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Urban Harvest

Western designers are changing the face of Asia with city-scale green developments

11/2008

By David Sokol

New Songdo City, Rak Gateway, Gurgaon, Masdar, Dongtan, Guangtang Chuangye Park. These city names aren’t instantly recognizable as centers of population. In fact, currently many aren’t really cities at all, but rather windswept dust fields in the Middle East and swampy agricultural land in China. Soon, though, such places will house hundreds of thousands of people. Designed and constructed to current green-building standards, they also promise to become world eco-capitals.

Masdar City, a 2.3-square-mile district of Abu Dhabi
Image © Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture
Overseen by Foster + Partners, Masdar City, a 2.3-square-mile district of Abu Dhabi, is expected to produce more energy than it consumes.

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The region that arcs from Abu Dhabi to South Korea, encompassing explosive India and China, forms a growth belt undergoing rapid urbanization. For example, the rise of information technology has launched the New Delhi edge city Gurgaon, making it a symbol of a new India that’s unrecognizable from its farm-village origins.

Other building booms are tied to events projected to take place. The transformation of provincial coastal lands into present-day Dubai was masterminded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who imagined that tourism could supersede an oil economy when supplies dwindled. Facing the manufacturing dominance of China, South Korean prime minister Duck-Woo Nam envisioned the design and construction of the service economy-oriented New Songdo City—a free economic zone for 65,000 people, including foreign-property owners.

The push to build contemporary cities is tinged in various shades of green, too. While government-sponsored projects epitomize ecological design and construction—the United Arab Emirates-funded Masdar City, a zero-carbon, zero-waste, 50,000-person city that features large-scale solar, water treatment, and light rail projects, is a perfect example—private developers are embracing green building as well. For instance, although the Gale Company and POSCO Engineering and Construction’s plans to erect New Songdo City preceded the sustainability movement, in 2006 company leaders decided to retrofit green principles to its master plan overseen by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF).

In order to realize these and similarly mega-scale projects, governments and real estate investors alike are importing skilled architects and engineers from the West. Counted among the recruits are many of the biggest names in design, such as Rem Koolhaas (Rak Gateway), Sir Norman Foster (Masdar), and William McDonough (Guangtang). “We feel like if you can set a good example there, with all the building that’s about to occur, you can have a much bigger impact than designing some LEED Platinum building here in New York,” Gregg Pasquarelli, AIA, says of the appeal to take on such assignments. Pasquarelli is co-founder of the firm SHoP Architects, which had worked on a master plan and buildings for Sector 61, a 73,000-person node of Gurgaon.

American architects figure prominently in these new-city commissions, and they are combining the best aspects of traditional U.S. cities, such as their density, with lessons learned from the nascent sustainability movement, such as passive design. “Regardless of where you are, whether it’s India, China, or the U.S., passive ideas should always be considered first. Orienting the building or master plan correctly, taking advantage of what’s available for free, like sun or wind, should be fundamental,” says Sudhir Jambhekar, FAIA, LEED, a principal of FXFowle Architects.

Exemplifying the approach, in October 2007, FXFowle unveiled its design for a 47-acre complex of buildings housing approximately 1,750 residents in Greater Noida, located 30 miles from New Delhi. The tallest of Noida’s 22 buildings, which range in height from five to 45 stories, will sit along the northwest boundary of the site, permitting daylight to reach the shorter buildings. Moreover, given the site’s ideal wind orientation 22 degrees east of south, FXFowle’s designs maximize natural ventilation. All buildings are between 30 and 35 feet in width, which also accommodates local attitudes that reject long corridors in apartment buildings.

Executing passive design does not follow a simple formula: Mumbai’s summer monsoon season is not like Dubai’s 115-degree summers, nor are its cultural predilections alike. Passive design isn’t low-tech, either. For example, digital modeling allowed the designers of FXFowle to understand how wind profiles are affected by Noida’s rolling topography; the resulting apartment-tower volumes are punctuated with voids that make the most of natural ventilation. Christopher Stoddard, AIA, LEED—who, as head of sustainable design for KPF worldwide, is closely involved with New Songdo City—adds that generally speaking, computational fluid dynamics “allows us to understand a building’s energy profile in a far more sophisticated way than we ever could.” He cites software like eQUEST that can measure the influences of glazing, thermal mass, and other variables on cooling loads.

Jambhekar says that for some mega-developments, the deployment of more active green technologies is icing on the cake: “If passive ideas are applied correctly, that will help you minimize the need for energy or water. Then you try to find a solution that is technologically based that will be much more efficient in generating energy. You score on two fronts at once.” But, like applying passive-design techniques to different climates and culture, that additional investment must be adapted on a case-by-case basis.

A superficial glance at city-building projects would suggest that Indian developments largely disregard that additional layer of energy-generating technologies, while clients in the Middle East, Korea, and China look more favorably upon it.

The bifurcated view is somewhat warranted. Although SHoP is no longer associated with Sector 61, the multi-use node in Gurgaon, Pasquarelli says his firm’s earlier scheme stressed sustainable strategies like solar orientation and pedestrian movement instead of the deployment of green technologies, because “the cost of construction in India is so much less that to purchase Western technologies throws the entire budget out of whack.”

Then consider Public Administration Town, a district within the new Multi-Functional Administrative City in South Korea designed by New York’s Balmorilab with Haeahn Architecture and H Associates. That project will feature graywater recycling, titanium dioxide paving, methane production from organic waste, and, visually striking buildings that form a continuous garden roofscape dotted with photovoltaics. And in Abu Dhabi, expensive eco-accessories of Masdar’s 1.6-million-square-foot centerpiece Masdar Headquarters, designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, include photovoltaic-clad and green roofs, a patent-pending glazing system, and automated climate and air-quality systems.

Byron Stigge is a practice leader of Buro Happold’s environmental design division in New York. The engineering company’s roster of green-city assignments is growing rapidly, and includes 40-million-square-feet in Hyderabad, India, a collaboration between developer Tishman Speyer and architect Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Stigge confirms that countries ostensibly fall along these technological lines. But again, the real picture is nuanced. “Our low-tech is their high-tech,” he says. Whereas, say, tiered graywater treatment is fairly innovative by U.S. standards, in India it is common practice. Conversely, Indian architects and engineers have had a harder time making urban areas that are walkable and bike-friendly—which has become fairly standard practice Stateside—or creating buildings that deploy thermal mass and solar shading to beneficial effect.

While not every mega-development embraces the most progressive technologies, all of these projects are united by their size. The unprecedented scale can yield opportunities for sustainability that an alternative, less choreographed approach to building a new city would miss. In particular, the size allows designers and clients to effect change on the level of urban planning and infrastructure. In KPF’s plan for New Songdo City, recapturing waste heat from a combined-cycle power plant and redistributing it for domestic hot water and other purposes increases efficiency from 30 percent to 70 percent.

That doesn’t necessarily mean huge projects are the best approach to sustainability. Asked whether such big projects can be green—or, put another way, whether or not super-sizing it is the only way to be green—Stoddard says the answer is not obvious. “The embodied energy in a 75-story tower is enormous,” he notes, yet “nobody’s really looked at the true value of density.” There’s also the question of social sustainability. Because many of these developments are privately undertaken, Stoddard wonders about the people who can’t buy into them. “Where’s the plumber going to live? Will the dry cleaner commute into this community two hours every day?”

For a clearer-cut answer, Stigge suggests thinking even bigger. “The footprint of urban developments has to go way beyond the city; there has to be open space for crops and wind turbines or solar power,” he says. Equally important, this engineer wants to see governments become key partners in the creation of new cities. In doing so, efficient infrastructures and other innovations can be leveraged over an entire region, raising all boats with a greener tide—and leveling the kind of social inequality that could ultimately harm a city as much as greenhouse-gas emissions or sea levels. Until that degree of participation is manifested, the phenomenon of erecting whole green cities from scratch still has kinks to work out.

David Sokol is a New York-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Architectural Record and GreenSource magazines.

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This article appeared in the November 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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