Masdar City: Creating a “Green-Print” for the Built Environment

7 May 2024

According to a 2023 report by McKinsey & Company, the built environment accounts for one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Buildings, from inception to demolition, must decarbonise on a global scale to avoid further climate change.

Most urban planners and developers know it is possible to develop “green” buildings — but it is largely thought of as a luxury rather than a standard. Cities cannot decarbonise until this theory shifts.

Masdar City, a sustainable urban community and innovation hub in Abu Dhabi, has been evolving a specific methodology for green buildings for more than 15 years. Through a great deal of research, experimentation and lessons learned, we have taken the luxury out of sustainable development.

Where social, economic and environmental sustainability converge

Often, the most important lessons are learned under pressure. For Masdar City, this lesson was the Siemens Energy HQ, which we were awarded in 2010. Sustainability was a priority — but given we had just emerged from a global recession, our budget was both limited and fixed. This presented a unique challenge: How could we create a sustainable building for a business-as-usual budget?

We were determined not to compromise, making all design decisions with sustainability in mind and being as creative as possible. We began with a design that responded to the natural environment to maximise efficiency. Adding window shades reduced the need for cooling but had no impact on cost. Using standard, local materials minimised both costs and carbon footprint. We supplemented the design with components such as solar thermal panels to heat water.

The final result? The Siemens Building was equipped to use 46% less energy than an equivalent conventional building, and it received the US Green Building Council’s prestigious LEED Platinum rating — the highest sustainability rating they award — as well as a 3 Pearl Rating under Abu Dhabi’s Estidama Pearl Building Rating System.

Just as importantly, the building turned a profit, and continued to turn a profit. This accomplishment marked the beginning of a new trajectory: green construction without the green premium — that is, green construction that is scalable and replicable.

Masdar City today

With every new project, Masdar City has pushed the boundaries of what was thought to be possible and learned invaluable lessons along the way.

Today, we are home to one of the largest clusters of LEED Platinum buildings in the world at 21 and counting. We completed the UAE’s first net-zero-energy commercial building, NZ1, in 2023. Many more green buildings, including three that will be net-zero energy, are in the pipeline.

Our methodology

While we use our methodology within our specific context, the principles can be used anywhere the world. It has three primary elements:

·       Adopting a holistic approach to sustainability

·       Using a multidisciplinary approach

·      Beginning with passive design

A three-pillared philosophy of sustainability

Sustainability is often understood only in reference to the environment. But climate change solutions that do not serve the community or are not financially viable will stagnate. And so, at Masdar City, we think of true sustainability — ensuring that Earth’s resources will sustain us for generations to come — in terms of three interconnected pillars: environmental, of course, but also social and economic. This holistic approach must permeate building plans from their inception. Many building designs begin with sustainability but not economics — and later compromise on sustainability to suit the budget.

A multidisciplinary approach

Designing and developing a building that will meet the highest international sustainability standards is a challenge that requires ingenuity, innovation and a high-performing, multidisciplinary team. Our team includes architects, multiple types of engineers, project managers, facilities managers, financial managers, IT specialists, and many others — all of whom can collaborate effectively. Often, the best solutions are not found within any one discipline — they are found between the disciplines, when several different team members put their heads together to solve a problem.

Beginning with passive design

Passive design, an approach that works with the natural environment to inform a building’s physical design, is the foundation of Masdar City’s approach to green buildings. Creating a high-performing building that “understands” its environment is far more cost-effective and far less carbon intensive than relying on technologies to enhance sustainability.

In the UAE, developers’ greatest challenge is the heat, which can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer months. Ensuring that buildings keep heat out and cooled air in is paramount.

To learn how to do this, we looked to history: what did builders do before the advent of air conditioning? Our architectural teams use a variety of the same or similar techniques:

·       Buildings are intentionally shaped to reduce the external area warmed by the sun.

·       Buildings are oriented to minimise solar gain. The path of the sun impacts the placement of windows to ensure that natural light is maximised while direct sun is minimised.

·       Building envelopes are airtight to ensure heat stays out while cooled air stays in.

·       Building envelopes are well insulated to minimise the transfer of heat from the outside in.

·       Envelope materials have high albedo to reflect sunlight and reduce heat gain.

Active design and applied technologies

When passive design solutions have been maximised, we use active design tools and technologies to further reduce energy and water requirements. This may include using high-efficiency mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, shading buildings, using exhaust heat recovery systems, and collecting condensed water from air conditioning systems for irrigation. Lighting and cooling systems may be powered by sensors that respond to building occupancy and outside temperatures. And, of course, high-performance photovoltaic panels may be used to generate renewable energy that can help power buildings or offset any energy drawn from the grid.

Scaling Masdar City’s methodology

While Masdar City has been uniquely equipped to deal with the heat, passive design that works with the local environment can be effective anywhere, in any climate.

Our most energy-efficient buildings begin with simple, responsive design choices. Optimising a window-to-façade ratio and using high-performance insulation are just as effective at protecting a building from cold as from heat.

In Masdar City, we use recycled aluminium and low-carbon concrete because they are locally available, which helps us to avoid carbon emissions related to transportation. In North America, wood from sustainable forests may be a far more feasible resource.

In the UAE, we make extensive use of solar power. Climates that receive less sun than the UAE should use other local natural resources, such as geothermal or hydro, to generate clean, renewable energy. The key is to design in tandem with your environment.


For those starting out with this methodology, the goal is not necessarily to achieve LEED Platinum or net-zero energy on your first try. The goal is to make your building, and your city, as sustainable as possible.

We have had more than 15 years to fine-tune our methodology. But we are still learning, and still looking for ways to push the boundaries and create better solutions. By continuously innovating — and never settling for the status quo — we will move ever closer to ensuring a sustainable future.

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