Asked to create a sustainable city in the desert, X-Architects took the best of traditional Arabic design and married it with the latest advances in technology to create a custom-made solution. Commercial Outdoor Design finds out more.
Sustainable city in the desert sounds like a contradiction in terms, but with the growing focus on protecting the environment, it is a vision increasingly demanded of designers.
One company that has accepted the challenge with relish is Dubai-based architecture firm X-Architects in its creation of Xeritown, a proposal for a sustainable mixed-use development located in Dubai.
Instead of considering the site as a tabula resa, Xeritown takes the desert and local climate as a context within which the urban form emerges by working with the natural environment instead of against it.
Planned as part of Dubailand, the huge inland development in Dubai bordering the Emirates road, Xeritown is a 60-hectare space which has sustainability as its defining characteristic, as suggested by its name (the word xeri is taken from the term xeriscaping, which refers to water conscious landscaping).
The brief from the developer Injaz, a member of Dubai Properties, was for a sustainable city but beyond that there were few specifics, Farid Esmaeil, principal architect at X-Architects, recalls.
"[The client] said we want to experiment," he says. "We collaborated with them, did research, held workshops, and worked with other consultants specialized in sustainability."
The process threw up some interesting parameters, he says, with the obvious one being how to deal with the sun and use design to distribute volumes and create densities to create a shading strategy without using intensive technology.
Shading was in part created by the orientation of buildings. Structure of the built-up area - only 50% of the total space - is defined by alternating narrow pedestrian alleys and small squares, typical of Arabic towns.
In addition to maximising natural shading, the design firm also created artificial shading through the use of a solar tree. The tree consists of solar panels in different shapes and different levels positioned to provide shade at street level.
Wind was also exploited as a form of energy in the design. The design was planned so that the cool breeze from the sea is channelled into the public spaces while the hot desert winds are diverted above the development.
A third strand to X-Architect's sustainable approach was social sustainability. Walking distances, for example, are planned at 200 metres enabling people to walk comfortably and encouraging social interaction in the development.
Making outdoor spaces comfortable is essential to a successful sustainable project, says Esmaeil. "The important thing especially in this part of the world is how we activate outdoor space," he says.
"How it becomes a public space, how it is sensitive to the climate and to the culture of people. How the masterplan encourages people to walk rather than mono use of the car as a transportation means. This was the challenge we had in Xeritown."
The landscape plan, which X-Architects devised together with German landscape design company Johannes Grothaus & Partners, is another important strand to the sustainable approach taken by the firm.
A central component of the plan is the use of indigenous plants as a means of reducing water requirements. The move should bring significant savings, says Ahmed Al Ali, executive chairman of X-Architects.
"The most important thing that Dubai already realizes is that the landscape water use will be a nightmare in the future. TECOM, for example, spends US$1.36 million a year on watering of landscape," he says.
"We are cutting a lot of money in maintenance since we are using indigenous plants and since the landscape is done in such a simple way that it already uses existing nature." Ali estimates there would be a 30% reduction in water consumption through use of native plants.
The key to X-Architect's sustainable approach is creating a city that works in harmony with its natural environment, explains Ali.
"We are not trying to build this Arabic city that is only ours to live in because that is impossible nowadays, but rather to take something that works for everybody but [that is] also built within this region, for this region in terms of its environment and challenging factors," he says.
In a briefing on the project, the company states its case more plainly.
"Instead of considering the site as a tabula resa, Xeritown takes the desert and local climate as a context within which the urban form emerges by working with the natural environment instead of against it," it says.
Comparisons between Dubai's Xeritown and the more famous Masdar City sustainable masterplan in Abu Dhabi are inevitable. But Ali says that creating Xeritown wasn't simply a case of following in Sir Foster's footsteps.
"Actually, this [came] before Masdar. We have been working for two and a half years on it," he notes.
What makes the Xeritown project unique, according to Ali, is its passive approach to sustainability.
"I don't think there is a specific technology that has been used but it is rather the overall outcome of the strategy that has become unique," he comments.
One of the traditional obstacles to the incorporation of more sustainable solutions in design is the perceived higher cost which can deter clients from investing.
But while sustainability can carry a higher price tag - Ali estimates there would be an increase in cost at the outset to realise Xeritown - the firm points out that long term cost and energy savings would more than compensate for the initial outlay.
And despite the current rocky economic climate, Ali is upbeat that now is the right time to push sustainability. Asked if he thinks the economic crisis could slow the advance of the sustainability drive in the UAE, Ali replies that he believes the opposite will prove to be the case.
"I think it will reinforce it," he says. "There is now more need for it than before. Before we had the luxury, we had the money, why did we need sustainability but now sustainability will cut costs at the end of the day."
"Although we designed Xeritown two and a half years before the crisis, I think this is a perfect time for this to happen," he adds.
"Technology of sustainability is expensive and trying to create a sustainable city by using the maximum technological possibilities would [create] a lot of difficulties but now we are giving an example for day-to-day architecture rather than something that is exclusive."
Scheduled for completion by 2012, whether Xeritown will actually come to fruition remains to be seen - the project is currently in the final approval stage with authorities.
But one thing that is certain, says Ali, is that the realisation of projects like Xeritown will help in paving the way for similar projects in the future and generating a greater regional commitment to sustainability.
"Every project that happens will help because you can go there and experience it," he comments.
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