Seva Karpauskaite: If You Want to Understand its Mission, Visit Masdar City

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It’s a brisk Abu Dhabi afternoon. We are greeted by Chris Chi Lon Wan, who is the Head of Design at Masdar City, and who has been instrumental in bringing this urban development project to life since its inception in 2006. His beaming smile and energetic, passionate manner quickly capture our full attention. As he walks with us around the city, we are increasingly immersed in an interactive tale about the future of urban life.

Here we are, standing in the middle of the inner courtyard of Siemens Middle East Headquarters, and we are introduced to the general idea behind the city, which is charmingly simple. It seeks to utilize passive design strategies and clean technology to optimize sustainability. The city has 6,700,000 square foot allotted for diverse industries and projects, including research and education center, shops, restaurants, community spaces, mosques and residential areas. The master plan designates the allocation of the buildings and businesses in a way that their development complements the goal of a pedestrian-friendly, ecological and comfortable urban environment.

Every element of Masdar City is held to the highest environmental standard and has to cut energy demand and water consumption by 40%, while also reducing embodied carbon by 30% compared to business as usual. Many architects and developers gasp and tell that it is impossible to achieve such standards, when they first hear about the requirements for executing a development project here, as Mr Wan tells us. However, the existing buildings tell a different story. The one we stand in front of, the Siemens building, has not only won 11 international awards, but also achieved a 63% saving of energy consumption and a 52% saving of water consumption when compared to a standard Abu Dhabi office building.

The city utilizes a plethora of strategies for achieving its environmental ambitions. For one, the entire city is oriented on a southeast-northwest axis, because for most of the time the air movement in this location moves from this direction and because such orientation provides shading at street level throughout the day. Moreover, the buildings are positioned exactly 9 meters from each other in order to maximize shade. They also have smartly designed façades for shading and cooling purposes. As a result, the temperature can be up to 15C degrees cooler in the city than elsewhere in Abu DHabi. This can mean a great difference in comfort, especially during Abu Dhabi’s summer, when the air temperature is around 40-45C.

“The modern architecture movement was founded on the idea that form follows function. What I’m saying here is that we should take this idea one step further. What if we have buildings that follow the environment? The height, shape and shading devices in these buildings are a way of how we react to a given environment,” Mr. Wan explains. He ardently believes that the future architecture will use the environment to drive the design. Different architectural typologies have been driven by historical-economic developments. With growing urban populations and environmental pressures, people need to do more in order to be more sustainable and cost-effective. This will eventually lead to a new typology in architecture. This idea also explains how Masdar City is transferrable, despite being so embedded in Abu Dhabi’s geographic, climatic and cultural environment. In Mr. Wan’s words, one must simply answer the question: “If you were to build in a way that complements the environment, what would you do?” He explains that this will certainly lead to different outcomes, but the approach for sustainable cities will be universal giving rise to a modern regional environmentally friendly typology. The core definition of this typology revolves around the three pillars of economic, environmental and social sustenance. Mr. Wan tells us that they have been able to achieve sustainability, comfort and social aims without spending extra money over what we would in a business-as-usual office construction process.

As we climb into the personal rapid transit (PRT) vehicles (I have to say, I find them exceedingly cute) about to leave the city, I feel hopeful and excited to see this nexus of the development of sustainable urbanism and clean technology to spread around the globe. And such a movement is critically important: The number of people who live in cities is projected to rise to nearly 6 billion by the year 2050, up from the current 3.5 billion people (which is around 50% of the world’s population). Cities, concentrated urban environments, account for only 2% of the planet’s landmass, but contribute 75% of its carbon emissions and are responsible for almost 80% of the world’s energy consumption (U.N. Habitat Research). In the light of climate change and rapid urbanization, it is glaringly obvious that Masdar City is a crucial element of our ability to have a sustainable future.

Image credits: Leon Kaye & Seva Karpauskaite


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