ANDREW TORRES tells us just why we should create sustainable environments in the energy-rich Gulf
Visiting friends in Dubai in late spring several years ago, I was regretfully informed by my hosts that their outdoor swimming pool would not be usable as it was, gasp, not chilled. Such was my introduction to both energy use and expectations in the region.
But chilled swimming pools aside, the Middle East is not exactly known for sustainability. With vast energy reserves and concomitant wealth fuelling explosive growth and development over the last several decades, the Middle East can hardly be blamed for being something less than efficient in its use of energy and resources. But the region as it has developed is inherently unsustainable. The glassy skyscrapers, vast urban sprawl, and relentless expansion that typify population centres in the Gulf require massive amounts of cheap energy to make them livable, energy overwhelmingly derived from burning fossil fuels. Given their shared industrial heritage, it is perhaps no surprise that most modern cities in the Middle East bear more than a striking resemblance to Houston, Texas. And yet the failings of that US city are magnified by the extreme environmental circumstances here.
The desalinated water, cheap petrol and electricity, and ubiquitous air-conditioning that allow us to live in the style to which we’ve become accustomed are vitally dependent on non-renewables, resources which will eventually become too valuable to simply burn for energy. It is perhaps a cruel irony that the very energy resources that fuelled the spectacular development in the Middle East may in turn be its undoing.
Of course this is hardly news, and it is hardly limited to the Middle East. But the confluence of extreme environmental conditions and copious financial means has made the Gulf an unlikely test bed for issues of sustainability that have global implications. The same oil and gas revenues that feed rampant growth and development have also been directed towards grand architectural and urban experiments in sustainable design. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City is perhaps the grandest thus far.
There is a prevailing idea that sustainability is about expensive, high-concept design. The Masdar project is certainly the most notable example of that. But sustainability need not be so difficult, technologically intensive or expensive.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that people lived in this region for hundreds of years with no air-conditioning using the very limited local resources available. That is not to say it was always pleasant. Life in the Gulf during summer is challenging even in the best of circumstances. But the point is that the mode of living and building corresponded to the local conditions.
And this is the crux of sustainability. It is not simply about energy efficiency, water use or carbon emissions. It is about the way something is situated in the network of natural and artificial systems in which it is embedded, with the ultimate goal to leave those systems in as good a condition or better going forward.
So sustainable design is not an aesthetic, it is not a formula, and it is not a dogma. It is an approach, one that is responsive to the resources, advantages, and limitations of a given context. As designers, our task is to create innovative solutions to design problems that do not contribute to the degradation of the local or global contexts in which we work and ideally improve them. From a practical standpoint, that means not depleting natural resources, reducing waste generation and carbon emissions, and minimising energy and water use. Ultimately our job is to create the environments in which our clients and the public live. Sustainability is about allowing future generations to do the same. And if you can chill the swimming pool at the same time, so much the better.
Andrew Torres is a designer and educator based in Barcelona and New York and an active collaborator with Forsite Studio, a sustainable design-build practice based in Austin, Texas. He earned an AB from Harvard University and a Master of Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked with SHoP Architects, Rogers Marvel Architects and Soluri Architecture in New York City, Estudio Carme Pinós in Barcelona, and Miró Rivera Architects in Austin and was an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture and Design at the New York Institute of Technology in Bahrain.