Global Design with Local Characteristics

By Neil P

Before 1999, siestas were commonplace in the Mexican workplace. During the hottest hours of the afternoon, workers went home to eat, nap, and returned to work when the weather was cooler. But as Latin American countries integrated with the global economy, they adopted the work schedules of their international business partners, working through the heat¾and using air conditioning to feel more comfortable while they did so. From 1985 to 2011, consumption of air conditioning went from 10% of Mexican households to 80%. (In India and China, that number is increasing by 20% a year).

In Afghanistan, traditional dwellings capitalized on native materials and knowledge of local weather to build adobe houses of “thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation…that were cool in summer and warm in winter.” Many of these structures have been replaced with American-built concrete and cinder block constructions that offer the reverse protection (sweltering summers and freezing winters) and require energy-intensive air conditioning and heating that’s not always available due to insecurity and regional disconnectedness.

The globalization of western lifestyles has also brought about the globalization of western design¾design that is often more carbon-intensive, and less creative than it could be if sustainability and local needs are considered. Of course, reversing all of these trends is neither likely nor desirable: some of these changes truly are lifestyle advances. Air conditioning, for example, made it possible for the US Sun Belt to be habitable and productive in the summertime. But I think it’s safe to say that a ski resort in a mall in the middle of the Arabian Desert is a little profligate.

While Abu Dhabi’s plans for Masdar can certainly be critiqued¾there is little demonstrable demand for such a city, it is not based on a renewable economic base, it is an oasis divorced from the realities of a flawed system¾from a design perspective, some of its contributions may be valuable, certainly in contrast to other isolated cities. Returning to the basics of traditional design mechanisms, Masdar utilizes local materials and weather patterns to minimize material and energy consumption: trees to mitigate sand and dust; wind towers that transfer aerial wind to cool streets; narrow and dense streets for walking in shade; photovoltaic panels that provide energy and shade; among others.

These are simple and inexpensive measures that innovatively provide both carbon and capital savings. By combining the traditional with the futuristic, they may make a small dent in the way we thinking how urban spaces are designed¾much as the Bank of America Tower in NYC was meant to do.

But to make itself more broadly relevant, Masdar could have taken a page from Living PlanIT’s business model: prior to construction, link up with buyers that are interested in some of the technologies that are being modeled in Masdar for adoption in other (desert) environments. This would help ensure the longer-term utility and demand for some of the innovations for which Masdar is currently little more than a showcase.