If you are going to the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week event, you must not miss a visit to Masdar City, less than 20km from downtown, famous as one of the lowest possible ecological footprint communities in the modern world.

It mirrors a city of the past, with high density, a pedestrian-friendly urban environment, awareness of local climate demands and in tune with its surroundings. The difference lies in its technology, backed up by research and development, pioneering best practices in sustainable urban planning and design.


Source: “Inhabitat – design will save the world” – Lord Norman Foster’s zero emission masterplan for Masdar City

To design in hot climates, and especially in desert conditions, one has to expect temperatures at around the 60°Cmark but in Abu Dhabi´s main thoroughfare the air temperature can rise up to 70°C.

This isdue to the distance at which the main buildings are set apart from each other, the amount of external walling exposed to direct sunlight and the non-reflectance quality of building materials, all topped off by the radiant heat bounced back from tarmac roads.

What the architects[1] of Masdar City strived for was to bring together conditions which would provide comfort and quality of life for its inhabitants. In order to achieve this, they looked back at the way Arabian cities[2] were put together, and studied the way in which they could apply those good practices to their project.

The most important design criterion was the site itself and the climatic response needed to bring about this comfort, followed by form and massing and external enclosure.[3] These three elements accounted for 30% of the design decisions.

Internal configuration and what environmental systems to choose from took another 45% of the design considerations and the remaining 25% went on choosing how energy, water and materials were to be exploited.

In terms of the climatic response to the site, two points were crucial: orientation – positioning the buildings on a north easterly direction and close together for shading; and wind direction – how to capture the wind, how to get it to flow through the city and how to cool it. For this, computational fluid dynamic diagrams were drawn, based on wind catchers[4] such as those in Hyderabad.

fluid dynamics

Source: Computational Fluid Dynamics by Foster + Partners research

For cooling the air, natural ways were used whenever open spaces were crossed, taking in lessons from the past, illustrating that reduction could be achieved by shading arched walkways adjacent to buildings, tree-planting courtyards and seating areas close to decorative garden fountains, thus bringing street level temperatures in Masdar down from 55°C to 27°C.

The modern, man-made, way took in several features: running chilled water over louvers high up in towers, capturing hot air from the desert, concentrating beamed sunrays over oil containers, raising its temperature to 600°C, using oil drilling techniques to turn heat exchangers to cooling effect by getting turbines to come alive.

And all this was only possible because the whole city is a study ground for R&D at the cutting edge. The first University for Renewable Energy[5] in the world has been set up here and provided the first building on site inaugurated in October 2010.

And its characteristics are phenomenal: 100% on-site power generation; 60% back to grid; power usage 51% of UAE[6] norms; water usage 54% of UAE norms; all sewage and dry waste processed on site and recycled; treated water for irrigation and sanitation and geothermal pilot project progressing……

The site is a hub for future developments of environmental technologies and aims to lead the sector in this field. There are 12 pilot schemes being studied at the moment: the beam-down solar tower; a 10MW PV[7] farm; Fresnel CSP[8]; a parabolic trough; a geothermal test well; smart appliances and energy monitoring; a wind tower; a solar driven solar plant; a liquid deslocant dehumidification plant; an active sun tracking day-lighting system; a membrane bio-reactor and the PRT / FRT.[9]

The transport system below the pedestrian routes follows the main distribution arteries and follows a magnetic track – had the circulation been exterior and open to the elements, a GPS satellite system could have been employed.

Designed for the pedestrian, this transport network will be available throughout its 700 hectares. It is never more than a few minutes’ walk away for the user and will be complemented by light railway and an underground system, allowing its 40,000 residents to make full use of the space and the projected 50,000 daily commuters to easily get to and from the city.

a typical street

Source: Cross-section of a typical street by Foster + Partners

Article by Silvia Pelham

[1] Foster + Partners
[2] See Aleppo in Syria and Shibam in Yemen.
[3] The team worked with Jean-Marc Castera on arabesque decorative lattice features for exterior shading.
[4] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/windcatcher.
[5] Masdar City is run on 100% renewable energy: 42% photovoltaic; 35% concentrated solar power; 15% ETC (evacuated thermal tube collector) and 8% on waste to energy.
[6]  UAE - United Arab Emirates.
[7]  10 Megawatt photovoltaic plant.
[8]  Concentrating solar power (CSP) using linear Fresnel reflector systems.
[9] Personal rapid transit (also called podcar) / freight.