At the Ecocity World Summit 2015 in Abu Dhabi, I had an opportunity to participate in a tour of Masdar, an experiment in sustainable development at the neighbourhood scale. Here is a brief synopsis of first impressions using Ecocity Standards to help assess where Masdar falls on the continuum from Green City to Ecocity.
The most impressive feature of Masdar is its urban design for access by proximity. The streets are narrow and designed for the human body, not the car body. Everything can be accessed within a short walking distance. Masdar seems to achieve Ecocity performance in the regard. Unfortunately, Masdar is located in a somewhat isolated location. So for now it requires a motor vehicle, whether bus or car, to reach it.
Another impressive feature of Masdar is that its built environment is designed to suit its climate and the buildings, which are situated in close proximity to each other to create an intended wind tunnel effect. This is an important feature in a desert climate where most people consider it too hot to walk. I found walking in Masdar to be quite pleasant, even in the heat of mid-day. An important design feature of the buildings is that some are elevated, allowing cool breezes to blow through at ground level into the core of the neighbourhood. Others use architectural facades to shield windows from direct sunlight that causes unwanted passive solar gain. This strategy helps lower the overall operating energy demand of the buildings, helping to reduce the need for air conditioning. Several buildings also are have courtyards with cantilevered ceilings to protect from direct sunlight, yet they allow air to flow through. There are also photovoltaic cells mounted on the roofs of the buildings which create a co-benefit of shading the roofs of the buildings and some of the walkways. Attention to the micro climate and use of architectural design to help cool the buildings using passive techniques enables the buildings to operate with less energy than would otherwise be needed. In this regard Masdar achieves some of the characteristics of an ecocity in the domains of Clean Air and Clean and Renewable Energy.
With regard to the material choices for the buildings, concrete and steel seem to be the preference. Some may question whether the more traditional approach of adobe and rammed earth might not prove more sustainable, both in terms of thermal properties and in reduced embodied energy. This could be investigated as part of an ongoing effort to foster responsible material use, meaning those which are locally abundant.
Although Masdar is covered with photovoltaic cells, an interesting outcome of research in the field of renewable energy to supply the city is that there is not enough surface area on the roofs of the buildings to support the energy demands of its occupants. The buildings operate on average at an energy demand of 120 kWhe per square metre. This is on par with high performing buildings around the world, and says a great deal for the energy efficiency of the construction in Masdar given the very hot climate conditions. Nevertheless, building commissioning may be able to further improve this performance and the monitoring and verification of the buildings’ performance has been slow to get up and running.
Where Masdar falls short of ecocity standards is in the areas of Clean and Safe Water, Healthy Soils, and Healthy and Accessible Food. Masdar sits on top of a salt water lens. Although initially plans included on-site desalinization of water using renewable energy, the fact that the available ground water in the immediate vicinity of the city is more salty than ocean water, the choice was made to connect to the Abu Dhabi water supply system. That system also relies on desalinization using predominantly fossil based energy sources. Also, in a desert, it is hard to grow food. No attention has been given to development of soils and food production in Masdar. This might prove to be an interesting area for future research. However, for now, Masdar relies on food imports. One positive step that has been taken to direct the culture of the Masdar community towards stewardship of resources and one-planet lifestyles is the adoption of “meatless Mondays.” This alone can go a great distance towards reducing the ecological footprint of the residents of this community.
Perhaps the most important contribution Masdar is making to advancing sustainability is serving as a test bed to inform policy direction for urban development across Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates as a whole. While Masdar does not achieve the Ecocity 1 standard in all of its bio-geophysical features, it is leading the way in pedestrian oriented development and some clever uses of urban design.