buildings of similar density, how congested is that area? How is that congestion being handled? In case of fire, how will the fire department can handle such fire?

Barrak: I don’t see it as a problem that we’re building densely. What worries me is the lack of transportation alternatives and an infrastructure that can cope with the density, like you said. Very few people in Manhattan, London or Hong Kong have cars and that’s because there are viable transportation alternatives. We don’t have those. I’d also prefer us to spread out densely instead of concentrating into a few skyscrapers with open space around them. It’s better for shading and creating a more inhabitable ground plane, similar to the old pre-oil Kuwait. So I don’t think the building codes are so much a problem as it is the lack of comprehensive city planning. I guess that’s an even bigger issue.

Jassem: Comparing Kuwait, as a country to cities like Manhattan or London is a joke. Kuwait building codes allows developers to construct massive buildings anywhere in the country as long as they are in accordance with the codes. This means that someone with the right size of land can build up to 40 floors high of apartment building, with complete disregard to the actual density, or the actual need of the site. These codes are there to allow developers to make more money by building more on their small or large plots. Kuwait does not have the proper infra-structure to accommodate all this, should everyone decides to take advantage of these codes. You are right however, Barrak, that we definitely lack proper city planning which should be a more of a reason not to build so much. At least not before we zone, plan, build proper infra-structures that can suit the demands.

2- Residential Overcapacity

Jassem: Same thoughts with residential houses. Do people realize that they are building beyond their needs and means? Why do we need a basement, ground floor, first floor, second floor, and something extra on top? What for? How many occasions does a single family have to be hosting so many people in so many different rooms annually? Did the authorities think about the infrastructure of residential areas? Is our sewage network capable of handling such a population? Are the streets wide enough to accommodate the extra traffic?

Barrak: People have their needs. We can’t dictate to them what they should want. Especially not when the land is almost twice as expensive as the house they’re building on it. That makes them feel that they have to utilize every legally allowable space they can afford. It’s a sane response that I can understand. I’d prefer if residential codes were even more relaxed, as long as there was a very strict enforcement of traffic violations. Build as much as you want, but if you park on the street, your car gets towed. If that’s how the rules are enforced then people will end up adding parking within their premises and not abuse the public space. Again, I don’t think the building codes themselves are to blame, it’s a matter of enforcement and what people think they can get away with.

Jassem: The building codes have allowed people to build too much for their own houses. Prices of lands have soared as a direct response to such increases in buildable areas. What has happened is some rich people have started to buy lots of plots and constructing mini residential towers, with huge profit margins. I totally understand that some families are building to house their sons when they grow up and decide to get married, but on the other side, the amount you build adds to the value of the land. Imagine, a 400 sqm land in Khairan residential city costs an average 65000-70000 KD’s, and that city is near the southern boarders of Kuwait, this is outrageous. That is making lands everywhere less affordable to average people.

3- Decentralization

Jassem: It is great to de-centralize the city, because it makes it more efficient and sustainable. Massive construction is underway in South Surra governmental district. Have the authorities thought of the massive traffic those building would generate when they’re operational? Did the people living think about that? Especially when they are paying a premium to purchase a house there? Looking at the streets surrounding those buildings, it is clear to me that traffic jams will be happening on a daily basis and it won’t be a day-time thing. The massive hospital being built, along with the huge shopping mall would make sure that the traffic jams continue until nightfall.

Barrak: We don’t really have a decentralized traffic system. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of that. The streets are interconnected within the areas, but to get from one area to the other you always have to enter a highway or a major road. There are always bottlenecks. A decentralized traffic system means that there are multiple ways to get from one place to another, so traffic tends to disperse around areas of actual concentration instead of being restricted by the flaws of the highway system.

Jassem:  This point I agree with you on, mostly. I totally agree with the notion of different transportation systems, with the metro as being prime, however, people will always use their cars. For as long as the automobile is a relatively cheap, people will always opt for it. Having different transport systems alone won’t solve our problems.

4- Large Parks

Jassem: How come there aren’t any massive parks in Kuwait? Every major city in the world has one, at least. Dubai has Zabeel Park which is split into two parts connected with a pedestrian bridge. Don’t the authorities think it’s important to improve the quality of life of people living here?

Barrak: Why would you want a massive park? I’d rather break that up into thousands of smaller parks and have those spread out everywhere. Our climate isn’t really suited to the large park typology, where you usually have large open spaces for people to play in. There are a lots of empty pockets of land everywhere and i’d prefer if we do something with those to benefit the local area around it, where they can walk to it every day if they choose, instead of ‘destination’ parks like the new one in Salmiya where you have to drive to it.

Jassem: I have not said that we don’t need smaller parks everywhere. I just said a massive park, which is what you have already proposed here on this blah a few years back with the first ring road green strip, which constitutes a huge park. I agree our weather is not the best for such things, however, there are many trees and many other vegetation that can work nicely in our climate. What is wrong with driving to a place, any place? How many theme parks can a city have? How many hospitals? Again, traffic will persist regardless, unless we make the vehicle expensive, allowing for alternative modes of transportation to take over.

5- Parking Structures

Jassem: Why aren’t there enough parking buildings in the city? People are suffering from the lack of sufficient parking and its the main reason for most traffic jams in the early hours of the morning. Why can’t we simply build multi-story, multi-function parking structures that would house vehicles, offices, and shops, like what Kuwait was doing back in the 1970’s and 1980’s? Isn’t that desperately needed now?

Barrak: I think they’ve started to build a lot of new parking structures, but it’s never going to be enough. The easier it is to drive to the city and find a space the more people will want to go there. There will always be more cars, so it won’t ‘fix’ the problem. Again, we need to have an alternative network (metro, pedestrian, trams, etc) to help disperse the traffic and add variety. Park and rides around the periphery of the city might be a way instead of having the parking structures right in the middle of the city, especially since the highways narrow considerably once you’re past the first ring road.

Jassem: Again, for as long as the car is relatively cheap, people will opt for using it. The only solution is to make it expensive.

6- Residential Styles

Jassem: Why are people fascinated with Moroccan, European, Islamic and whatever style for their houses? How are we in the 21st century related to such styles? What is it that connects Kuwait with Europe that we need to copy them? Why can’t we invent our own “style” that reflects our own way of life? People don’t realize that architecture is a reflection of our thinking process and philosophy, it is our heritage for future generations, do we want to leave behind a legacy of copying other civilizations? What’s our input? What do we make of this world we live in today?

Barrak: The old Kuwaiti style looked the way it did because of the materials and building methods that were used. We don’t use those anymore and what we have now are anonymous concrete blocks that are pretty ugly to look at, usually. I don’t blame people for trying to add a personal veneer to give it a look that represents their individuality. It can get out of hand sometimes, but I don’t think it’s really our place to dictate what people should do with their lives. They should have the freedom to build the ugliest houses they want as long as they’re happy with it. More freedom to them. I don’t want someone dictating to me how I should live my life, either.

Jassem:  I am not talking about how people used to build, because that’s a different era with different circumstances. We need to encourage contemporary means of representation. Architecture should reflect our times, our own values and traditions, our own habits and climate. I know people have different tastes and opinions, it is our job as architects to show them the correct path, not to passive about people ignorance. We must educate them, much like what we are doing here, I hope. I wonder Barrak, have you ever designed a thematic house? Moroccan, or Andalusian style villa?

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | July 8, 2012

Is It Hot Outside?

It feels so good inside ourselves we don’t want to move.*

Obesity has been linked by some with the constant use of central air conditioning. I’m not sure i’d go that far, but it does help us maintain a comfortable sedentary existence which is generally the cause of a lot of our health problems as a society. Comfort is killing us.

There’s usually a struggle to find a way to design a house with livable and usable outdoor space while expecting the ‘inside’ of the house to stay airtight all the time. What about the dust? How would you stop the cold air from escaping? There are lots of alternatives to central air. It’s silly and selfish to keep a big indoor space cool when there’s no one in it.

Our bodies have not evolved with the luxury of a constant and perfect climate. We store food to have spare energy to burn when it gets a little colder than we’d like, or when there are days when food is scarce. Ramadhan is round the corner and as usual people will gain weight. There isn’t an easy answer to being healthy and living sustainably as a society both in terms of bodily and economic health.

We have to accept the reality that there are compromises that have to be made. A little less comfort can be a good thing, but I still don’t want to move. Change is hard and i’m comfortable right now.

*Sly

Posted by: Jasem Nadoum | July 1, 2012

A Gaze onto the City

I am sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Kuwait City. I am enjoying my cup of coffee while browsing the net, checking my timeline on twitter, and gazing out to the street. The sight from where I’m sitting shows how far the city went towards the sky. Shiny skyscrapers are popping up at  every corner, competing against each other and seeking attention. A variety of complex tall structures looks impressive for those who aren’t trained to differentiate between good architecture and bad. It also reflects how we as a society view development in the 21st century. It’s printed in our minds that taller buildings means a rich, modern, sophisticated country, yet that can not be further from the truth.

A. alFoudry

Unfortunately, as I continue to gaze and take a deeper look towards the streets, it shows how poor we are in urban design. Our streets are anti-pedestrian, anti-automobile, and simply anti-human. Nothing in our urban fabric is connected other than the pavements of the street and the sidewalks. almost no vegetation, no urban furniture, no proper signage, and no amenities to be seen anywhere. I will not even discuss the fact that there aren’t enough parking for all the cars that are starting to block the roads and create traffic jams.  The city is being experienced by the car only, which is a shame.

This, however, wasn’t the case all the time. Back in the 1960’s while Kuwait experienced a boom in construction till the early 1980’s, trees where everywhere, urban furniture was placed properly on both sides of the street, and public amenities where available. Enough parking spaces were also available according to the capacity of surrounding buildings, that the building codes allowed back in the day.

We are reaching high to the sky, looking upwards, feeling mighty, only to ignore where we stand. This is bound to fail and will eventually collapse. We need to re-think, re-imagine, re-cycle our city for proper usage. We need to think of our selves as users of our biggest city as human beings not as automated vehicles. I think how we treat our streets and how we connect the different parts of the city is what makes us truly a rich society. From where I’m sitting I see a lot of potential for creating a true urban life in the city, if only we can shift our focus from the heavens and be humble enough to look at where we stand.

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