Shoot the moon

The revised master plan for Masdar City contained a lot of optimism and few surprises.
Shoot the moon
Institution The Masdar Institute has become operational, but other parts of the city are being scaled back.
By Orlando Crowcroft
Sat 16 Oct 2010 04:00 AM

The revised master plan for Masdar City contained a lot of optimism and few surprises.

With its vast solar plants, car-free streets, and world-first status as a zero-waste, zero-carbon city in the desert, Masdar City has been the target of skepticism ever since its launch in the heady days of 2006.

But few could forgive the state-owned project for shooting for the moon back then, when developers and designers were just starting out an achieving-the-impossible streak that would last for almost three years. Sure, Masdar City was ambitious, but so was everybody else.

In that sense, the long-awaited revised master plan that hit the streets last week contained few surprises. It was always expected to include scale-backs – despite the protestations of the top dogs at Masdar to the contrary – and changes to such a bold scheme in the current climate were not only likely, they were inevitable.

The first headline from the Masdar camp is the cutting of the monumental bottom line of the project, with an expected 15% or US $3.3 billion, shaved off the final bill by cutting ‘unviable’ technology. The second, of course, is the success so far, including the completion of the first six buildings of the Masdar Institute, residential units that use 54% less water and 51% less electricity than the UAE average, 30% of electricity demand provided by rooftop photovoltaic panels and 75% of the buildings’ hot water provided by rooftop thermal collectors.

That’s the good news – taking up the first page and a half of the press release, of course – but there have been scale backs too. The first thing to go is the personal rapid transit (PRT), or ‘pod car’ network, that was designed to shuttle residents back and forth from their homes. The revised plan abandoned plans for this network to be city wide, limiting its use to inside the grounds of the institute.

A sceptical reader may think that part of that US $3.3 billion saved may have come from this cut back, but Alan Frost, Masdar director, told Construction Week that it was the technology, not the money, that was behind the decision.

“It’s clearly not about the cost, because the cost of the PRT will go down with volume anyway. What we’ve realized is that things like electric buses and taxis and point-to-point technology have changed so quickly in the last two or three years. It doesn’t make sense to lock ourselves into the PRT when we have a two year window before we actually have to put a transport system on the ground for new tenants,” he said.

Gerard Evenden, a senior partner at designers Foster + Partners, added that a lot of the technology used in the PRT system was becoming standard for car manufacturers, and that this would only increase in the next 24 months. For now, the designers are keeping an open mind about potential alternatives.

“We never expected (it) when we began the project, when there were probably only one or two hybrids around, but now the technology is advancing so quickly. We’ve got the PRT up and running and that’s working and shuttling into the city, but what we want to do is widen our search and look at what some of these other manufacturers are doing,” he said.

Learning through time is definitely the message coming out of Masdar in 2010, and Evenden says that other discoveries during the design process have had an effect on the final master plan.

He explains that Masdar is designed around the concept of a triangle, made up of three points – technology, orientation of the buildings, and materials. The two latter points have far more effect than people think, Evenden said.

“With the environment we’ve created up there, as you walk around you will see that the temperature actually feels lower. We’re now getting real data back, which shows the temperature is dramatically falling compared to the centre of Abu Dhabi.

“So what we think is that what we’re doing with the orientation and materials is becoming so successful that hopefully the pedestrian will be able to walk around more, and in the long term, we actually think there will be a reduction in the amount of transportation we need,” he said.

Orientation and materials also happen to be a lot cheaper than technology, and it’s clear that an emphasis on these two points of the triangle will help Masdar City cut its enormous budget. Evenden says that this has a direct affect on contractors, who need to be persuaded of the merits of responsible construction techniques. Such seemingly small factors, he said, are paramount to the final sustainability of the design.

“One of the things that has come out in the production of these buildings is that we also need to be pushing the contractors and pushing forward methods of construction, because it is all about sealing our buildings better, procuring our buildings better, and building them better,” he said.

“Everybody likes to talk about the active systems and the smart systems, but for us that is just a small part of it. That’s the technology on top that produces the power but if you’re not getting the other two components right you’re not going to be successful.”

The extension of Masdar’s deadline from 2013 to 2020 has been one of the more contentious aspects of the revised plan, along with an admission that the project may not be finally finished until 2025. Although this will allow Masdar to go for the most current technology, the dire straits that the real estate market is also a significant factor.

“We’re not going to build ahead of the market, we’re going to build to market demand,” Frost said. “We think there is going to be a very good market demand in Masdar City but it will be completed between 2020 and 2025. We’re not putting an exact date on that because it’s based on take-up and demand, and that’s something that we cannot forecast at the moment.”

Frost also told Construction Week that despite the revisions to the master plan, the aspiration to make Masdar zero-carbon, zero-waste and car free remained, although in 2006 they may not have realised just what a challenge that was going to be.

“The aspiration and the vision hasn’t changed, but it’s going to take us some time to get to where we want to get to. We’ve learned a lot along the way, we’ve learned that we were very bold in our aspirations, but we’re not giving up on the vision,” he said.

He and Evenden were also quick to hit back at those critics of Masdar who suggest that the project could not, or would not, get built.

“Gerard and I go to conferences all the time and people keep rolling out the same old Chinese eco-cities, and it hasn’t changed a jot. One of things about Masdar is that we probably could not have picked a more difficult environment to try and build what we’re building, and yet we’re doing it,” Frost said.

“As far as we can see it is still the only project that is actually building in this way and carrying out what it said. There have been lots of projects around the world claiming they will be zero carbon or carbon neutral and none have been built – actually what we have done is achieved a huge amount by getting the institute open,” Evenden added.

“Two years ago Masdar didn’t exist – now there is a place that is called Masdar.”

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