Desert Dormitory FosterOf the many things that the Middle East has historically been known for, sustainability has not usually been at the top of the list. The clash of Western values with the harshness of the local climate can wedge sustainability between a lot of sand and a hard place.

Though there is a broad critique of the unsustainable attributes of the region’s development path, for years there has still been the budding prospect of Masdar City in the heart of the United Arab Emirates. Despite years of slow progress and still having a healthy way to go, Masdar City still has a wealth of potential to offer to the world of green urban planning, vying to be the planet’s most sustainable new city.

Sitting between both a blue and a golden ocean, Abu Dhabi has strived to lift itself out of its harsh climate as an oasis of business opportunity. The coastal city has tree-lined streets, plush lawns, and a waterfront promenade to compliment the rash of construction that has exploded over the past four decades. But in some ways the effort has created just another desert.

The capital city is unquestionably auto-dependant and its expanding footprint of relatively low density development likens it much more to Los Angeles than New York. Nevertheless a search for sustainability can lead the adventurous soul through the desert within the desert to the real oasis where efficiency rises as temperatures drop.

Masdar City exists as an urban development project run by the renewable energy company Masdar that has committed $15 billion to making the vision a reality. That vision aims to design and build a replicable model for a functioning, sustainable city. This is something the world sorely needs.

But Masdar City is certainly not without its share of critics and it is from afar that most of them feed. On first approach, the view of concentrated development in the center of six square kilometers of empty space does not leave one dumbfounded by the project’s overwhelming physical stature, especially when surrounded by the low, sprawling wave of Abu Dhabi.

Thanks largely to global financial recession, the buildings that do exist comprise less than 10% of the area committed to the urban experiment. Even today there is a group of onlookers that suggest Masdar City may just be a mirage after all.

However, a closer look reveals that the broader view is not necessarily synonymous with the bigger picture. It is walking through the streets and buildings of Masdar City that speaks to not only its achievements, but the importance of a future that is filled with promise for testing new urban models.

Designing the Oasis

Streetscape Desert CompositionSince its inception, the city’s master plan has been shepherded by Foster + Partners along with the designs for all of the buildings to date (except the most recently completed Siemens Building).

On the surface, the intervention is a testament to what is achievable for a project in the hands of one of the world’s best architecture firms when realized at a slow pace–slow enough to allow the city to keep learning from each new addition.

Nothing in the city appears to have been conceived without thoughtful intention. The face of every building, the end of every street and the layout of every public space play a role as a part of a balanced composition. Nothing looks to be out of place or extraneous.

One could argue that having a single hand behind the design effort could compromise the opportunity for the random urban event, the unintended residual condition, the undesigned happenstance that so often help define the urban spaces we love. At the same time, what exists now is only a fraction of the city’s intended fabric that is anticipated to house 40,000 residents in addition to 50,000 daily commuters.

Masdar Urban Design Manager

Chris Wan, Masdar Urban Design Manager

Walking through the city, An Interview with  points to the various components on each building that clearly reflect the effort’s goal of trying to create a sustainable urban environment in one of the world’s least hospitable climates. Wan’s role is overseeing the various components of the urban project and making sure they come to fruition without compromising the city’s sustainable goals.

So far, some structures are clad in terracotta panels that serve as private balconies, others in delicate metal screens, and some test air-filled reflective wall panels (used to lower the thermal mass of the exterior wall while simultaneously reflecting sunlight away from it). Chris points out that “Like all good sustainable architecture, all these features do more than one thing at the same time.”

The sense of comfort present when walking over pre-cast concrete pavers in the space woven between all the architecture is the result of careful scaling of wall height and articulation. The buildings of the existing core top out around 4 or 5 stories above street level. The absence of  cars allowed the main circulation to be narrower, bringing the added benefit of passive solar shading to the street surface.

According to Wan, the streets get only 30-45 minutes of direct sunlight a day in the desert climate, contributing to the fact that temperatures are reportedly 10-15 degrees lower inside Masdar City compared to the rest of Abu Dhabi (a testament to the power that heat islands have in manipulating local climates).

There are a growing number of examples that prove a dictum of being pedestrian-centric urban space is not enough to guarantee success and can be easily compromised if the scale of streets, buildings and systems are not aligned to the same end. University Station, in Westwood Massachusetts is an example of an opportunity for transit-oriented development that evolved into an auto-dependent shopping mall, but Masdar city could not be more dissimilar.

masdar air wall metal desert fire stair terracotta reflection Metal terracotta and glass Slim streets public space venturi effect mini masdar courtyard wind tunnel

Big Results from Simple Moves

Masdar City CourtyardAn impressive 10 MW solar facility sits on the edge of the development area that currently produces more clean power than the city uses on a daily basis, coupled with the PVs that hover over the tops of many of the buildings themselves. In the end, Wan suggests that the passive design strategies that might contribute the most to the city’s long term success. “A lot of the savings come from good and simple architecture,” Wan insisted. Things like building orientation, solar shading and materiality go a long way for the heavy lifting without an army of gizmos and doodads.

The main axis of the city is rotated in order to shift the grid to align with the prevailing wind and build functionality into the entirety of the plan throughout its many phases and iterations. When London-based firm Sheppard Robson proposed their design for Siemens’ new Middle Eastern Headquarters they elected to lift their building a story off the ground to harness the natural breeze and move it through the structure with the help of the Venturi Effect.

In the process they also creating a shaded, public space at street level with expansive views out over the rest of the site. It all sounds good as a sound bite, but when you stand beneath the building and hold your arms out with the breeze moving over you, there is no denying it actually works. Wan was right when he proudly stated, “You don’t see the masterplan, you feel the masterplan. No drawing can substitute that.”

Middle East Siemens Headquarters

Integrated sunshades on the new Siemens building, designed by Sheppard Robson

Wan points to the Siemen’s building  with its offices for 800 new employeesand standing as the first LEED Platinum building in Abu Dhabi–not a small achievement in the middle of the desert.–but Chris Wan doesn’t see that as an example of reaching the finish line. For him the critique continues, leaving him with a functioning, built model ripe with new kinds of data to inform the next project. Regarding future buildings to come, Wan exclaimed, “Let’s blow LEED Platinum out of the water.”

Still, those that come to the site looking for some silver bullet technological breakthrough that can’t be found anywhere else in the world may find themselves disappointed, but they would be suffering from the same problem that most people fall prey to in trying to spot “sustainability.” The fact is not only is there no silver bullet, but we don’t need one in order to make progress, lots of progress. Masdar City embodies that reality and therein lies its greatest value if it continues towards its path to completion. Its physical conception separates it from the countless number of theoretical (well-intentioned) urban models that wait to be constructed.

A Sustainable Standard, Slow & Steady

Setting goals without the means of reaching them is becoming more commonplace in the realm of sustainability where politicians or executives can find safety in the fact that they will have left their positions behind by the time unreached milestones come to pass. Masdar City is not the only example of organizations that have set goals that target our capability rather than the comfortability of the market status-quo. The city strives for reducing energy demand of its buildings by more than 50% beyond the baseline of ASHARE 90.1-2004. The difference is Masdar continually proving its dedication to reaching the benchmarks of its own creation coupled with the prospect of learning from them to push the envelope even further as the city evolves.

Masdar City is one of the most impressive and successful designs of a proactively sustainable urban space yet to be built. City officials hope to have the majority of the work done by the year 2030. Within the words of the many minds and faces behind the city that promise more rapid growth may lie the greatest risk to the authenticity of the city’s final likeness: expanding too quickly.

Some people try to poke at Masdar by focusing on its supposed lack of progress from needing to downshift in response to the world’s financial crisis, but perhaps it may have been a boon to the budding cityscape. The slower pace afforded to the project by times of less liquid capital have allowed for more time to study the effects of the city’s incremental growth. While everyone would like to see the city finished, having the project grow too fast could be the quickest route to compromising its values and turn it into more of a theme park than an authentic urban environment. The project will do more for the world of sustainability by being a better home rather than a better Epcot Center; a better place to live rather than a better place to “come and see”. It is through the daily use of homes, jobs and streets that Masdar City will become a model for replication rather than an exhibit to showcase good intentions.

That’s certainly easier said than done. We’re talking about the moving target of an incredibly complicated series of variables to create a “successful” urban space, but so far it seems to be working.

Full Disclosure: Travel expenses to Masdar City were covered by Masdar

Images by Author