Abu Dhabi Prepares for Solar/Zero Carbon City

By Maria Siakavellas, Contributing EditorAbu Dhabi, UAE–In the 40 years since the inception of London-based architectural firm Foster + Partners, little has changed in terms of the organization’s guiding philosophy. From day one, the firm has operated on the belief that the quality of people’s surroundings has a direct impact on the quality of their lives, be it at work, at home or at play.What’s more, its designs have always accounted for the needs—both physical and spiritual—of people, and painstakingly considered a structure’s physical context within a location’s culture, climate and environment. Though it has worked under the same philosophy since 1967, the firm has seen enormous changes as of late in terms of the scale, diversity and global reach of its projects—not to mention its role in the ecological dilemma plaguing the world at large. With a staff of 1200 and offices in 22 countries, Foster + Partners’ depth of resources has allowed it to undertake some of the largest environmentally friendly projects in the world over the past 10 years. Case in point: Masdar City.Located in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest oil producers, the planned city will depend entirely on solar energy with a sustainable, zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology. Initiated in 2006, the ambitious project will take approximately 10 years to complete and boast some of the most advanced technologies available on the green building front.According to Norman Foster, founder and chairman of Foster + Partners, buildings consume half the energy used in the developed world, and while architects alone cannot solve all the world’s ecological problems, they can design buildings to function at a fraction of current energy levels and—through urban planning—influence environmentally friendly transport patterns. Guided by the principle of creating a sense of community and shared commitment to social and environmental responsibility, Foster + Partners expects Masdar’s master plan to create a city with a unique urban identity successfully combining residential, commercial, leisure, civic and natural spaces in one tightly woven, densely populated area.The government of Abu Dhabi originally implemented the Masdar initiative to promote renewable energies in the Gulf region. According to Foster + Partners, the city’s master plan is based on four fundamental principles: low-rise, high-density development; sustainable transportation methods; controlled growth; and a balance between supporting land for energy generation and the development’s density. Masdar will boast a socially vibrant mixed-use community, a research institute, industrial development zone, alternative energy exhibition center and the operational headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC). The surrounding land will contain wind farms, photovoltaic fields, a photovoltaic power plant, research fields, tree plantations of different species producing bio fuel/local food, water treatment plant, solar powered desalination plant, sewage treatment plant and recycling center to promote an entirely self-sustainable city. An external wall surrounding the development will mimic the compact, fortified cities built throughout history. With this clearly demarcated wall, designers aim to control urban sprawl and explicitly set the city limits. Vehicular traffic will stop at the city gates and surrender to a network of environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Those residing within Masdar City will be restricted to one vehicle per household unit to be parked within parking structures located in the wall zone.With bold ambitions of a carbon neutral environment, the Masdar development sets out to change the contemporary city’s reliance on motorized private transportation and create an environment free of automobiles. A compact network of streets with a maximum distance of .9 miles to the nearest transport link and amenities, will encourage walking. This will be complemented by an electric driverless rapid transport system, called Personal Rapid Transit, which will serve three stations (the commercial hub featuring the headquarters for the ADFEC, the University and research and development campus and the leisure and entertainment zone) along the central spine of the Masdar development.The nearly 1,500-acre city will undergo a carefully planned four-phased development process in line with its sustainable agenda. The first phase will include the construction of the first photovoltaic manufacturing facility and wind farm in what the firm dubs as the City B site. The one-year project will provide the necessary facilities to produce sufficient photovoltaic cells to cover later phases. The second phase will include the construction of City A, which will lay claim to the university, special economic zones and the headquarters of the ADFEC, in addition to neighborhood centers and parking zones. The formerly developed power plant on the City B site will generate between 100 to 150 mega watts of power that will be utilized to develop City A.The third phase will depend on the inhabitance of City A and recycling of the city’s gray water to help grow the tree plantations and generate bio-fuel, allowing City A to become self sustaining and giving way to the dismantling of the City B power plant. The fourth phase will include the development of City B, a smaller version of its counterpart City A. When all the phases are complete, Masdar City will house approximately 46,500 individuals and provide employment to nearly 60,500 commuting workers.Foster + Partners maintains high-density low-rise housing is a major component in any new low impact development and a complementary social counterpoint to a city’s commercial components. Smaller, denser cities inevitably promote walking or cycling as opposed to driving. As such, residences within the Masdar development will be created in the form of four-story campus-style housing situated around pedestrian friendly streets and squares. The compact, tightly arranged grid work of self-shading buildings, combined with a high mass building fabric construction, will yield a considerably lower energy consumption alternative to present architectural practices and make better use of recycling systems.Apart from exploring the latest green technologies, Foster will seek inspiration from forgotten traditions such as natural ventilation or the reflection of natural light into an interior space as well. “There are often links between the ecology of a building, which is measurable, and the poetic dimensions of architecture, which are more difficult to quantify. It comes out of a passion for the quality of that space and for the humanity of the building,” according to Foster.(Photographs courtesy of Foster + Partners)