Energy Efficiency Masdar cat (energy efficiency)

Published on January 25th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


Energy Efficiency Hides In Plain Sight — Thank You, Ancient City Dwellers

January 25th, 2016 by  

While much of the energy efficiency spotlight has been shining on next-generation materials, smart meters, and high tech building design, Masdar City is taking a different tack. Located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the planned community is in the early stages of development with an eye towards tapping the energy efficient know-how accumulated by ancient city dwellers.

Masdar cat (energy efficiency)

The basic Masdar City strategy is to set goals, not to dictate architectural elements. The resulting mashup of styles contributes to an overall impression of spontaneity more typical of an uplanned community, and some friendly cats also contribute to the human touch at work.

Energy Efficiency And Renewable Energy

Masdar City is still in its early stages, and with the first of its eight neighborhoods in development you can already feel the energy efficiency strategy at work — literally, feel —  as CleanTechnica learned during a quick tour of the city during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (our visit was hosted by Masdar, the state-supported corporation tasked with diversifying the Emirate’s economy into renewable energy and clean tech).

Masdar City is billed as the “world’s most sustainable eco-city,” which necessarily means that it will be powered by renewable energy. That complicates things a bit if by “most sustainable” you mean off-grid.

While wind and solar are infinite resources, land for solar arrays and wind turbines is not. Land use is a particularly important issue for a planned city like Masdar, in which opportunities for foot travel, public recreation and other social uses would be limited by large on-site renewable energy facilities.

Masdar City does have a good sized 10-megawatt ground mounted solar field, but that could end up being the only large scale, standalone renewable energy facility within its borders. The city is already grid-connected and it appears that planners are looking to leverage grid-supplied renewable energy as the city builds out, supplemented by rooftop solar, while leveraging its research and demo projects (including solar-enabled desert agriculture) to promote Masdar’s (the company’s) global solar business.

However, the opportunity to draw from the grid doesn’t mean that Masdar City can go wild on energy consumption. The city is designed as a “greenprint” or model for future growth in Abu Dhabi. That growth will necessarily mean an increase in water consumption, and that’s going to mean more desalination, which requires lots of energy. In terms of big-picture energy planning, Masdar City’s future residential, commercial, and institutional buildings are low-hanging fruit.

Energy Efficiency And Air Conditioning

Air conditioning already accounts for about 70 percent of residential electricity use in Abu Dhabi, and that’s the key factor addressed by Masdar City’s architecture. The buildings are designed and positioned to use natural forces — wind and shade — to cool outdoor spaces and draw people outdoors, even in hot weather, just as ancient city dwellers did.

One key strategy is to space some of the buildings closely, forming wind tunnels. Walking into Masdar City from the still air outside, you immediately feel a strong breeze. The cooling effect is amplified by shade from the buildings, supplemented by the overhanging rooftop solar panels:

Masdar City energy efficiency 2


For fans of high density urban spaces, the narrow corridors between the buildings contribute to a cozy, familiar feeling. If you’re not such a fan, not to worry. Building height is limited to three levels (or four levels with lower ceilings), and kid-friendly public plazas are strategically positioned to create an overall impression of airiness:

Masdar City energy efficiency 1

The terra cotta buildings overlooking this plaza are residential, with heavily shaded terraces that encourage use of outdoor space at home.

Masdar City also deploys wind power to counteract the effect of sunlight on the open plazas. One approach gleaned from ancient engineers is a tower that captures wind from above and funnels it down, cooling it with water:

Masdar City energy efficiency 3

Another strategy leverages building design. In the example below, a large public space is shaded by a soaring, bowl-shaped entryway, strategically positioned opposite a narrow passage between two buildings. The bowl catches the breeze from the wind tunnel and circulates it around the space. The slotted roof enables sunlight to filter through narrow openings to achieve a more open effect without enabling too much heat to come through.

Masdar City energy efficiency 5

The terrace at the lower part of the photo serves as a fire escape — not the most attractive solution, but the exterior location saves energy and also enables the building to make more active use of its interior footprint.

Exterior fire escapes can also serve as anchors for shading to help keep buildings cool. The flap-like screens on this building overhang exterior walkways leading to stairs:

Masdar City energy efficiency 4

This is the Siemens headquarters for Middle East operations, by the way. When it opened in January 2014, it was the first LEED Platinum building in Abu Dhabi. The “box-within-a-box” design contributes to an energy savings of about 63 percent compared to conventional office buildings in Abu Dhabi. Siemens also claims a 52 percent water savings for the building.

That’s not all due to the influence of ancient city dwellers, of course. Masdar (the company) has just posted its 2015 sustainability report so we’ll bring you some details about that as it relates to Masdar City in the next post.

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All photos by Tina Casey.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Robert Pollock

    I’ve been a practitioner of passive design since my first passive solar ski chalet in 1979. I’ve done a dozen buildings in three countries since. I’m just one guy, a general contractor, now in California. It’s mostly common sense.
    I do get a little ‘ticked off’ at all this praise, for what should be obvious.
    I get more ‘ticked off’ at what we’re building now in the desert. Stick frame, slab on grade houses designed by people and machines who don’t even live in the state. This whole LEED nonsense promotes it.

  • Ian

    I suppose folks have to live where they live, even if it’s a terribly inhospitable desert. But this project- building an energy efficient city in the desert- reminds me a little of a talk given by a locally famous architect here in the Bay Area who designed a highly efficient house, with passive heating and cooling, solar panels (back when they were very expensive) efficient water systems, etc. But the house was on a beautiful natural site an hour and a half drive from the city. The clients did that drive, in separate cars, every day. The house’s contribution to sprawl and the wasteful commute completely eclipsed any benefit of its elaborate green design. One has to ask, why should so many people live in the desert? The fact is that this city would not be built if it weren’t for the oil under the sands of Abu Dhabi. As efficient as the city may be, it is a manifestation of an incredibly destructive worldwide fossil fuel economy.

    • Coley

      A lot of govts in the area are using their oil money to plan for the day when oil is no longer a premium asset, common sense and good forward planning I would have though?

      • neroden

        Yeah. Saudi Arabia is spoiling its solar deployment plans by starting unnecessary foreign wars and razing archaeological sites and generally pissing off all its neighbors. But the UAE and Oman seem to be making a serious effort at forward planning.

        FWIW Abu Dhabi predates oil: it’s located at a trading-port location and its position as a port is its historical reason for existence. The dynasty were merchant princes for centuries.

        • Coley

          Aye, I spent a few months there and in neighbouring Sharjah in the early seventies, the difference between then and now is unbelievable.

    • nitpicker357

      It’s an inhospitable area in an economically important area with access to cheap energy. People will live where they can a) make money b) get water, and c) get energy (Food can be imported). The oil may become less relevant, but the sunshine is still important.

  • JamesWimberley

    Good. Masdar are obviously working with imaginative architects and planners, and from the photos are achieving a liveable and walkable urban habitat. Do they acknowledge the Persian contribution to this style of hot-country building?

    “While wind and solar are infinite resources, land for solar arrays and wind turbines is not.” If you look at the map, most of the Arabian peninsula is uninhabitable waterless desert. Like the Sahara, the majority must be stony plain (hamada) rather than the postcard sand dunes (erg). There is absolutely no risk of the UAE and Saudi Arabia running out of land for wind and solar plants. You could power the world from the Empty Quarter.

    • Coley

      Cover the rocky,sandy useless bits with wind and solar farms to provide power for desalination and irrigation for the fertile areas, using money generated from oil exports, it’s a no brainer.

      • Robert Pollock

        What about the turtles who will die when you cover the ‘useless bits’?
        There are no useless bits on planet earth, it’s all rarer and more valuable than us. We’re the ‘useless bits’.

        • Bob_Wallace

          The percentage “useless bits” that would be used for solar is very small.
          Failure to get climate change under control would mean that the entire desert will change and the “turtles” everywhere will suffer and die. We will wipe out species. We will drive very large scale extinction.

        • Coley

          Just how will providing shade kill the turtles? AFAIK turtles are marine creatures.

  • Kyle Field

    Very neat stuff. I love the shot looking up at the roof mounted panels. I hope the box within the box concept and minimization of external windows becomes more of a standard in less temperate zones such as Abu Dhabi.

    • Robert Pollock

      Take a look at Googles propose campus for northern California. The building within a building concept goes 21st century. It’s there, but you can’t see it.

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