4 apr 08 | AIArchitect

Beyond Zero: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill architecture's desert experiment

By Zach Mortice

How do you . . . design a positive net-energy building in a hot and dry desert climate?

Formed by former SOM Partner Adrian Smith, FAIA, and Associate Partner Gordon Gill, AIA, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture's Masdar Headquarters in Abu Dhabi is a mixed-use building that will overcome the challenging desert climate to generate more power than it needs solely through sustainable systems. These systems will include solar air conditioning, photovoltaic panels, wind cone ventilation, water conservation and recycling, and more.

As one of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture's first projects, the Masdar Headquarters building in Abu Dhabi is taking the young firm into decidedly unexplored territory. Called a "positive energy" building, this massive 1.4 million-square-foot mixed-use facility moves beyond carbon neutrality to generate 3 percent more energy than is needed to power the entire building. Smith and Gill plan to execute this unprecedented model of sustainability in a hot, arid climate where all bets on established green technology are off.

"Many of the traditional techniques for sustainable design don't work in the desert climate," said Smith and Gill, design partners on the project, reached via e-mail as they traveled to the Middle East. "Architects need to be inventive and create new systems that adapt to the warmer climate. We have strived to do that with this project."

Smith and Gill's massive parallelogram-shaped building will be the centerpiece to Masdar City, a planned development in Abu Dhabi that will generate no carbon emissions, no waste, and will be completely carless. The whole development, as well as Masdar Headquarters, broke ground in February. At eight stories tall, the headquarters building will be the tallest in the development when it is completed in 2016. Smith and Gill's building (which will be home to Masdar, a sustainability research and investment company) is slated to open in 2010.

Masdar Headquarters' newness and comprehensive sustainability is matched by the firm that designed it. Formed in 2006 after venerable SOM design partner Adrian Smith, FAIA, left with Gill, AIA, to start their own firm, their entire practice is based on sustainable design, with many projects in the Middle East. While at SOM, Smith racked up design experience on many large, high-profile projects. He's the designer most associated with the Burj Dubai, the likely champion of the post-millennial world's tallest building competition for years to come. He also worked on Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower, and he and Gill helped to design the similarly sustainable Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China. Smith's departure came after he shifted to the position of consulting design partner as he neared the company's mandatory retirement age of 65.

Steel, glass, light, heat
Smith's and Gill's use of steel and glass defines Masdar Headquarters. A flat parallelogram roof sits on top of a curving support structure fused to 11 glass-and-steel sculpted wind-tower cones that run through the full height of the building and protrude from the top of it. Glass walls (which stop short of the overhanging roof) obscure the bases and midsection of most of the cones, except for the ones at the building's irregular edge. Landscaped courtyards at the base of these cones refer back to traditional Islamic architecture, and landscaping spreads over the top-level roof garden. Office, research, and residential space is located in the building's bottom seven floors. The building will also house retail space, a prayer hall, cafeteria, and health club.

The crux of the Chicago-based firm's glass-and-steel design depends on allowing enough light into the complex to keep electricity bills low while still keeping heat out, so as to avoid costly air conditioning. The architects say they have a new system for glass solar shielding that will keep heat out while letting light in that is "still in development."

Masdar Headquarters' signature cones act as wind towers, ventilating the building by exhausting warm air from the top and bringing cool air up from its lower levels. They also work as solar shafts, providing natural light throughout the complex's interior. The building's solar air conditioning system collects ambient heat in vacuum tube collectors and transfers it to a hot-water circulation system, which can drive an absorption chiller or a desiccant dehumidification system. This chilled water is then sent to underfloor beams or an air distribution system.

Water conservation and recycling is an obvious priority in this desert building. Graywater will be treated and stored for landscaping, blackwater will be treated so that its contaminants can be used for biofuel, and rainwater will be collected and stored as well. Overall, Smith and Gill expect water consumption to be reduced by 97 percent over baseline consumption rates for a building of its size. The building's roof will have "one of the largest building-integrated photovoltaic arrays in the world," according to the architects.

A new standard
Smith and Gill aren't concerned with LEED certification for this next-generation green building. "This project far exceeds LEED standards," they say, and then point out that a similar sized LEED Platinum building would still emit 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

The transformative potential of energy-generating buildings could change development patterns so fundamentally that, as Smith told the Chicago Tribune, one day developers might say, "We need more energy. Let's build a building."