More on Maasdar from Treehugger
With a contributor at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi,
Treehugger.com has been on a Masdar roll these past few days. Here's
an interview with the project's technology director with his take on
Masdar's significance. Not much on carfree infrastructure to talk of,
but some interesting observations nonetheless.
"Masdar is the Catalyst": An Interview with Jay Witherspoon, Masdar
City Technology Directorby Jesse Fox, Tel Aviv, Israel on 01.26.09
SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
Technology in the service of sustainable living: A rendering of life
in Masdar City (courtesy of CH2M Hill).
Jay Witherspoon works for CH2M Hill, a global project management,
consulting and engineering firm that was chosen to manage the
development of Masdar City. The project, they hope, will serve as an
incubator for the next generation of sustainable technology
breakthroughs, transform the supply chain and change the way we look
at cities on a global level.
A chemical engineer by trade, Witherspoon�s work focuses on
sustainable practices and technologies. We caught up with him at a
panel on integrating sustainable technologies in cities at the World
Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi and asked him a few questions about
the futuristic post-petroleum city, now under construction in the
TreeHugger: How is Masdar City different from other projects you have
worked on in the past?
Jay Witherspoon: It�s unique in that most of the projects I have
worked on in the past have focused on a single issue, solving a
problem like drought, for example. How do we get water for Queensland,
Australia to handle a drought? How do we handle a photovoltaic farm in
order to stay carbon-neutral? This project integrates the whole range
of issues, right across the board, including water scarcity issues,
renewable energy, waste management, and so on.
The other neat thing is that, in most of the other projects, we were
working within an existing infrastructure � an existing city with its
own needs, buildings, etc., and we had to retrofit that and try and
get it up to par. With Masdar, we�re starting from scratch, and we�re
really able to integrate all of those things into a passive system,
where the only active choice you make when you come into the city is
how much you are going to consume.
TH: The plans for Masdar look like a very high-tech, modern version of
the traditional Middle Eastern city.
JW: Exactly. Masdar will follow the format of the traditional Arabic
town. There will be shadowing, demonstration plantings, maybe even a
vertical farm, which will allow us to harvest some food for local
restaurants. The Masdar Headquarters building will have trees and
plants integrated inside the actual building. There�s going to be
plenty of vegetation inside Masdar. We�ll select flora and fauna that
will be biodiverse, and that allows us to reduce the amount of
irrigation water needed and still keep a green feel to the city.
So it will be very green, which will surprise a lot of people, the
city being built on a podium. [Masdar City�s streets will be raised
several meters above ground level, in order to create space for an
underground personal rapid transit system.] The planters will be
buried in the platform, and there will be water fixtures as well, so
you�ll see water flowing, canals, and plenty of water and trees.
TH: How will Masdar City reduce the amount of waste that it produces?
JW: There are four �R�s in waste minimalization: reduce, reuse,
recycle and recover. We will be looking at where the waste products
come from, whether it�s packaging, or food, or consumer products, and
how we can minimize things like packaging on the site.
Once it�s on the site, we�ll collect it. We have a system that allows
a person in their flat to determine if it�s wet waste, like coffee
grounds or food matter, or dry recyclables such as glass, aluminum, or
non-recyclables, like plastics or foams. The person will be able to
sort that into three bins, and it will come to our centralized waste
The wet recyclables will be converted into compost for the city�s
vegetation, or energy. For the dry recyclables, we�ll start to
establish a market, like for glass or aluminum cans. We�ll incentivize
the waste handler to develop a market for those materials in the UAE.
The non-recyclables and hazardous materials we will convert into
energy. Some of the byproducts that you get when you use that waste to
make energy can be used to make bricks, ceramic sculptures, and other
So we�ll be trying to reuse as much as we possibly can. Today, it�s
possible, I really believe that it�s possible. The reason that you
don�t see it happening in larger, existing cities, is that the cities
are so complex, and they haven�t really set up their systems to go
into that mode yet.
TH: What about water? This isn�t exactly a region with plenty of water
resources to exploit for growing populations.
JW: We�re looking at trying to harvest groundwater, which is
hypersaline here. It has a salt content 3 to 4 times that of the
ocean. We�re looking at different ways to treat and desalinate that
water, instead of the high-pressure, high-temperature method, because
of the energy demand. And we�re also looking at aquifer recharge with
effluents, using greywater and blackwater [a technical euphemism for
sewage] to dilute the salt so we can treat it in more traditional ways.
We�re also harvesting water from dew and fog, as well as from our
district cooling systems, and we�ll be looking at storage and use of
rainwater. So what we�re trying to do is look at the full cycle of the
water droplet from the minute it hits the ground, so we can try to
make sure it�s used in a meaningful way.
TH: Could you actually harvest fog and humidity right out of the air?
JW: Sure, using techniques and technological innovations that are
already here, right now. In Masdar Headquarters, a water cooler inside
the building will produce drinking water from the moisture and the
humidity in the air. No kidding. It condenses, and you have a heat
sink there, so you can pull the humidity right of the air, and it�s
very humid in Abu Dhabi.
Water will also be priced so that the more you use, the more you will
pay for it. We are trying to make it so that water use in Masdar City
will be much lower than the amount of per capita use in Abu Dhabi
right now, and even lower than some of the most efficient places in
the world right now. To do this, we will also use other technologies
like low-flush toilets, vacuum flush and even no-flush toilets.
TH: What about food? I can�t imagine how you could create that out of
JW: We are looking at the carbon footprint of the food that is brought
into the city. A Masdar code will actually be developed that looks at
how food is grown and produced and brought to the site � the carbon
footprint of that banana, whether it came from Indonesia, Brazil or
Africa. We will try to emphasize local production, incentivizing the
local market. The city itself will not support large-scale food
production, it�s not designed that way. I would imagine we could grow
about five to ten percent locally.
We�re also going to be doing some experimentation on plants, what kind
of plants it would be possible to grow in this type of climate that
require less water. And we�ll be looking at a vertical farming
demonstration project, where you can actually grow vegetables for your
salad on site to help reduce the carbon footprint that comes from the
imports. And then we�ll start to target some of the consumer products
that it may not make sense to bring into the city, and minimize the
waste and carbon footprint brought into the city.
TH: So how would you compensate for the lack of sustainability in
terms of bringing in the rest of it?
JW: What we�re doing is measuring the carbon footprint and
compensating for it with other means. For example, there�s no fossil
fuels allowed on the site. So eventually, using renewable and
electrical vehicles, we will get to a point where we offset the carbon
of the food that�s coming in and the embedded carbon in the buildings.
We accounted for all of that in the design of the buildings. We have
been monitoring the carbon footprint of any employee that flew from
any part of the world to work on Masdar, plus the carpooling and the
bus systems that we have going on now. We�re monitoring all that
carbon, and we had to make up for that by not using fossil fuels. So
yes, we�ll always have carbon coming in, but we will always be net
carbon-neutral because we are able to offset that. And eventually, in
5-10 years, we should offset more carbon than we produce.
TH: What kind of people will live in Masdar?
JW: We�re going for diversity. If you look at the population makeup in
a place like Silicon Valley, where you have a mix of all types of
people, that�s what we need to make our city work. I think a lot of
the tenants will be associated with the large, hi-tech firms, of
course. But there will also be diversity. There will be children in
Masdar as well.
TH: Abu Dhabi right now is developing very fast, buildings are going
up, new projects are being built, the airport is expanding � and none
of this is really done with an eye toward sustainability. Do you think
the Masdar model will have an effect on the way things are done in Abu
Dhabi in general?
JW: I really believe in Abu Dhabi�s leadership and vision. The Masdar
Initiative is the first step. Masdar City is the catalyst for change,
but the broader Masdar Initiative is looking at cleantech investments
and a sustainable future for Abu Dhabi several generations down the
Jay Witherspoon with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan
at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.
You have to start somewhere, and here the starting point is Masdar
City. Masdar will really redefine all the existing ideas about
sustainability, and allow us to take another look at existing
infrastructure, as well as the new. We�re starting to see more
legislation, as well as the Estidama certification [�Estidama� means
�sustainability in Arabic. The Estidama Program is Abu Dhabi�s green
building and neighborhood code], that�s a step forward. Masdar will
actually have all these design specifications built in, and the
ability to make them real.
TH: How will Masdar change the future of city design? Is this a
special case, or a prototype that could be reproduced elsewhere?
JW: I really think it can be a model for the rest of the world. Some
of the techniques we are using here date back thousands of years. The
traditional Arabic city layout, the way it is positioned, the
tightness of the streets; we even have it situated so that the sea
breezes will come in and clean out the air in the city. So a lot of
what we�re doing is common sense.
Until now these things have only been done on a smaller scale, in
small communities, on the scale of three or four blocks. When you do
it on the city level, it really help move things forward. It�s kind of
like when Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. Now everyone
breaks the four minute mile. But until they broke that four minute
mile, nothing changed, it was considered an impossible goal. And
that�s what I think Masdar City as a catalyst will do. The Masdar
Initiative will then push it forward so that it can be a model for
existing cities. But a lot of the things we are doing are common
sense, and all of these things can be implemented anywhere, right now.
JW photo and renderings courtesy of CH2M Hill.
Montreal QC Canada
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