Building on a Desert—Masdar City

A desert doesn’t seem the most likely place to build a city, much less an environmentally-sustainable one. However, that’s just what the government of Abu Dhabi had in mind in 2006 when they envisioned a solar- and wind-powered, minimal footprint, and automobile-free development to be called Masdar City.

Norman Foster, master architect and founder of Foster + Partners, partnered with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince ruler, was uber-qualified to lead this project; with a portfolio of breathtaking buildings—including HSBC in Hong Kong (1986) and Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt (1997), and a list of over twenty of the most prestigious awards in architecture, no other firm could fit the bill as perfectly.

There has been a myriad of steps in a project of this size, even without taking into consideration the fact that it was being built on a desert. It was a new journey, one that had never been done on such a large scale before. The process has not been without its challenges, and the work is still in progress.

Birth of a Desert Community

The world population is booming, with no deceleration in sight. Along with this growth comes a strain on the earth’s resources. With an exorbitant amount of oil (and money) in their pockets, and an innovative mindset, UAE leadership was perfectly suited to take on a dream of this size. Sustainability often comes with a hefty price tag, so UAE is the ideal location to test out technological advances, without the fear of (quickly) running out of funding.

The theory for a sustainable community was (and continues to be) supported by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (and his Masdar Institute), and with a model of urbanization, where preservation of cultures and societies is achieved with urban environmentalism, utilizing technology to minimize resource use and maximize innovation, and where 2.3 miles would house 40,000 residents and provide employment for 50,000 more.

Harnessing Nature

An impressive list of technologies, unified together in a comprehensive project, was planned, including:

  • Personal Rapid Transit pods (PRTs), eliminating internal-combustion automobiles
  • Large-scale recycling plant
  • Photovoltaic arrays on outskirts of community (original plans called for pricier solar-collecting roofs)
  • Concentrated solar power–Masdar solar plan is one of the biggest solar projects on earth
  • Aggressive water-use monitoring (desalination plans were scrapped due to cost)

Successes….and Failures

Immediately, some successes could be seen. In 2010, photovoltaic generated 20 times more energy as electricity, and wind, 100 times. However, shortly after going online, Chinese companies flooded the market with photovoltaic panels, reducing the cost advantage of concentrated solar. This is one example of how technologies have advanced before the previous one could be brought into full use.

The design of the PRT system was (several) downsized; the numbers didn’t flow. The cost to build the city to allow for the underground navigation system was too steep. Instead, electric buses are envisioned for the future.

One by-product from the give-and-take of the Masdar City plan is the sheer number of technological laboratories and students hard at work within the community. The race to discover, harness, and improve renewable resources has led to innovation of a myriad of technological advances, including artificial intelligence and Nano-materials. The level of discovery is overwhelming.

Looking Back, and Ahead

Today, Masdar City is not home to 40,000 residents, nor are 50,000 commuters arriving, riding in PRTs to travel about the 2.3 square mile city. However, it has not been abandoned. Students of Masdar Institute work feverishly inside community structures, still inspired by the dream Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his team had for a sustainable community. Their work has not been “for naught”, as the architectural firm Foster & Partners have been contacted by other leaders around the world, interested in creating their own version of a sustainable community. Masdar is both a success and a failure, representing the innovative spirit and speedy technological advances which blossom in the desert of UAE.