In the fall of 2010, the biennial Living Planet Report ranked the United Arab Emirates as having the world’s highest per capita environmental footprint—for the third time in a row. In response to the rankings (not to mention the realization that their energy and water resources are steadily running out), the emirates—particularly Abu Dhabi—have launched a number of high-profile green projects.
The most well-known is Masdar City, a planned community in the desert outside Abu Dhabi that aims to provide a high quality of life while creating the lowest possible carbon footprint. A small group of researchers currently lives in the city, but by 2025 the population is expected to reach 40,000. The city is already reducing its small population’s waste through strategies such as monitoring water and electricity consumption, increasing recycling, and using local materials in construction. Masdar City will also feature ultra-modern accoutrements like personal rapid transit, or tiny electric, driverless pod-like cars that squire you around via underground tunnels.
Within this futuristic environment, Masdar City’s planners—Foster and Partners—recognized that older, vernacular methods of building from the Gulf and the greater Middle East could also help keep things cooler more naturally than the constant drone of energy-sucking air conditioning. Architectural features like wind towers, which cool lower areas of buildings or courtyards by diverting breezes downward or, in windless weather, allowing hot air to travel upward and escape, are already in place.
Also in Abu Dhabi, twin skyscrapers called the Bahar Towers, which house the headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, were completed last year and have received attention for their innovative and environmental design. The towers feature a computer-controlled façade that opens and closes as the sun moves over their surfaces, reducing the buildings' overall energy consumption by 20 percent. The idea behind the façade comes from mashrabiyat, a type of screen found on traditional homes in the Middle East that keep both eyes and the sun from prying inside a home.
Both Masdar City and the Bahar Towers are impressive, no doubt. But how much impact can they really have on the general population? Upon visiting Masdar City in 2010, then-New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, though impressed by the mixture of contemporary and more traditional building methods, called it something "noxious." "What Masdar really represents," he wrote, "is the crystallization of a global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance."
Statements like Ouroussoff's may have been true initially, but Tafline Laylin, managing editor of Green Prophet, a website focusing on environmental issues in the Middle East, argues that what Masdar City's developers did was "pretty smart."
"What was needed was a pilot program to develop a system and work out all the kinks," she says. "The next step is to export it to other parts of the country and the world." Dr. Yasser al-Saleh of the INSEAD Innovation and Policy Initiative, who studied sustainability in Masdar City as part of his post-graduate work, echoes Laylin. "The idea is that these places can serve as niche markets," he says. "Ultimately, the hope is that these learning places pave the way for a successful evolution to mass markets."
Laylin says that Abu Dhabi's Urban Planning Council may finally be beginning to move toward involving those mass markets with its program of "eco villas" that are compliant with its green building code, called Estidama ("sustainability" in Arabic). Hundreds of such villas are currently being constructed in al-Ain and al-Silaa, and they're said to consume 20 to 30 percent less energy and water than a typical Emirati home. Laylin cautions, however, that the eco villas are surely not as green as they could be. Large and constructed of concrete, they are still difficult to keep cool.
Nor do these McMansion-like structures appear to be in the price range of anyone below the professional classes. Indeed, a model shown at the January 2013 World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi featured spacious salons and plush furnishings, including some from Pottery Barn. While the Urban Planning Council declined to comment on the income level to which it will cater the villas, it seems safe to say that the homes are geared for a rather well-to-do clientele.
Aside from the inclusion of courtyards that ensure privacy for women and families, the villas (shown in a drawing on the UPC website) do not appear to employ vernacular features like the wind towers or mashrabiyat of Masdar City or the Bahar Towers. (The local building code requires window glazing rather than screens, for instance.) Part of this decision may be due to Emirati taste, which is often more in line with Western design. Al-Saleh is not particularly optimistic about Emiratis welcoming vernacular building strategies en masse. "Vernacular architecture is just one way forward that could prove its success for some segments of the UAE market," he says.
But vernacular elements or no, Laylin says the villas are at least a start for a population that has not been particularly interested in going green, having enjoyed subsidized energy and water from the government for years. At best, the villas could serve as a bridge to more affordable green homes in the future.
"We're not going to see a bunch of hippie mud brick homes," Laylin says. "I think we'll see a lot more of these villas."