Masdar Institute - germ cell for an urban vision
Text: Thomas Madlener
Architect: Foster and Partners
Since being unveiled, the Masdar City project has proven a considerable topic of debate. Opinions range from excitement – oil-rich Abu Dhabi is looking towards renewable energy and aiming for a CO2-neutral city – to scepticism – why exactly build a planned city in the middle of the desert and without any infrastructure? However, would this last argument not also deny many a developing country in hot regions the chance of development? Since six buildings of the Masdar Institute were opened in November 2010 – the first in the city – it is unquestionably worth observing this project on site.
From the urban planning to the buildings themselves, it is clear that rather than simply transplant western architecture into the Middle East for the umpteenth time, the planners have tried to learn from the experiences and traditions in the region and follow long-established low-tech approaches.
The Masdar Institute has served as the planning centre for the whole project. It is here that strategies and concepts on providing renewable energy are not only taught and researched, but also constantly checked and optimised during the construction process. For the time being, the institute remains a lonely island in the desert near the airport, reachable only by car. Light railway and metro lines to connect Masdar with the centre of Abu Dhabi and the airport are in the planning phase, however.
One prototype for local public transport is already in operation: the »Personal Rapid Transit« (PRT) carries visitors from the parking area to the institute. Just like a lift, passengers select their destination with the touch of a button and enter the four-seater, driverless electric capsules via a sliding glass door. The vehicles are steered by a central computer and orient themselves via magnets in the floor. Sensors prevent them from running into any obstacles. They travel around a semi-basement level, which includes further technical and secondary rooms as well as the transport infrastructure. In other sections, this concrete »Podium« together with the PRT will be omitted, predominantly because it uses up grey energy and is less adaptable to new developments. In the future, electro-busses and cars will handle the local transport. The PRT stations are lit by spotlights from above. As visitors make their way past large screens highlighting renewable themes and energy consumption, they arrive at curved stairs that lead up seven metres to the main level.
The public areas play an important role in promoting social interaction at the institute. As a result there are no direct connections between the laboratories and the living quarters; instead the planning covers paths squares that can only be used by pedestrians.
Particularly striking are the narrow alleyways that measure just four metres across at roof level and six metres at ground level. This helps to keep out the sun. Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide additional shadow, while colonnades cooled by high thermal mass materials applied to soffits, walls and ceilings provide further cooling.
The pathways lead to public spaces with cafes and shops. Native plants and water features ensure a relaxing micro-climate.
Also part of the local landscape is the campus’ landmark – a modern interpretation of the traditional wind-towers that have been part of the desert for centuries. Sensors operate louvers 45 m above the ground to open in the direction of prevailing winds and close in other directions to direct the wind down the tower via a PTFE membrane.
Other contemporary interpretations of Arabic building traditions are dotted around the buildings. Abstract ornaments adorn the curved external facade of the residential accommodation buildings. Prefabricated elements on the balconies offer an angled view out, maintaining valuable privacy inside. Sand is mixed with the glass-fibre reinforced concrete sections to harmonise the constructions with the local environment. Openings taper in towards the top in order to minimise the amount of hot sunlight coming in, while the thermal cooling of the walls keeps the interiors cool. As soon as the apartment is empty, a sensor in the entry card sets it to sleep mode to minimise energy consumption. Thermo-active elements as well as air conditioning units with heat recovery ensure a cool interior climate. The atriums in the centre of the building are kept at 30?°C via thermal mass and natural ventilation, while atrium roof lights allow diffuse daylight. These intermediary climate areas mean that living and laboratory areas do not need to be cooled as much as normal.
The facades of the laboratories are highly insulated and air-tight. Because the outer layer of ETFE reflects heat, the silver facade does not heat up. A thin aluminium finish to the inner reflects sunlight down onto the streets below.
Small window openings provide the laboratories with enough sunlight and allow views outside from both a sitting and standing position. A combination of horizontal and vertical fans keeps out direct sunlight.
The »Knowledge Centre« occupies the southern section of the campus. A large shell-like overhang spreads over the library to provide shade.
Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide 30% of the energy required, with the other 70% coming from a nearby solar farm. For further expansion, the largest solar thermal power plant in the world is being built further inland in an area less affected by dust. Saltwater heat storage tanks guarantee energy supply at night. Further pilot projects have been constructed alongside the institute’s buildings. Photovoltaic fields test which specifications work best under the extreme heat and sand storms. Geothermal boreholes and evacuated tube collectors provide heat and warm water. The central cooling element is also powered by geothermal energy as well as solar-powered absorption refrigerators and waste heat from burned rubbish. The construction offices are home to different test solar-based cooling systems and energy saving lighting units. Water and material and cycles are also being analysed.
The whole building project is a constant learning process and the experiences made in constructing the institute should help in the design of further building phases. Many of the pilot projects still have to prove themselves in long-term use. Nevertheless, the Masdar project demonstrates an environmentally friendly future perspective for the whole region, although precise evaluations as to just how the efficient the whole thing is are difficult to make.