The Masdar City project was an ambitious one, not just for Abu Dhabi, but for the planet. Even today, more than 12 years since it was first announced, an entirely "zero-waste, carbon-neutral and fossil fuel-free" city would be a tall order, but, back in 2007, it seemed more like science-fiction.
Gerard Evenden, senior executive partner at Foster + Partners, remembers when his architecture firm first took on the job. "People asked if this Masdar thing was serious," he tells The National at the launch of the Art of Sustainable Architecture, an exhibition that shows off a slew of projects the company has worked on in its 52-year history. The display runs until February 28 at Dubai Design District, to coincide with the opening of the company's new UAE office.
“My answer always was: if you take an extreme and you can fix it, then you can fix a problem anywhere. If you fix the desert, you get a lot of the answers for the Moon and Mars.”
Could we live in space?
It’s a striking sentiment. Abu Dhabi’s fully sustainable urban community project may still be a work in progress, but it did indeed provide the architects at Foster + Partners with the beginnings of a solution to that age-old question: could we realistically live in space? Ultimately, the company’s experience in “fixing extremes” in the UAE desert led them to create a modular habitat designed to support deep-space exploration, which later won the Nasa-backed 3D Printing Habitat Challenge. They’d mapped out a solution for a robust 3D-printed dwelling on the Red Planet, for up to four astronauts, constructed by an array of pre-programmed, semi-autonomous robots, using regolith – the loose soil and rocks found on the planet’s surface.
This was in 2015. Even earlier, in 2012, Foster + Partners began exploring the possibilities of constructing a habitat on the Moon, as the company is part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency, which addresses the challenges of transporting materials to the Moon, and also investigates the use of regolith as building matter. Through this, they’ve designed a lunar base that can house up to four people, which can protect humans from meteorites, gamma radiation and high temperature fluctuations.
“I think the 3D printing was the starting point,” Evenden explains, when we ask him why on earth they started exploring space. The conversation started when they were designing The Villas in Abu Dhabi between 2009 and 2011, he adds.
“One of the things we talked about was whether you could create building materials in new ways; lighter-weight materials. Something that came out of that was if you 3D-print something, you can print it hollow, and make a very strong, lightweight structure.” This led them to extensively look into the structure of a human bone.
“[Then] we thought that if you put a laser into sand, because the sand has silicone in it, you can fuse the silicone together to make a print. It’s a bit like when lightning strikes the ground, when they go in the ground they simper together, so it becomes a rigid thing.” The team wondered if they could do the same thing on the Moon or Mars and thus form a crust. From there, discussions moved on to insulation, cutting out radiation, and so on.
From Masdar City to Mars
Only one prototype of that villa exists today, but it is 100 per cent recyclable, was built in 56 days using prefabricated materials and has been sat out in the elements for nearly nine years, with no maintenance, and still looks as good as new. The villa combines sustainable design with an efficient, modular system that would allow for the large-scale production of individual homes.
While it was inspired by the climate and culture of this region, its adaptability was carefully considered, so that each home can be tailored to the lifestyle and preferences of its owner. By using prefabricated components, the “kit-of-parts” system also removes the need for unskilled labour and large volumes of waste produced during construction.
Dara Towhidi, a partner and architect who oversees Foster + Partners's new Dubai office, explains how the elements they pioneered during these Abu Dhabi projects paved a path for the development of space habitats. "The [Masdar City] design was based on the principles of a circular economy, in which industrial networks mimic the cyclical behaviour of natural ecosystems," he tells The National. "Masdar's urban model analysed the flows of the materials and energy within the city, ensuring that they were produced, used and recycled in a sustainable manner.
“A similar model was created to analyse the material and energy flow for the extra-planetary habitations on the Moon and Mars. The idea was to create an energy-efficient sustainable habitat that can be easily replicated using local and renewable materials that eliminates waste and reduces the payload on the spacecraft.”
The challenges ahead
The Mars model is what won Foster + Partners the prize purse of $1.1 million (Dh4.03m) for phase two of the Nasa challenge. The third phase is still ongoing, and challenges competitors to fabricate sub-scale habitats, with a prize of $2 million. Evenden says the firm's next steps "are towards building analogue habitats for space explorations to study the equipment and techniques that will be used to analyse the surface of Mars during a future manned mission. They will also be used to study "simulated isolation of the inhabitants and psycho-social effects of long-term space missions".
In order to do this, and to further its other sustainability-focused projects, the company is heavily investing in experts – not just architects, but all sorts of specialists, from scientists to space engineers and even psychologists – who can start to answer some of the world’s most unanswerable design questions. For instance: how can new construction materials and techniques be used for energy capture and storage, robotics and autonomy, environmental analysis and human wellbeing?
"Building on new frontiers demands reliable and tested solutions, while at the same time, novel techniques are required to overcome unique challenges," adds Evenden. "The habitat design is an opportunity to integrate our knowledge in occupant wellbeing and emerging robotic construction technologies."
The company is also working with academics and industry partners across the world to conduct real research on things like robotic 3D printing of various building materials, as well as developing new technology to autonomously map construction sites to create “living digital twins alongside our digital models”. All this commitment to change is also why Foster + Partners has opened its new UAE office now. “The culture of design has grown here significantly,” Evenden says. “When you get to a point where places become more interested in better design, that’s when we need to make commitments to be here.”
While this new chapter clearly includes developing habitats for outer space, which is undoubtedly exciting, more importantly this extra-planetary research is being used as a catalyst for rethinking problems here on Earth. "For us, we've got to stretch out beyond in order to find some of the answers back home. If you fix the issues in an extreme climate, on an extreme planet, then you can fix anything."
7 Foster + Partners projects in the UAE
Mobility Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai
The architecture firm is designing one of the three signature pavilions for Expo 2020 Dubai, based on the theme of mobility. It is being designed to be later repurposed as a high-quality office building, as part of the wider UAE legacy plan.
The new waterfront hotel and residential development in Dubai’s Business Bay is set to be completed by 2020. It derives its name from the seven vertical gardens that are the focus of its design; each one creates a new lifestyle experience and the project hosts a number of sustainable features in its public spaces.
ICD Brookfield Place
Due to open this year, this office and retail development will be located in the heart of DIFC. The 53-storey tower will be home to offices, shopping spaces, dining outlets and a private club, creating a “new social focus” for the city.
Apple store in The Dubai Mall
Finished in 2017, the Apple store aimed to reinterpret the traditional mashrabiya and showcase “solar wings”, which gently shade the outside terrace during the day and open during the evening to reveal great views of the waterside promenade and Dubai Fountain.
UAE Pavilion Milan Expo
The national pavilion interiors at the 2015 Milan Expo explored the planning principles of the traditional desert city, while demonstrating the potential for natural energy efficiency in compact urban form. It was designed to be recycled, reconstructed and relocated back to the UAE.
World Trade Centre Souk
This looked to traditional architecture in the Gulf for its inspiration, aiming to reinvent the marketplace back in 2014. The Abu Dhabi shopping mall offers visitors a space that resembles an Arabian souk in a modern setting.
Two landmark residential towers on the island are the handiwork of Foster + Partners and opened in 2018. They’re titled at a 50-degree angle to prevent solar gain, and their form evolved in a response to the climate, as well as the desire to give residents the best possible views.