"Masdar is the Catalyst": An Interview with Jay Witherspoon, Masdar City Technology Director


Technology in the service of sustainable living: A rendering of life in Masdar City (courtesy of CH2M Hill).

Jay Witherspoon works for CH2M Hill, a global project management, consulting and engineering firm that was chosen to manage the development of Masdar City. The project, they hope, will serve as an incubator for the next generation of sustainable technology breakthroughs, transform the supply chain and change the way we look at cities on a global level.

A chemical engineer by trade, Witherspoon's work focuses on sustainable practices and technologies. We caught up with him at a panel on integrating sustainable technologies in cities at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi and asked him a few questions about the futuristic post-petroleum city, now under construction in the emirate. TreeHugger: How is Masdar City different from other projects you have worked on in the past?

Jay Witherspoon: It's unique in that most of the projects I have worked on in the past have focused on a single issue, solving a problem like drought, for example. How do we get water for Queensland, Australia to handle a drought? How do we handle a photovoltaic farm in order to stay carbon-neutral? This project integrates the whole range of issues, right across the board, including water scarcity issues, renewable energy, waste management, and so on.

The other neat thing is that, in most of the other projects, we were working within an existing infrastructure — an existing city with its own needs, buildings, etc., and we had to retrofit that and try and get it up to par. With Masdar, we're starting from scratch, and we're really able to integrate all of those things into a passive system, where the only active choice you make when you come into the city is how much you are going to consume.

TH: The plans for Masdar look like a very high-tech, modern version of the traditional Middle Eastern city.

JW: Exactly. Masdar will follow the format of the traditional Arabic town. There will be shadowing, demonstration plantings, maybe even a vertical farm, which will allow us to harvest some food for local restaurants. The Masdar Headquarters building will have trees and plants integrated inside the actual building. There's going to be plenty of vegetation inside Masdar. We'll select flora and fauna that will be biodiverse, and that allows us to reduce the amount of irrigation water needed and still keep a green feel to the city.

So it will be very green, which will surprise a lot of people, the city being built on a podium. [Masdar City's streets will be raised several meters above ground level, in order to create space for an underground personal rapid transit system.] The planters will be buried in the platform, and there will be water fixtures as well, so you'll see water flowing, canals, and plenty of water and trees.

TH: How will Masdar City reduce the amount of waste that it produces?

JW: There are four "R"s in waste minimalization: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. We will be looking at where the waste products come from, whether it's packaging, or food, or consumer products, and how we can minimize things like packaging on the site.

Once it's on the site, we'll collect it. We have a system that allows a person in their flat to determine if it's wet waste, like coffee grounds or food matter, or dry recyclables such as glass, aluminum, or non-recyclables, like plastics or foams. The person will be able to sort that into three bins, and it will come to our centralized waste handling facility.

The wet recyclables will be converted into compost for the city's vegetation, or energy. For the dry recyclables, we'll start to establish a market, like for glass or aluminum cans. We'll incentivize the waste handler to develop a market for those materials in the UAE. The non-recyclables and hazardous materials we will convert into energy. Some of the byproducts that you get when you use that waste to make energy can be used to make bricks, ceramic sculptures, and other things.

So we'll be trying to reuse as much as we possibly can. Today, it's possible, I really believe that it's possible. The reason that you don't see it happening in larger, existing cities, is that the cities are so complex, and they haven't really set up their systems to go into that mode yet.

TH: What about water? This isn't exactly a region with plenty of water resources to exploit for growing populations.

JW: We're looking at trying to harvest groundwater, which is hypersaline here. It has a salt content 3 to 4 times that of the ocean. We're looking at different ways to treat and desalinate that water, instead of the high-pressure, high-temperature method, because of the energy demand. And we're also looking at aquifer recharge with effluents, using greywater and blackwater [a technical euphemism for sewage] to dilute the salt so we can treat it in more traditional ways.

We're also harvesting water from dew and fog, as well as from our district cooling systems, and we'll be looking at storage and use of rainwater. So what we're trying to do is look at the full cycle of the water droplet from the minute it hits the ground, so we can try to make sure it's used in a meaningful way.

TH: Could you actually harvest fog and humidity right out of the air?

JW: Sure, using techniques and technological innovations that are already here, right now. In Masdar Headquarters, a water cooler inside the building will produce drinking water from the moisture and the humidity in the air. No kidding. It condenses, and you have a heat sink there, so you can pull the humidity right of the air, and it's very humid in Abu Dhabi.

Water will also be priced so that the more you use, the more you will pay for it. We are trying to make it so that water use in Masdar City will be much lower than the amount of per capita use in Abu Dhabi right now, and even lower than some of the most efficient places in the world right now. To do this, we will also use other technologies like low-flush toilets, vacuum flush and even no-flush toilets.

TH: What about food? I can't imagine how you could create that out of thin air.

JW: We are looking at the carbon footprint of the food that is brought into the city. A Masdar code will actually be developed that looks at how food is grown and produced and brought to the site — the carbon footprint of that banana, whether it came from Indonesia, Brazil or Africa. We will try to emphasize local production, incentivizing the local market. The city itself will not support large-scale food production, it's not designed that way. I would imagine we could grow about five to ten percent locally.

We're also going to be doing some experimentation on plants, what kind of plants it would be possible to grow in this type of climate that require less water. And we'll be looking at a vertical farming demonstration project, where you can actually grow vegetables for your salad on site to help reduce the carbon footprint that comes from the imports. And then we'll start to target some of the consumer products that it may not make sense to bring into the city, and minimize the waste and carbon footprint brought into the city.

TH: So how would you compensate for the lack of sustainability in terms of bringing in the rest of it?

JW: What we're doing is measuring the carbon footprint and compensating for it with other means. For example, there's no fossil fuels allowed on the site. So eventually, using renewable and electrical vehicles, we will get to a point where we offset the carbon of the food that's coming in and the embedded carbon in the buildings.

We accounted for all of that in the design of the buildings. We have been monitoring the carbon footprint of any employee that flew from any part of the world to work on Masdar, plus the carpooling and the bus systems that we have going on now. We're monitoring all that carbon, and we had to make up for that by not using fossil fuels. So yes, we'll always have carbon coming in, but we will always be net carbon-neutral because we are able to offset that. And eventually, in 5-10 years, we should offset more carbon than we produce.

TH: What kind of people will live in Masdar?

JW: We're going for diversity. If you look at the population makeup in a place like Silicon Valley, where you have a mix of all types of people, that's what we need to make our city work. I think a lot of the tenants will be associated with the large, hi-tech firms, of course. But there will also be diversity. There will be children in Masdar as well.

TH: Abu Dhabi right now is developing very fast, buildings are going up, new projects are being built, the airport is expanding — and none of this is really done with an eye toward sustainability. Do you think the Masdar model will have an effect on the way things are done in Abu Dhabi in general?

JW: I really believe in Abu Dhabi's leadership and vision. The Masdar Initiative is the first step. Masdar City is the catalyst for change, but the broader Masdar Initiative is looking at cleantech investments and a sustainable future for Abu Dhabi several generations down the line.


Jay Witherspoon with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

You have to start somewhere, and here the starting point is Masdar City. Masdar will really redefine all the existing ideas about sustainability, and allow us to take another look at existing infrastructure, as well as the new. We're starting to see more legislation, as well as the Estidama certification ["Estidama" means "sustainability in Arabic. The Estidama Program is Abu Dhabi's green building and neighborhood code], that's a step forward. Masdar will actually have all these design specifications built in, and the ability to make them real.

TH: How will Masdar change the future of city design? Is this a special case, or a prototype that could be reproduced elsewhere?

JW: I really think it can be a model for the rest of the world. Some of the techniques we are using here date back thousands of years. The traditional Arabic city layout, the way it is positioned, the tightness of the streets; we even have it situated so that the sea breezes will come in and clean out the air in the city. So a lot of what we're doing is common sense.

Until now these things have only been done on a smaller scale, in small communities, on the scale of three or four blocks. When you do it on the city level, it really help move things forward. It's kind of like when Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. Now everyone breaks the four minute mile. But until they broke that four minute mile, nothing changed, it was considered an impossible goal. And that's what I think Masdar City as a catalyst will do. The Masdar Initiative will then push it forward so that it can be a model for existing cities. But a lot of the things we are doing are common sense, and all of these things can be implemented anywhere, right now.

JW photo and renderings courtesy of CH2M Hill.
More from the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi:
World Future Energy Summit Kicks Off in Abu Dhabi
World's First Post-Petroleum City Rising in Abu Dhabi
Masdar City Announces First Corporate Tenant: GE Ecomagination

"Masdar is the Catalyst": An Interview with Jay Witherspoon, Masdar City Technology Director
Jay Witherspoon works for CH2M Hill, a global project management, consulting and engineering firm that was chosen to manage the development of

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