Sustainable Cities: One Planet Rating interviews Baharash Bagherian

Baharash Bagherian

Baharash Bagherian was recently interviewed by One Planet Rating – the sustainable travel review platform. The theme of the interview was “Sustainable Cities”.


The following is the transcript of the interview:

You’ve designed the 2nd phase of The Sustainable City in Dubai which is one of the leading projects in the region aligning with the increasing focus on Sustainability. Could you outline, for our readers, the concept of a Sustainable City?

A sustainable city is one that provides the highest quality of life together with the lowest environmental footprint, whilst ensuring the needs of future generations are not compromised. Although there are various aspects that influence the quality of life, such as crime rates, health statistics, unemployment, income growth, cost of living etc… The built environment, and the way a city is designed, has a great influence on the “quality of life”, as well as helping to minimise people’s impact on the environment.

How have you incorporated these initiatives within the project in Dubai? How has Sustainable City in Dubai been received?

The Sustainable City in Dubai is a project that covers 46 hectares with 550 residential villas, organic farms, educational facilities, and 600,000 square feet of solar panels. Each house within the city will be equipped with solar panels, which will provide residents most of their energy needs. The project will also feature smart water systems that will reduce the water demand of buildings. Grey and waste water will be used to irrigate plants across the city, and there will also be a waste recycling system.

In 2013, Baharash Architecture beat an international field of contenders to win phase 2 of The Sustainable City in Dubai. We saw off a shortlist of prominent international practices, from USA, Lebanon, Jordan, UK, and UAE. The Brief for the phase 2 was to design a Mixed Use Zone, A Juma Mosque, an Institute for Ecological Engineering, a museum & planetarium, a “Green” School for K-6, an Eco-Resort, Country Club and Equestrian Centre.

For the phase 2 of the project we approached the design from the ground up by creating a variation of green space solutions that were integrated with the innovative buildings which we designed.

One of the key challenges when working on a sustainable project is at the early stages of the project. Basic design decisions such as orientation, density and form provide the biggest environmental gains, yet these require the least financial investment. So at the early stages we are able to reduce a large amount of energy demand with little cost. Another key challenge was working with the client and consultant team from the beginning of the phase 2 project to develop a series of sustainable initiatives and targets. These targets helped guide the design in the pursuit of the sustainability goals. We divided some of these targets into categories such as: Water, Health & Well-being, Energy, Materials, Pollution, Ecology, and Waste.

The project has gone on to achieve much success since our phase 2 designs was revealed in 2013. Many notable international delegates ranging from politicians to city officials and environmentalists have visited the Sustainable City and continue to do so. Most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio visited the project in January 2017.

Which are the areas that can be integrated with the Sustainability theme – for example Environmental, Social or Cultural, in planning a city? Is there a special emphasis of one or another?

It takes a holistic approach to design a Sustainable City. The basic idea of a holistic approach to sustainable development is to provide a whole solution which addresses all the three key pillars of sustainability, rather than just dealing with one part. Thus the three key pillars of sustainability – Social, economic and environmental need to be considered from the very beginning without a special emphasis on one over the other.

For the region as a whole, how do you view the focus around Sustainability? Are other Govt.’s as future leaning in these initiatives, as is the one in Dubai?

Sustainability is still a fairly new concept in the MENA region. Over the last several years we have seen a growing trend amongst other governments towards sustainability. As such we decided to launch a new hub, dedicated to providing education and insight on sustainable development. Baharash Architecture was the first company in MENA region to create a knowledge hub for sustainable development. The hub will explore new solutions & strategies to facilitate the progress on sustainable thinking in the MENA region.

Besides this project, you’ve been involved in a number of Sustainability focused projects. Can you outline some details around these and the impact you aspired to?

We have been involved in several sustainable projects. Most recently, we were tasked to design the world’s greenest eco resort in UAE by Eco Resort Group. Some of the project’s environmental benefits include recycling waste water on site for irrigation, onsite waste management, the enforcement of a zero emission zone and 157,000 square feet of solar panels. We also worked for one of Dubai’s highest profile individuals, to design an off-grid home. This private home is completely energy self-sufficient, using solar panels, it generates and stores clean power in several battery units. The retreat was designed to be in harmony with the pristine and untouched desertscape.

In addition to these, we are also working at the early stages of truly unique projects that are yet to be revealed to the public. Ultimately, every project presents an opportunity for us to do something new related to sustainability. There is a true sense of entrepreneurial spirit in our work and thus innovation is our core strength. Each project in the studio is driven by a process of investigation, experimentation and always asking “what if?” The outcomes of these studies form the basis of the design. The reason we do this, is to move away from thinking about architecture as “buildings”. We believe that great architecture is more than buildings; it’s about creating resilient destinations that make people feel healthy to live in, inspired to work in and want to visit.

Are you seeing a demand, as the one being witnessed in the Emirates, in other parts of the world, particularly some of the developing regions?

We have already been approached by public and private entities from various countries to help them with sustainable projects. Whilst some of these projects are at the very early stages, the demand is certainly evident. This growing demand towards sustainable development is not one of choice… it has become one of necessity. Over the next decade, there will be a significant increase in population & urbanisation, which will have severe impacts on our cities’ infrastructures and resources, as well as the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants. To mitigate these effects and provide a higher quality of life, we have no choice but to design with sustainability.

How critical is it that sustainability forms a central theme to ‘Smart City’ projects being undertaken globally?

Smart Cities can significantly shape the sustainability objectives of projects. The integration of sensors is a good example of this. For example, indoor lighting and temperature can automatically be adjusted based on various variables. These variables include the number of occupants in a room, the time of day as well as exterior weather and light conditions. Embedding sensors in buildings to detect motion, temperature, noise, moisture, fire, smoke, etc. will provide real-time data and help improve operational efficiency, safety and security.

Once these sensors are connected to the IoTs [Internet Of Things], buildings can communicate real-time data to various departments within the city. For example, waste should only be collected upon receiving automatic notification that they are full. Real-time user data should be analysed to provide an estimate of the day and time for waste to be collected. This will maximise efficiency and ensure that services are available exactly when they are needed.

The possibilities of integrating sensors into many other “things” are endless. This information can be used by city officials or by applications to provide more efficient and improved services. Thus the IoTs will help reduce errors, increase efficiency, improve sustainability, and ensure that services are delivered in real-time.

Which cities globally, excluding the ones in the Middle East, are ideal ‘role models’ for this theme?

At a neighbourhood scale, Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm has been widely studied as a good ‘role model’ for sustainable development. At the very early stages of the project, a ‘closed loop’ infrastructure strategy was drawn up for the project, including new public transport routes, district heating and cooling and an underground waste collection system for the development as a whole. Although the project adopted various passive and active strategies, I believe that the best models of sustainable cities should focus more on passive solutions, since these provide the biggest environmental gains with the least financial investment for the project.

One of the key successes of the Hammarby Sjostad project was the collaborative process between municipal authorities, urban planners, developers, architects, landscape architects, engineers, and energy & water companies. This holistic approach to master planning created a special place for Stockholm, a place that is vibrant, healthy and sustainable. The other key success was the participation and education model created for the district’s residents. It is believed that water consumption can be reduced by 50% by increasing environmental awareness amongst residents and workers. Pollutants can also be reduced by 50% by raising awareness of the impact of detergents and other household activities.

Lastly, what is your favourite destination and why? Is there something sustainability related that stands out there?

My favourite destination is Italy because of its beautiful scenery. I also love Italian food and eating in locally-owned places that rely on tourism as a green economy.

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