Masdar dormitories not your average student flat

Energy-efficient and covered with solar panels, the campus of the Masdar Institute offers an insight into what the world's first zero-carbon city will be like.

October 5, 2010 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) A detail shot of the solar panels on the roof top of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, the world's first graduate and research institution dedicted to research into alternative energy, evironmental technology and sustainibility, photographed Tuesday, October 5, 2010 in Abu Dhabi.
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ABU DHABI // It has been described as a spaceship in the middle of the desert, or a living, learning laboratory.

More prosaically, it is what 180 students now call home. Designed by the architects Foster and Partners, this is the new campus of the Masdar Institute, and the precursor to the world's first zero-carbon city. It is carbon neutral and designed for maximum efficiency. The entire surface is covered with solar panels, providing light, heat and cooling. The campus uses about 54 per cent less water than others of its size, and consumes 40 per cent to 50 per cent less energy.

The design blends futurism with Arabian tradition - the campus faces north to minimise solar heating, while the windows are shaded to keep the temperature inside down and in turn reduce the need for air conditioning. In the middle of the development a giant wind tower draws in air to circulate around the courtyards, while the buildings are elevated to allow natural cooling from below. Skylights in the ground light the laboratory below, an open-plan hive of activity as students and staff work on some of the region's leading research projects.

The micro-city, which has four residential buildings and is about to enter a second phase of construction, will soon have all the amenities its students need, from coffee shops to supermarkets. "We are living what we are trying to preach," said Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, the president of the Masdar Institute. He calls it the "cornerstone" of the Masdar City project, which works closely with the institution. "A cornerstone used to be a mall, an apartment block, but here, it's an academic institute," he said.

"Over the last two years, many of our faculty have worked very closely with Masdar City on issues such as how to reduce energy demand." He laughed as he spoke of the adjustments he has made since working at the new campus, after being based at the temporary site at the Petroleum Institute. "There aren't any light switches here. I can't even sit at my desk for more than 30 minutes without the lights going off," he said.

Farrukh Ahmad came from the US to work at the university. He said that for his specialism - water and the environment - the facility gave him unique opportunities. "The collaboration here is the key advantage," he said. "In other traditional universities you have specific departments and it's hard to get two people to work together on a project. "Here, with the open-plan laboratory, it's much easier for example to use someone else's equipment or to write a joint proposal."

The institute is modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, its partner institution and Dr Moavenzadeh's academic home for the past 40 years. About 90 per cent of MIT's revenue is generated through research contracts and he hopes to cultivate similar partnerships here. "Our intention is to provide research and development capacity to the local community," he said. "We've applied for seven patents so far, which is very high for a young institution."

Nearly 100 new graduates from 26 nations have enrolled in the institute's second intake of students. They were selected from more than 1,900 applicants from around the world. This year Emiratis comprise 46 per cent of the intake. Twenty new staff members have come from universities such as Stanford and the University of California - Berkeley. All of them must spend about one year in the US, developing collaborative research projects with MIT before they transfer to Abu Dhabi.

Josh Halperin is one of the pioneers, now in the second year of his master's degree. The 24-year-old, who is from the US, said: "As the first batch of students, we've even been able to influence the way that classes are taught."

This article has been amended to reflect that Masdar City does not fund the Masdar Institute but works closely with it.