Sustainability Pavilion for 2020 Expo Dubai by Grimshaw

Grimshaw puts theory into practice with its Sustainability Pavilion for the 2020 Expo in Dubai, which will have a sustainable future as a permanent legacy building. Cate St Hill talks to deputy chairman Andrew Whalley about the design

How did the project come about?

Last summer we were invited with around 20 other architects to compete for the three main anchor pavilions, themed around Mobility, Opportunity and Sustainability. The brief for us was to design a pavilion that really explores the themes of sustainability. We felt it was very important that the content and the pavilion itself were thought of as one so we brought in Buro Happold for the engineering and Thinc for the exhibition, to work together as one team exploring both the material but also the exhibition experience. During the process it was confirmed that the Sustainability Pavilion would actually be a permanent, public museum - it will really be the first of its type that the Dubai government has funded.

What is the concept for the pavilion?

I guess some might say that a sustainability pavilion in Dubai is almost an oxymoron; we actually had some hesitation as to whether it was the right thing to do, but then we thought if we can demonstrate in this very hostile, arid environment that you can create something that’s completely self-sustaining, it demonstrates that you can do it anywhere.

The most demanding aspect is generating all your own water - it’s probably the most precious commodity in that region - so we wanted to demonstrate that you can not just create your own cooling, lighting and energy but can generate all your own water needs too. We use the analogy of a leaf - the building has a large surface area that harvests the sun during the daytime and stores all its own energy in the ground for use at night.

The building keeps cooling 24 hours a day, but also the roof continues to generate water - we’re harvesting as much energy as we can but also providing shade for the visitors below. Then, as the sun sets and the temperature drops, the trees draw out moisture from the air using their trunks, generating the pavilion’s water for the next day.

Andrew Whalley. Image Credit: Nina SubinAndrew Whalley. Image Credit: Nina Subin

Can you tell us about the afterlife of the building?

Really very little of the building will change, but how the building operates during the Expo is very different to when it becomes a public destination. Around 85 per cent of the buildings on the site will be left; the Expo is building a lot of small pavilions for emerging countries which normally would not be able to afford one at a world expo. These will then be repurposed as start-up, technology accelerators and incubators - the idea is the whole area becomes almost like a science park supporting new innovations and technologies, with our pavilion at the centre of the whole campus.

Did you take any ideas from your British Pavilion at Expo 1992 in Seville?

Yes, at the British Pavilion we explored the idea of water and energy, but one fundamental difference between the two is that it was designed for a six-month life and all prefabricated and built in the UK. For Dubai the approach to construction and materials is very different. We’re burying a lot of the building underground and also creating a series of rammed earth walls, so that we can use the huge thermal store and insulation qualities of having the building built into the groundscape.

The efficiencies of energy generation are several times more what they were in 1992 but the difference is now it’s an attainable technology. When we did the pavilion in Seville, PVs were basically things that were put on space stations. Part of what we want to do is have smaller demonstration projects in the park that people can actually relate to in scale, things that they can do within their own house and communities, so there’s a connection - it’s not just a large-scale, impressive project but it’s one that works at a smaller scale as well.

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