The future certainly isn't what it used to be on the dusty patch of land that faces the Siemens HQ at Masdar City. There, on a plot dedicated to experimental projects, a deceptively ordinary-looking four-bedroom villa has been built – and it appears decidedly at odds with Masdar's earlier "greenprint" for our sustainable urban future.
Not only are self-ventilating wind towers and egg-shaped rapid-transport systems noticeable by their absence, they’ve been replaced by a new architectural vision of low-rise, low-density residential housing that sports unremarkable, off-the-peg fixtures and fittings, ample carports and an en-suite bathroom for every bedroom. Experimentation is out, it would seem, and has been replaced by the Khaleeji equivalent of architectural “normcore”.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive. This is still Masdar City, a venture that may now be investigating what it describes as “sustainable real estate”, but for which innovation remains an essential part of its DNA. The point of the Eco-Villa, explains Chris Wan, Masdar’s head of design management, is not to “wow” architectural critics but to meet the expectations of local families, to be comfortable and, most importantly, to deliver on its environmental and commercial potential.
“This villa doesn’t scream and shout, it looks like a very nice but ordinary villa from the outside, but that’s deliberate and was also part of the original brief,” the architect says. “We want to show that sustainable design isn’t about aesthetics or about the technologies you can glue to a building, and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do something for the environment.”
The Eco-Villa’s environmental performance is being assessed according to Estidama, Abu Dhabi’s home-grown sustainable rating system, which calculates efficiency in terms of percentage reductions in possible resource use. This means that the Eco-Villa is being rated separately for the efficiency of its construction, which can only be assessed after it’s been built, and its design, which has already been awarded 4 Pearls, the second-highest rating possible.
Not only does the design of the Eco-Villa claim to be 72 per cent more energy efficient than the traditional concrete structures that still form the majority of the emirate’s housing stock, but Masdar’s tests have shown that its energy consumption also outperforms more modern, code-compliant housing by 45 per cent. If that wasn’t enough, the addition of solar panels to the Eco-Villa’s roof allows the home to generate enough energy over the course of a 12-month cycle for it to ultimately run without having to draw excess energy from the grid. “We found that we have sufficient room on the roof of the villa to be able to instal photovoltaic panels that offset the remaining energy requirement,” Wan says. “That makes this villa net zero energy.”
To achieve this, the Eco-Villa uses a number of what Wan describes as “common-sense” strategies and technologies that stand as a testament to the cumulative impact of small-scale design decisions. They also point to the recent progress that has been made in residential construction techniques and the design of standard fixtures and fittings. “The majority of the fittings and materials are already commercially available here in the UAE,” Wan notes.
“If we want this to be a model that’s taken forward and multiplied so that thousands of units work on the same principle, it needs to be something that’s beneficial for the economy in general. That’s why wherever we can source materials locally, we have done.”
Many of the Eco-Villa’s savings have been arrived at thanks to measures that are either mundane – such as its use of energy-efficient LED lights and water-efficient taps – or entirely invisible.
The use of insulated concrete form (ICF) for the Eco-Villa’s walls falls into the latter category. A system that consists of internal and external layers of insulation that sandwich and support an inner concrete core, ICF creates walls that are not only quick to build but are also up to five times more insulated than standard concrete, a key consideration when you are trying to keep a building cool. The system is widely used elsewhere, but this is its Abu Dhabi debut, thanks to the agreement of the local municipality.
The house may have taken only four months to build, but it’s taken two years to get to this stage, 12 months of which were spent calculating, testing and refining the design in order to maximise its potential performance.
The ultimate test of the Eco-Villa’s environmental claims, however, will only come when the building is occupied, which is why a family will be selected to live in the house for a full year while testing continues.
“The villa will then be monitored remotely over two seasons, summer and winter, so we can check the results and compare these with the performance of other villas in Abu Dhabi,” explains Yousef Ahmed Baselaib, executive director of Masdar’s sustainable real-estate division, who expects the final stage of the villa’s testing process to start in the spring.
“And after that we may need to adjust the design slightly or to add more devices to reduce the energy consumption. The idea is that this is something that could be built both inside and outside Masdar City once we have proved that the design is commercial.”
Just how commercial the Eco-Villa might be is still being kept under wraps, as Masdar refuses to reveal any costs, but Wan says that his team compared the villa with similar developments in the residential marketplace and aimed for significant savings at every opportunity.
Masdar’s main aim, Baselaib admits, is to now make the Eco-Villa’s case technically, commercially, politically and environmentally. “This is a proof of concept, not just for Masdar but for other developers, as well,” he says.
“We also want to prove to the Government that we can build a sustainable villa that will not only deliver an upside in terms of operational cost and the environment, but will also reduce the [level of] Government subsidy that is required in the future. The tenants will also benefit because they will not have to pay for their utilities. Thirdly, and this is really a major concern in the Middle East, the villas will reduce the amount of water that is consumed.”
If the Foster + Partners-designed first generation of Masdar’s vision was the architectural equivalent of a temperamental but finely tuned F1 car, with the Eco-Villa, Masdar appears to be aiming for the architectural equivalent of the Volkswagen, a national project that can be rolled out quickly, economically and en masse.
If that comes to pass, then the men from sustainable real estate will have also solved another, more persistent conundrum. Since Foster + Partners’ wider masterplan for Masdar City was not realised in full, what exists of the campus has stood, effectively, as a sustainable buildings research centre.
But if the Eco-Villa succeeds, it will have achieved more with less. Masdar City will become a master developer at the head of a high-volume model house-building programme the likes of which has not been seen since Abu Dhabi and the other emirates began to construct UAE national sha’abi housing in the 1960s and 1970s.
Then, perhaps, after a full 10 years, 2017 will be remembered as the moment when Masdar City’s “greenprint” finally clicked, not with high technology but with a humble home that transformed its lofty environmental vision into an architectural reality.