As the ambitious Masdar City project near Abu Dhabi approaches the end of its first decade in development, supporters and sceptics alike are still wondering what it will become. A proof-of-concept experiment for carbon-neutral design on an urban scale? A test bed for traditional and new technology, the integration of which may yield radical gains in performance? Or an effort to help a petroleum state make the transition to the conditions likely to prevail after the world passes the point of peak oil productiont?

Announced in 2006, at a time when sustainable design was morphing from a speciality into a norm, enforced through building codes worldwide, the new city was heralded as an unprecedented opportunity to combine energy efficiency with economic feasibility.

Its master plan by Foster + Partners embodied a dialectic between old and new expertise – what senior executive partner Gerard Evenden, head of Foster’s Studio 5 and design director for the firm’s Masdar work, describes as the "huge knowledge of the environment, which is latent in that population", allied to rapidly changing 21st-century technology that can make a fully solar-powered city feasible even at a demanding site.

Despite changes in the schedule and budget, Evenden notes that the achievements in Masdar’s first seven years – tangible and intangible – are large. The firm’s involvement ended more than a year ago, and Evenden describes the shift in terms of completion rather than abandonment.

Beyond the master plan, the architect’s contributions include 200,000m² of construction at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), the city’s intellectual engine and the first component built, and at the Courtyard Building, the development’s first commercial structure.

Buildings by other firms are appearing, including the newly opened Siemens headquarters by Sheppard Robson, the head office of the Masdar Organisation (a branch of the Abu Dhabi Government’s Mubadala Development Company) and the International Renewable Energy Agency by Woods Bagot, which remains under construction. A DoubleTree by Hilton is scheduled to open in 2017, and should Masdar even partially deliver on its commercial promises, expect plenty more international players to follow. Developed by Sheikh Ahmed al-Nahyan’s Reliable Property Investment, The 316-room hotel will comply with the environmental ethos of Masdar and seek to secure the prestigious Estidama Three Pearl sustainability rating.

Initial claims that the city would be zero waste and carbon neutral were premature. Still, as Evenden puts it, Masdar has gone from being "this word… and an aspiration" to a real place, focusing expertise and generating knowledge.

"People would like to barrack it as utopian," he observes. "I don’t think it was a utopian undertaking, but a very carefully based project to try to develop something that a lot of people were talking about but hadn’t been done."

"A question that has been regularly raised with me is: ‘Why would you do this in a desert?’ Well, if you can solve these issues in a place that is so extreme, to solve them anywhere else is much easier. You have to think harder because of where you are. For me, none of that is utopian."


Strategy over specificity

Masdar’s climatic, hydrological and geological challenges practically ensured that its progress would involve surprises and discoveries. It may not be special pleading to say that deviations from the original plans are a feature, not a bug.

Much of the knowledge behind Masdar draws from lessons learnt in the rigours of desert life, a number of which have been overshadowed by imported internationalist ideas during the past half century, and enhanced in certain areas by contemporary materials and research. By beginning with passive design strategies rather than technology, Evenden says, Masdar’s planning avoids a common problem in green projects: lock-in to technologies that change faster than construction schedules can accommodate.

The orientation, spacing, scale and features of its buildings and public spaces maximise airflow and shade, echoing centuries of Middle Eastern architectural traditions in a dominant palette of terracotta-walled medium-height concrete buildings with high thermal mass, positioned close and set back at ground level.

Further shading and cooling strategies include mashrabiya screens, fins, brises-soleil and insulating laboratory facades composed of inflatable ETFE cushions. Compact walkable streets follow discontinuous, non-gridded routes, oriented to prevailing winds in order to manage air currents.

A 45m free-standing wind tower draws in air to ventilate the public square, using a misting system as a modern variant of traditional moistened blankets for humidification, and assists in meteorological monitoring and air-quality testing, while movement sensors replace light switches and water taps to increase the efficiency of water and power use; exterior timber is certified-sustainable palmwood.


The value of knowledge

MIST, which officially opened in 2009 in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and inaugurated its low-rise, high-density Masdar campus in 2010, makes development of a knowledge-based national economy a priority.

Masdar has invested in strategies with the potential to bring substantial returns, financially and in terms of knowledge gained, across a wide range of technology: photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, algae-based biofuels and other renewable energy sources; carbon-capture technology, waste management and water recycling systems; greener materials; and, in initial plans, the project’s main attention-getter – a bespoke personal rapid transit (PRT) system of electrically powered, magnet-and-sensor-guided podcars linking 80 stations through dedicated corridors under the main construction deck, making possible a ban on cars.

If Masdar succeeds in replacing fossil fuels with renewables and managing its transit innovations, the very technology that redistributed so much of the world’s wealth to the Middle East may thus be shown up as an ultimate irrelevance – a historically ephemeral transport mode, not a permanent feature of modern civilisation. The PRT system, a centrepiece of numerous optimistic discussions in the initial years after Masdar’s original announcement, offered nothing less than the promise of a post-petroleum city, perhaps even a post-automotive one.

At Harvard’s Ecological Urbanism conference in 2009, amid multiple presentations and vigorous debate over Masdar’s practicability, engineer Federico Parolotto used emission-pattern maps to describe Masdar as a green island inside an area of severe auto dependence, lacking balance between its resident and worker populations, and thus encircled by commuter car parks: a place that can be efficient within its own scale but "cannot resolve the contradictions of a city that is completely car-dominated".

In recent years, resolving those contradictions has become even harder: the PRT system was drastically scaled back in 2010, and its associated raised-deck construction plan was dropped entirely. Prototype podcars serve MIST, but on a far smaller scale (13 vehicles at the time of writing).

The deck offered multiple advantages beyond separating the podcar network from pedestrian space, and Evenden describes it as a defensible feature that might eventually be reinstated, at least in some areas.

"One of the issues was that the soil conditions are appalling," he says. "The water table is very high; there’s all sorts of problems, things like salt crusting, which forms great voids underneath the top layer of sand, so that when you drill down into it, you hit these great cavernous areas. If you start pile foundations, you’ll find you’re just pouring concrete into a massive void underneath."

Nutrient-poor soil, dependent on desalination for water, was also an unpromising site for planting shade trees. The deck structure allowed planting in pots, with nutritious compost added, reducing irrigation demands. "Suddenly, you realise that plants grow much better if they’re lifted off ground and into a deck," Evenden adds. "That doesn’t cost you any more; that’s just thinking."

Many pros and cons surround the deck-based design, Evenden acknowledges. Construction would not be technically difficult, though governance could be complex. "Just as you have a road adoption policy in any city for local councils, you have to think about how to have a deck adoption policy; how do you devise freeholds?"

Meanwhile, rapid innovation in electric or hybrid vehicles, as well as navigation technology – particularly driverless systems – suggests that features of conventional cars and PRT could converge. "There may well be possibilities whereby the black-box technology that’s in those vehicles is put into a normal, mass-produced hybrid vehicle," says Evenden. "It could be possible to drive up to the city and have your car taken over by its technology, to become part of the PRT system."

Despite dropping key aspects of its signature feature, Masdar is at least grappling with questions that few other communities – planned or organically developed – even think of raising.

The detailed emphasis on process and metrics in its corporate communications suggests that Masdar, as it builds itself out at a less heady pace, continues to innovate in ways that keep its options open. "I think the slower pace could be an advantage in the end," Evenden summarises.

"By giving some of these things more time to develop in terms of technology, over time, you’ll learn more. A prolonged construction period might not be a bad thing for this experimental city."

No experienced scientist leaps to hasty inferences while preliminary observations are still refining the hypothesis. For the foreseeable future, given the complexity of the concept it rests on, Masdar is, and perhaps should be, an experiment first and a city second.