Saudi Arabia’s cities are rapidly growing – the country’s population reached over 32 million in 2017, a rise of 44% from 2004 – and its capital’s boundaries are expanding into urban sprawl. Many Saudi citizens cannot afford to own homes because the cost of a 250-square meter (2,600 square feet) home is ten times the annual salary for a low-income family.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and was able to give out interest-free housing loans for decades. But now that the price of oil has dropped and is stabilising at 70 USD per barrel, the same types of subsidies are no longer viable, leaving the government to find new solutions that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.
Through a sustainable approach to housing, it’s possible to build superior quality houses at prices that are affordable in the long-term, while preserving natural resources for future generations.
In the last six to eight months, there have been many encouraging efforts toward a sustainable path in the housing sector, driven by the Ministry of Housing. In addition to those efforts, there are four more things that can be done:
1. Use Technology Creatively
Sustainable housing is still considered a luxurious option in Saudi Arabia, and many do not demand it because living costs are already high. Traditional homes are often compounds meant to house multiple generations, with large rooms and garages.
At the same time, the country faces harsh climate conditions, so popular sustainable building materials – like an environmentally-friendly sheet of glass – are not possible in 51C (123F) temperatures.
Saudi Arabia can longer use traditional technologies to build enormous houses, but it also needs new technology that will work with its environment. Instead of using past methods that can be costly and harmful to the environment, engineers and consultants need to use new technologies, such as passive solar design, that can be used to construct high quality houses at prices middle and lower-class citizens can afford.
2. Campaign for Sustainable Practices
Perhaps the biggest challenge to adapting sustainable building practices is the sheer “new-ness” of these concepts in the country. People do not fully understand what sustainable building means nor the long-term savings and benefits it could bring.
Therefore, the government is promoting the necessity of implementing sustainable practices across the country through its Vision 2030 – the country’s economic transition plan. The vision states that the government will seek to safeguard the environment by increasing the efficiency of waste management, establishing comprehensive recycling projects, and reducing all types of pollution. But the government could do more to increase public awareness.
The government should encourage its citizens to use sustainable practices. This includes promoting sustainability policies for the workplace, such as powering down equipment at the end of the day and enabling energy savings settings on all computers and desktops. Another practice is to encourage the purchase of energy-efficient products – for instance, choosing computers, electronics and IT acquisition products that are EPEAT registered to ensure the highest levels of efficiency.
3. Revise the Saudi Building Code
The Saudi government should revise and synthesise the Saudi Building Code to discard any housing project that does not apply the concept of sustainability, limit horizontal expansion, and emphasise vertical building.
There is space to encourage recycling facilities around the country. The government can also set mandatory terms and conditions to be followed in the design stage of any new project, including using the LED instead of the tungsten lights, installing thermal insulation and shaded windows, and using double-layer masonry.
4. Make Energy Affordable, and Save it
With its booming population, Saudi Arabia is using increasingly more water and energy resources. The Saudi government has developed a comprehensive national program to rationalise and enhance energy consumption by collaborating with national and international private sector companies and governmental agencies and has been evaluating the possibility of implementing energy consumption rationalisation initiatives across the country.
The government should create a building and housing energy policy that ensures reasonable energy costs. It can also implement education programs around energy and water saving. Such education programs should aim to shift the population’s day-to-day behaviours, for example turning off lights when not needed, using fewer energy-intensive appliances, and installing smart thermostats to run air conditioners only when needed.
None of the above can happen alone. The government must take a long-term view and look at every stakeholder and the entire housing “ecosystem” to find solutions to its current housing – and environmental – challenges. As part of taking an “ecosystem” view, the government should provide incentives for the different stakeholders involved, such as engineers, architects, construction companies, government agencies, and the public. For example, the government could create schemes that reduce the prices of sustainably-built properties so they are more in line with market prices for traditional, non-sustainable properties. As demand for such properties increases, architects may be more incentivised to design new sustainable housing solutions, and demand for fit-for-purpose technologies may grow as well. Only by understanding all the links in the system, will the country be able to move towards a more sustainable housing future.