24 jun 08 | Sustainable Design Update

Masdar Building Brings Positive Energy

By John Barrie

The world's tallest tower already stands at 158 storeys. It isn't finished yet and its designers haven't revealed its final height for fear of being gazumped. Yet already another tower has been announced, which will, we are assured be even taller.

If this little tale of one-upmanship reminds you of anything it has to be the breakneck pace of skyscraper construction in New York at the end of the 1920s when the Chrysler building stood briefly as the world's tallest tower only to be pipped at the last minute by the Empire State Building a few blocks downtown.

The latest race is being played out in the searing heat of the Middle Eastern desert where skyscrapers are being erected to create a self-conscious architectural zoo, a booster skyline that will, it is hoped, fulfill its own optimism for the future.

Unlike New York, with its tight street grid and extruded blocks, the Middle Eastern cities have tended to spread out, the tall buildings appearing not as part of a rocky, man-made landscape but more as a sculpture park, tall free-standing buildings, increasingly theatrical in their form, standing in empty space.

The two absurdly tall structures, the rapidly-rising Burj Dubai and the proposed Al Burj, perfectly represent this model of development. The latter has changed site twice already. First proposed as the centrepiece of the Palm Jumeirah, it was replaced by the Trump Tower and relocated to the Dubai Waterfront, where it was then found to be in the flight path of planes landing at the new Jebel Ali Airport. So now it is proposed for near Dubai's marina.

Even its architects have enigmatically changed, from US corporate specialists Pei Partnership to Australian corporate specialists Woods Bagot. The point is, not only has it not mattered where these structures go, it hasn't really mattered who designs them. Context has not been an issue.

All that though is changing. The emergence of a new generation of business districts in the Middle East won't necessarily see the end of the omnipresent iconic tower but they are leading to a more sophisticated type of urbanism. Chief among the reasons for these changes is oil. Or rather, the lack of it. The whole region is looking to a future in which oil plays a smaller role in the national economy.

It wants to develop alternative sources of income from tourism to business and banking. To encourage companies and expats to move to the Gulf, this new generation of business cities is looking beyond the modernist urban model which has dominated the rapid development of the Gulf states, in which the city's functions are separated out into zones, industrial, business, residential, leisure and so on.

Instead they are moving to the historical model of mixed-use development, ironically a tradition which reached astonishingly sophisticated heights in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. The old model was the US West Coast, LA, the new is East Asia, Hong Kong or Singapore. Cities are emerging that are not entirely reliant on the car, in which walking becomes pleasant rather than impossible and in which the ubiquitous air-conditioned shopping mall is replaced with an approximation of the shady bazaar.

UK-based Hopkins Architects are at work on exactly this kind of model, which masses together a collection of buildings containing apartments, shops and public spaces as well as the offices to attract the kind of round-the-clock living which can begin to inject life into urban centres.

The architecture draws on traditional devices, including a tight street network providing shading for pedestrians, the introduction of canopies over shops that both increase shade and lend a more intimate scale to streetscapes, differentiating the functions within the facades. There are also traditional thick walls to provide thermal mass and give deep windows to shade interiors from the searing sun.

US architects KPF are introducing a similar mixed-use ethic in their work in Kuwait Business City, albeit using a more North American model while US corporate giant SOM is masterplanning the future business district for Bahrain.

More surprising is the development of Dubai's Business Bay. Masterplanned by Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture, founder Rem Koolhaas sees the Middle East not in terms of a return to traditional European models but rather as an extraordinary forum for experimentation, in building type, communication and modernity in which the resort rather than the historic city-centre becomes the model.

Of a population of 1.6m only 200,000 are from Dubai, establishing a very strange urban dynamic in which an architect builds for either a largely absent or virtually entirely immigrant population. Koolhaas sees the usual European critical reaction to Middle Eastern cities as patronizing and unhelpful and welcomes the opportunity for new types of architecture and the freedom (because so much is being built), he says, to make mistakes.

In Ras Al Khaimha, OMA and its think-tank outfit AMO, are masterplanning an entire new emirate, with a projected population growth of 600,000 over the next two decades. The attempt is to build in flexibility, density and intelligence. It is a tantalizing exercise by the most perceptive of international offices.

One project however, has generated recent headlines more than any other. Foster and Partners' Masdar is an entire new city in Abu Dhabi based on an idea of research into a sustainable future. Conceived largely as a traditional Arab city, this is a design from the master of international modernism which bows to traditional models in an attempt to create a pedestrian-friendly, sustainable, zero-carbon city in the harsh desert climate. Based around a university dedicated to research into alternative fuel sources, Masdar acknowledges the end of the petrol age but also instigates research into how the future might look. And this is it, walkable, pleasant and urbane. But hot.

Chicago architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) to design its headquarters in Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city fully powered by renewable energy. The headquarters will be the world's first large-scale, mixed-use "positive energy" building, producing more energy than it consumes. In addition to being the location of Masdar Headquarters, the building will accommodate private residences and 'early bird' business starting up in the city.

AS+GG teamed up with Chicago-based MEP engineers Environmental Systems Design and structural engineers Thornton Tomasetti on the design which includes numerous systems that will generate a surplus of the building's energy, eliminate carbon emissions and reduce liquid and solid waste. The complex will utilize sustainable materials and feature integrated wind turbines, air quality monitors and one of the world's largest building integrated solar energy arrays. Compared with typical mixed-use buildings of the same size, the Headquarters will consume 70 percent less water.

In addition to being the first mixed-use net positive energy building in the world, AS+GG's Masdar Headquarters will:

• Be the lowest energy consumer per square meter for a modern class A office building in an extremely hot and humid climate
• Feature one of the world's largest building-integrated photovoltaic arrays
• Employ the largest solar thermal driven cooling and dehumidification system
• Be the first building in history to generate power for its own assembly, though development of its solar roof pier before the underlying complex

"We're thrilled to be working on a project of this importance and magnitude. Masdar Headquarters is one of the most significant developments of our time, "said Adrian Smith, partner, AS+GG. "As a positive energy complex, the project will have a far-reaching influence on the buildings of tomorrow."

"Masdar Headquarters will set a new paradigm for the way buildings are designed, constructed and inhabited," said Gordon Gill, partner, AS+GG. "The project represents the perfect integration of architecture and engineering, resulting in a dynamic, inviting building that outperforms any other structure of its type in the world."