Urban experiment

Bold ambitions and tough targets form the background to an attempt to build a zero-waste, zero-carbon city from the ground up.
Urban experiment
Work under way at the Masdar site: The developers are looking at the entire supply chain.
By Stuart Matthews & Conrad Egbert
Sat 27 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

Bold ambitions and tough targets form the background to an attempt to build a zero-waste, zero-carbon city from the ground up.

Masdar City is an experiment. Launched in 2006, it has the grand aim of being the world's first carbon neutral city.

The Abu Dhabi government has been a prime mover in the plan to bring Masdar to fruition. As a partnership between the government and the private sector, the city is being developed in line with the emirate's attempts to diversify into not just an industrial economy, but a knowledge-based one as well.

Part of that investment is already paying off through the opening of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), which accepted its first intake of students last September.

The process of building a carbon neutral city starts with the master plan, where the design team can have an impact on how people use the city.

"I would say it's a question of how you lay out the city," says Jürgen Häpp, an associate partner at Foster + Partners, and part of the master planning team. "How people live in the city depends on how you see it and lay it out. Lay out, plus the public transport clustered around hubs, are things which influence the later result."

"One fundamental thing about designing a sustainable city is having a flexible master plan: providing a framework that can be adapted to the needs, which are unknown at the beginning of the planning process."

Central to making the city carbon neutral was not having urban spaces dictated by the dimensions of the car. The aim is to build spaces that encourage people to walk and use public transport.

"We went back and tried to learn from history," says Häpp. "We looked at old cities and their dimensions. These cities are much more successful for people to walk in; buildings are close together and shade each other."

In these older cities, such as Aleppo in Syria, shading and the local microclimate make for a better walking environment. In Masdar's case, the plan calls for narrow streets, with structures of different heights placed close together, combining to manufacture areas where breezes will flow.

Road to zero

Banishing cars to the outskirts of the city makes for a good headline. If the implausible sounding PRT system (personal rapid transit - public transport pods that go where you want, via 85 planned stations) turns out to be more than a Disneyesque ride and people do walk, it will make a significant contribution to keeping carbon emissions, within the city, down.

But, if aiming to be zero carbon is to be a practical achievement, attention to detail is paramount, all along the supply chain.

This attention to detail has in effect changed the way that some technology providers have been doing business. A partnership with the city project is now starting to be seen as the ‘green' seal of approval, simply due to exacting nature of Masdar's demands.

"We want to make sure our supply chain is good for us and can achieve our vision," says Khaled Awad, director of Masdar's property development unit.

"Without having the supply chain aligned it is impossible to achieve numbers we want. If you look at the whole supply chain, we have to work with each of the components to make sure we achieve our minimum demands.

"We have set ambitious targets, we can't do it without making sure that each of the components is optimised to deliver on these targets."

The project has been criticised in some circles for being too ambitious. The large scale and timeline have left questions about the level of practical achievement possible. Should, for instance, the US $22 billion be invested in testing green innovations within established cities, rather than building a single showpiece? There have also been suggestions that a series of smaller scale projects would produce useable results more quickly. Awad points out that what the development is trying to achieve is meant to be ambitious, but was never intended to happen all at once.

"The city is based on phases," he says. "The building structures are complex, there is nothing like this in the region and the learning curve has been very steep. Progress will start going faster now because of the knowledge that has been gained. We have clear design guidelines and as all this planning is starting to mature, I think the pace will increase."

  Lines of supply

Lifecycle assessment calculations are an important part of the product selection process. These are done to establish the carbon value of a product across its entire useful life, from manufacture through to final disposal.

"Unless we have suppliers committed to giving us a lifecycle assessment of their product, how can we know," says Awad. "We need to understand what the footprint of a product is, of the whole life cycle, how much energy it uses, how much it saves. Then we can see if it is really a good choice for our design."

While this might seem like it puts increased pressure on suppliers, companies seem happy to respond, both for the value of the contracts and the profile. Richard Grohe, deputy CEO of the bathroom company Hansgrohe, described it as being a ‘brother in arms' with an organisation that has similar ideological convictions.

"Being ‘green' has become a necessity," he says. "As a supplier you can see it as a risk or an opportunity. Green becoming a necessity means we will have a lot of different opportunities coming toward us and we just have to grab them."

With water being a consumable that takes a great deal of energy to manufacture, savings made in consumption play a big part in reaching zero carbon. The city plans call for the recycling of 90% of grey water and the reduction of network losses to 3%. Water use in the home will be minimised via the use of hi-tech appliances and irrigation will cultivate largely native plants.

"We want people to use less than 80 litres of new water, per person, per day," explains Awad. "This means they must have fittings, showers and other things that Hansgrohe develops; so companies like Hansgrohe make up an essential part of supply the chain."The quality of product is available, we're just trying to put it in the right context. Because we have the chance to start from scratch, we have the chance to use the best available technology. We don't have to invent things."

Focal shift

Awad also explains that it has not been enough to think of the building as ‘a component that you had to solve'. Thinking about a building's standalone carbon neutrality on its own is a step forward, but far more needs to be done if the same is to be achieved on a city-wide scale. Awad sites bottom up pressure to change attitudes to property development, away from the recent focus on waterfront and luxury.

"In the crisis, if we go the way we were going, we would never see the need to change," he says. "Now, with what happened, there is an opportunity for us to step back and say is this the right way?

"This shift in approach would not have happened without Masdar City. It's a bottom up pressure and I think this is positive. We are not in a competition [with developers], we are working with developers and suppliers, to make sure our influence reaches outside our boundaries."

The wider impact of the project is starting to be felt, says Awad, in what he calls the ‘Masdar affect'. The feeling is that there has been a lift in regional awareness, thanks to the spread of the ideas being collected together in Masdar City. It's an influence that those involved are noticing too.

"I think the project will be a fantastic success," says Bashar Al Saadi, communications manager for Al Falah Holding. "Even if the concept is not adopted by the rest of the world immediately, it will certainly be become a benchmark for countries within the Middle East who have the resources and the space to build cities like these.

"Even the concrete we have supplied to Masdar is 30% more environment friendly than any other concrete available in the market, so there's no doubt that the city will manage to become a carbon neutral zone."

For others in the supply chain, it is not about reducing carbon output, but amortising it over a long product lifespan. Doka, which supplied formwork during the construction of MIST (Phase 1A), as well as for other parts of the project, is a case in point.

"One can not say that formwork is carbon neutral," said Doka marketing manager, Agata Orlowska.

"But we can reduce the carbon emission during the production of formwork and by reducing the percentage of material being damaged and trashed after use. All Doka products (made out of wood and steel) are manufactured in Europe, with the modern technology, abiding by European restrictions and with minimal environmental impact.

"The company's products are made to be long-lasting, which maximises their life-span and minimises damages. We also buy raw wood material only from certificated wood suppliers," she added.

International outlook

While development of the city continues just outside the UAE capital, the Masdar organization has also been keen to add investment to overseas companies to assist with the development of sustainable technologies. Such investment not only means that the entity can take a lead in the roll-out of new products, but it also means that the rest of the world can benefit as well.

The major investment vehicle in terms of renewable energy has been the Masdar Clean Tech Fund, a US $250 million venture capital fund that was launched in association with Credit Suisse, Consensus Business Group and Siemens in November 2006. Around US $190 million has already been spent in direct investments in clean tech companies, with the remainder earmarked for leading funds that focus on cutting-edge clean technology.


From the planning stage, Masdar City offered an opportunity unlike any other. Starting a city from scratch is bold enough, without attaching a host of tough targets, based on emerging technology.

In Abu Dhabi there was the opportunity, which managed to combine with the rare ingredients of political will and funding. But will ‘test-tube city' as it is often called, really be able to achieve a zero-carbon zero-waste status? And how far will it go to becoming a model for future sustainable developments?

"Does the world need Masdar City?" Awad asks. "If not, then we may not be aware of what is happening around us; of how cities over the last 50 years have been abusing technology. If we can succeed in achieving our vision, then any city in the world, when it comes to future development, should be asking itself, ‘why do we not build a Masdar City?'"

Whether the final, complete city is carbon-neutral or just more environmentally friendly, it's a step in the right direction - a step that the UAE has been the first to take and in so doing has attracted the attention of the rest of the world.

The analyst view

Roberta Gamble, director, Energy & Power Systems, Frost & Sullivan, discusses the view of Masdar from abroad.

As someone based in the US, what's the overseas perspective of Masdar?

Even though we've been researching a lot of solar and wind projects globally, from the US, we don't hear about Masdar as much as I think we should. Masdar is gaining international recognition, but it's an amazing project that needs to be advertised further. It has implications for more than just the Middle East. It's also applicable to Asia, India and the rest of Africa.

What is so different about the Masdar concept?

The great thing about Masdar City is that it's the full solution - it's totally sustainable - which is way ahead of other projects in, say, the US or Europe. Those regions have been looking at pieces of the puzzle - whether it's lowering the carbon footprint, being sustainable, reducing waste, or reducing dependency on fossil fuels - but I don't think we're really seeing it all come together in one solution sanctioned by the government. I really do think it's the future.

How do you think the concept of renewable energy will play out in the Gulf?

What I have heard from the gas, oil and renewable energy industries is that they need all the BTUs and all the megawatts they can get. When a country or company wants to become more green, usually the first step is energy efficiency. Waste is expensive. But right now, less than 1% of the installed capacity of electricity in the MENA region is from renewables. Even if you have a target of 2% by 2015, that's still a massive amount of extra capacity you're going to have to install. So it will happen, but it will also take time.

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