Masdar : the “green” city of the desert

In 2006, when according to the International Energy Agency IEA, peak oil reserves was reached. One of the largest oil suppliers in the world started thinking ahead about energy efficient alternatives. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates started an ambitious 18 billion dollar project of a 6 km2 zero carbon, self sufficient and sustainable city capable to host between 40,000 to 50,000 people. Exclusively reliant on renewable energies the project is powered by a 22 hectare solar panel site that produces electricity to supply the buildings. references_masdar-city_masterplan_730x411

In Arabic, Masdar means “the source”. An appropriate noun to define a city that is being built in a desert, where no water flows or trees grow, 17km away from Abu Dhabi’s city center. The project started in 2006 but the actual construction began in 2008. The London architect office’s Foster and Partners was in charge of the complicated conception of a city that rises out of the sand. It relies on intelligent planning and design, energy, water and waste management.  Smart transportation and a sustainable supply chain.

The ecological process starts with the materials used. For example, 100% of the steel used comes from recycled steel. Also, the waste produced by the construction site is either reused (wood transformed into mulch) or sold (scrap metal ). By doing that, 96% of the waste they generate is recycled. Furthermore, to avoid importing too much material, desert sand is used as a major component in the buildings.

Everything is designed to reduce electricity and cooling demands. As a result, its design has nothing to do with modern Abu Dhabi. Instead inspired from old Arabic style architecture, the streets are narrow enough to create shadow and orientated to let the North West Shamal wind penetrate and lower the temperature. On top of that a giant wind tower has been built at the heart of the green city in order to refresh the air of the streets.

Even if the construction is programmed to be finished by 2030, some buildings are already open to the public. That is the case for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and Masdar Institue building, specialized in renewable energy that has hosted students since 2010. It has  become a center for the advancement of new ideas in energy production and development, coming from young and brilliant brains. The students as the first inhabitants of Masdar are also the guinea pigs of the campus so the future constructions are adapted according to their consumption behaviors. For that purpose, engineers have installed sensors in each room to measure the exact consumption per person. Every night the wind tower glows in red or blue telling the students whether they have to reduce their consumption or if they are going according to plan.

The transportation is also very innovative. As cars are not allowed in the Masdar area. The Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) consists of small single-cabin vehicles similar to shuttles .They service short distances to evaluate their effectiveness. These cars are automatic, don’t need to be driven, work with the electricity produced with the solar panels and are equipped with radars detecting possible pedestrians crossing their path. Also, Abu Dhabi metro rails will pass through the center of the city.  masdar-prt-01

According to Foster and Partners,  “with a maximum distance of 200 meters to the nearest rapid transport links and amenities, the city is designed to encourage walking, as its shaded streets and courtyards offer an attractive pedestrian environment, sheltered from climatic extremes” and “all buildings will surpass the highest sustainable building standards currently set by internationally recognised organisations.”

Although water remains a problem because it’s sourced from the desalinization plant in Abu Dhabi using natural gas, some efforts are also made to create a system based on reverse osmosis with the  use of solar panels.

An extra solar farm equipped with mirrors has been built in 2013. The Shams 1 reflects solar rays thanks to U-shaped mirrors that heats fluid and produces electricity. With 100 megawatts capacity, it is the biggest solar plant in the world. And with a little help from natural gas, it will be able to provide electricity to over 20,000 homes and parts of Masdar city.

The phase 1, which is scheduled for completion in 2015, is expected to have 1 million sqm of gross floor area. This area includes the Masdar Institute and also commercial, residential and a retail, community, and will be home to 7,000 residents and 15,000 commuters.

Still a long way to go until the final completion. For the moment, Masdar Institute is organizing open days for undergraduates with potential to become successful scientists and researchers in future energy as well as “experimental inhabitants” of a self-sufficient city.


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