DOHA, Qatar — With massive steel Sidra trees sprouting from the base of the building and a 9-meter (yard) high sculpture of a spider in the lobby protecting a sack of grey and white eggs, Qatar National Convention Center is hard to ignore.
But it's what most visitors don't see that may become the building's lasting legacy in a region far better known for over-the-top excesses than conservation.
From the sustainably logged wood used in its construction to the 3,500-square-meters of solar panels on the roof, the building designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki is considered one of the most environmentally sound convention centers in the world.
"We want to change people's mindsets," said Ali al-Khalifa, as he led a visitor through an exhibition hall where dozens of ceiling windows helped cut down on electricity. It will take center stage in November when it hosts the U.N. Climate Change Conference, the first to be held by a top oil producer.
"We have to make something stay friendly to the environment. We are part of this Earth," said al-Khalifa, the chief executive officer of Astad Project Management which oversaw the construction. "All the oil and gas countries are moving to a green concept to ensure the new generation understands they have to preserve this energy and have something efficient."
Green buildings would seem an oddity in this tiny Gulf nation which has plenty of oil and gas and, according to the International Energy Agency, the highest per capita emissions in the world, closely followed by Gulf neighbors Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
But attitudes about energy use are changing across the Gulf. There is a growing recognition that the once seemingly limitless fossil fuels will someday run out and that these countries need to chart a more sustainable path.
Buildings are a logical place to start. They consume up to 70 percent of energy in parts of the Gulf — compared to 40 percent worldwide — due to the preponderance of glass skyscrapers and brutally hot conditions from Dubai to the Saudi city of Jeddah, according to Thom Bohlen, chief technical officer for the Middle East Centre for Sustainable Development.
The Middle East has come late to the green building movement, lagging far behind the United States, Europe and Asia in building structures that emit fewer emissions and consume less water, according to the United States Green Building Council. The USGBC's voluntary program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is used internationally to certify green buildings.
But when it comes to buildings in the works that are trying to earn LEED status, the Middle East is among the leaders. It has 1,348 LEED-registered buildings which surpasses all but Asia and the United States.
"Over the past couple of years, there has been a focus on trying to drive sustainable construction practices," said Peter Templeton, senior vice president of global market development for the USGBC. "It is mostly focused on new construction rather than retrofits of existing building."
Dubai in the UAE is home to one of the region's first green shopping malls and is building an eco-friendly mosque in 2013. On the outskirts of the country's capital, Abu Dhabi, the government-run Masdar Institute has built the first phase of a pre-planned city that aims to be powered by renewable sources including solar.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, though, appear to have even bigger ambitions.
In Doha, work started in 2010 on Msheireb Downtown Doha, which promises to be the world's largest sustainable community with 100 buildings using an average of a third less energy.
Lusail City, a planned development for nearly 200,000 people on the edge of Doha, has promised to adhere to the country's voluntary green building guidelines — similar to those in the UAE and other Gulf countries — which set standards for everything from water consumption to traffic congestion.
In Saudi Arabia, authorities have applied for LEED certification for the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, which will be home to the country's stock exchange. The nation's first LEED-certified project, the 26-building campus of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in 2009 and recycles all its wastewater, uses 27 percent less energy than a typical campus and was built with 20 percent recycled content.
Most of these green buildings rely on 21st Century solutions to reduce their footprint — high tech operating systems that ration electricity and power, additional insulation and thicker glass to reduce heat coming into the building and designs that orient the structure to limit the sun exposure.
But as the university campus shows, the region is also tapping technologies that are centuries old to solve its energy problems.
Along with its water savings and solar power, the project features wind towers, lattice-like shading on windows known as mashrabiya and a tent-inspired roof system that blocks the sun and extends throughout the campus.
"When we start a project, we will do some research on what people built in this location before they had electricity. How did they keep buildings warm or cool?" said Bill Odell, a senior vice president for HOK Architects who designed the KAUST campus. "We did that on this project and there were serious techniques that clearly worked. ... All these ideas we took out of traditional Islamic architecture."
The challenge now, experts say, is going beyond a handful of high profile projects and applying green building practices to the bulk of Gulf construction — such as low-rise office towers or residential housing projects.
To do that, governments in the region will have to make green building codes compulsory — most are now voluntary — and provide greater incentives for developers to build or retrofit more sustainably.
The other hurdle is sourcing building materials locally, which would cut down on emissions from transporting such things as steel, cement and wood to the region. Due to the lack of resources in the Gulf, most everything is imported and companies producing things like recycled steel are still too few to meet demand.
"If you want to build a green building, you need environmentally-sourced concrete, glass, aluminum," said Steven Platt, a UAE-based expert on LEED. "Although there are local suppliers, they aren't the greenest materials available."
Those were among the challenges Qatar faced when it set out to design an exposition center that met LEED's Gold certification. With few green construction materials at home, it went as far as Belgium and South Korea to get the environmentally-certified wood, steel and glass. It increased the initial cost — and contributed additional carbon emissions from shipping — but in the end helped ensure the building produces 32 percent less energy than a comparable convention center.
"There are limitations for how much you can do," al-Khalifa said.
"We don't want to fool ourselves. We were trying to be part of the system," he said. "We went to the greenest whenever we could find it. When we selected manufacturers, we didn't go for a cheaper supplier who didn't use recycled materials."
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