A Review of Sustainable Design in the Middle East

Karim Elgendy

The notions of sustainable design and energy efficiency first entered global consciousness following the energy shortages of the 1970s and 1980s. Influenced by ideas of energy independence, many designers in Europe and North America sought ideas and strategies that could help create energy-efficient buildings and cities. As they searched for design solutions, some researched the environmentally responsive elements of traditional architecture, while others developed new solutions that employ modern technologies and high performance materials.

As the energy crisis subsided, the building industry in North America returned to business as usual, allowing its European counterpart – which emphasized technological solutions – to take a lead. But with the revival of global interest in sustainability – this time driven by both environmental and energy concerns – the dormant dialogue between the two approaches to sustainable design returned to play a role in shaping the global sustainability agenda. Oscillating between advocates of passive design and proponents of technological solutions, this dialogue continues to enrich the discourse on the future of sustainable design and development

National Commercial Bank in Jeddah (left). consists of a triangular 27-storey office tower juxtaposed with a six-storey, 400-car circular garage. The verticality of the bank tower is interrupted by three triangular courtyards ‘chiseled’ into the building's facade. The office windows are oriented towards these courtyards with an inward orientation typical of Islamic traditional design. This provides the interiors with daylight but prevents them from overheating. Copyrights: Wolgfang Hoyt/Esto. Shaded pathways within Masdar Institute for Science and Technology (right) Copyrights: Nigel Young

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Passive Cooling: Responding to Electricity Demand in the UAE

Wissam Yassine and Karim Elgendy

During the 1990s and the early 2000s, the UAE, and the city of Dubai in particular, witnessed a rapid rate of growth in its built environment driven by a real estate bubble. In the span of a few years the city’s unprecedented rate of growth, which was driven by both demand and speculation, completely transformed the city. But such growth came at a price.  Driven by their need for quick returns, developers cared little beyond delivering a building on time and on schedule. Speed of construction often came at the expense of quality, and issues of performance and energy use played almost no role in the design and construction processes. Common disregard of performance was also fueled by the fact that most buildings were commissioned for developers – rather than owner/occupier clients – since their focus lied solely on reducing initial capital expenditures without considering operating costs that are typically borne by tenants.

Figure 1. Photo of the Masdar Institute Courtyard showing the wind tower, and the layered facades of residential units. Copyrights: Nigel Young/ Foster+Partners

These commercial forces, coupled with relatively cheap electricity across the UAE, and a lack of demanding building regulations have paved the way to the development of unsustainable design practices over the last decade. A typical office building in the UAE today is a predominantly glazed high rise tower. Basic design decisions such as orientation, massing, and envelope design are usually made without much regard to their impacts on the buildings’ energy performance, and passive cooling strategies are rarely considered.

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Dubai Experiments with Sustainable Development

Karim Elgendy

Throughout the last three decades, the city of Dubai has not been known for its emphasis on sustainability as guiding principles for its development. Not only did it adopt an unnatural rate of growth by middle eastern and global standards, it has also long disregarded the environmental and social consequences of its rapid urbanization. Dubai’s growth relied on -and was economically fueled by- a development model which imported inappropriate and inefficient building forms and planted them in its extreme climate. The result was a 1,500 square miles city (3,885 square kilometers) with isolated island buildings that are not only divorced from their environments, but which also require a great amount of fossil fuel energy to remain habitable.

Image 1. Aerial View of Xeritown showing massing and landscaping. Copyrights: X-Architects and SMAQ

The city of Dubai also has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in the world, and even though this footprint is partially a result of energy intensive water desalination processes on which the city relies for its potable water, Dubai’s carbon footprint remains higher than that of other gulf cities including Saudi cities which also rely greatly on desalination.

In many ways, it is fair to argue that the Dubai’s model of development has been, in essence, the antithesis of sustainable development over the last three decades. In other words, Dubai has come to represent the climax of an obsolete development model in which humans attempted to subjugate their environment rather than coexist with it.

In contrast to this un-sustainable development pattern, Dubai’s neighboring city of Abu Dhabi has long adopted a measured and less extravagant development model. Over the same three decades, Abu Dhabi’s development model was generally characterized with a more sustainable pace of development. In the last few years, Abu Dhabi has been attempting to champion sustainable development in the Middle East by establishing a sustainability oriented framework for its development over the next 20 years, and by establishing the Masdar initiative which includes the world’s most progressive sustainable city project at its outskirts with ambitious zero-energy and zero-waste targets.

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The American University in Beirut Combines Innovation and Traditional design

Karim Elgendy

In 2009, the American University in Beirut’s new student center was recognized as one of the American Institute of Architects’ Top Ten Green Buildings, the most prestigious profesional award for sustainability in the United States and one that is rarely awarded to international projects in the Middle East. The new student center is situated within the 73-acre campus of the American University in Beirut (AUB) and is named after Charles Hostler, the former US Ambassador and an AUB Alum. The student center is sited at the foot of a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean sea and extends down to the Beirut Corniche, the capital’s grand waterfront boulevard (Image 1). The $30 million project was designed by the Minneapolis based VJAA together with the Lebanon based Samir Khairallah & Partners. The Stuttgart based Transsolar and the San Francisco based Hargreaves were part of the design team as environmental consultants, and Landscape designers, respectively.

Image 1. View of Charles Hostler Student Center as seen from the Hill above. Copyrights: Paul Crosby

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A Damascus School Revives Traditional Cooling Techniques

Karim Elgendy

In late 2008 the French President Francois Sarkozy inaugurated a new French school in Damascus, Syria. The French school, known as Lycée Charles de Gaulle,  follows the french educational system and is accreddited by the French ministry of education. The school was designed by the French architects Ateliers Lion together with the German environmental engineering firm, Transsolar.

Image 1. Night view of school central courtyard showing the solar chimneys. Copyrights: Adria Goula Sarda, Ateliers Lion

The brief for the design team was to  to develop a campus for the school with a capacity for 900 students ranging from kindergarten to high school. The design team was also tasked to develop a campus that embodies sustainability by using low-technology solutions for ventilation and conditioning of the school spaces, while maintaining the thermal comfort levels required for students in an educational environment.

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Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Headquarters: The First Positive-Energy Building in the Middle East

Karim Elgendy

As previously reported on Carboun, Masdar City – the $22 billion project of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) – is currently under construction and is due to be completed in 2016.  As the the first zero-carbon emissions and zero-waste city, the master plan for Masdar City integrates many passive design and planning strategies with renewable energy production to achieve its ambitious sustainability goals.

At the center of Masdar City lies its first building, the Masdar Headquarters, which will become the new home of Abu Dhabi’s Future Energy Company, as well as the secretariat of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The building - together with other key building -will act as an anchor and a catalyst for the development of the city.

Image 1. Rendering of Masdar HQ. Copyrights: Adrian Smith+ Gordon Gill

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Riyadh Tower Design adapts a Traditional Middle Eastern Shading Strategy

Image 1. A night view of the design showing the shading enevlope and the spiraling forms behind. Copyrights: Perkins+Will

Image 1. A night view of the design showing the shading envelope and the spiraling forms behind. Copyrights: Perkins+Will

In February 2010, the design for Al-Birr Foundation Headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has been named as the winner of the 2010 Architectural Review / MIPIM Future Projects Awards under the ‘tall buildings’ category (Image 1). The unbuilt project, designed by Perkins+Will’s New York Office, was commissioned for Al-Birr Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at alleviating poverty and caring for disadvantaged families and children.

The Design

Of the many features of the design of the 59, 000 sqm tower, perhaps the most interesting is how it was concieved as a sustainable urban tower that responds to the environmental characteristics and the microclimate of the city of Riyadh, which is a challenging climate to address given the extreme solar exposure and the heat conditions of Riyadh.

Faced with these climatic conditions and a deep plot of 1000 x 1200m, the projects’s designers response was to rethink the high rise typology in this context. The design’s most visible response to the climate is the building’s envelope which was designed as a large rectangular frame of brise-soleil enclosing the occupied parts of the building. This shading frame  was designed to respond to both the different amounts of solar radiation received by each elevation as well as the interior spaces behind it. To achieve this  result, a mapped shading mesh was devised to provide varying levels of openness for different locations of the different elevations depending on its solar exposure and its spatial/contextual influences. The result was an envelope that resembles a mesh of varying densities surrounding the building and simultaneously protecting and revealing the activities behind it.

This proposed design solution thus helps the building reduce its solar heat gain while maintaining its views towards the city (FIgure 1). In addition to this shading effect, the mesh-like dynamic treatment of the envelope has also helped animate the building’s expression with the dense and sparse zones of the facade adding a dynamic effect to what otherwise may have become a static pure form.

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