We're all wasting too much energy, most of the world agrees, and we need to change our ways - starting with how we build our houses. According to Gerard Evenden, a senior partner at Foster + Partners, Abu Dhabi has committed itself to changing its methods of building more than any other city in the world. "For the emirate to take the initiative and look at what it needs to change on a city scale, as Abu Dhabi has with its Masdar project, is way ahead of what anyone else is doing at the moment," says Evenden, who is in charge of the gigantic venture. "Lots of other countries are talking about sustainability, but that's it - it's slow in happening and it needs to be faster. Nobody to date is doing the necessary research and is prepared to fund it in the same way that Abu Dhabi has."
Masdar is clearly no small-scale derivative housing development. Due for completion in 2013, it will house 50,000 people, none of whom will require a car to get around - its streets will remain unclogged. The project will also consume drastically less energy - between 50 and 60 per cent, according to Evenden - all achieved through clever design and construction. Cities around the world will look to the research behind this experimental eco-city, all of it going hand-in-hand with the building work.
If you're serious about cutting down your energy footprint in construction, according to Evenden, there are three vital considerations. The first one is the orientation of buildings, looking at the space between them, the way they sit between each other and the use of sunlight and shade. "If you put a building in the middle of nowhere and let it bake in the sun, it will obviously take more energy to cool it down than if you keep it shaded," he says.
The second consideration is what in architectural vernacular is called "passive systems" - additional methods of cooling buildings, such as wall insulation and shading devices. The third is the renewable energy sources used to supply energy to a building once it is up and running: solar tubes, wind power and biofuels, for example. "The first two considerations are of critical importance to reduce the need to use the third - and you need to get those right if you're serious about saving energy," says Evenden.
Foster + Partners is also currently working on other projects, including Aldar's Central Market, where, at the pitch stage, the architects stated their intention to create a building appropriate to its surroundings, not simply to transplant a generic design to the desert. It needed to be able to withstand the challenges of building in such an environment, with the inevitable dust, sand and extreme heat.
In another development, Al Raha Beach, the shape of the building was determined by the sun's path and the passage of wind. Each project has been a progression, says Evenden. "What we did in Central Market prepared us for the work we did in Al Raha Beach, which in turn, has prepared us for Masdar." Abu Dhabi is beginning to gain international recognition for its green credentials: earlier this summer, it was named one of the top 10 sustainable cities of the future by the Ethisphere Institute, a US-based think tank. Meanwhile, Dubai is determined to prove that building at warp speed is not incompatible with looking after the environment.
Dubai's shortage of power stations, and the natural gas shortage affecting both Dubai and Abu Dhabi may well be another reason the emirates seem committed to limiting the amount of energy used. "Architects designing the country's new buildings are being encouraged to incorporate the latest advances in energy efficiency and technology in order to address the high levels of per capita consumption of power," says the estate agent Gary Hersham of Beauchamp Estates. "For example, much use is now being made of natural ventilation and heat pumps to reduce dependency on energy-hungry air conditioning, and low-energy lighting is becoming the norm."
"I'd say that over the past year there has been a big emphasis on environmental considerations," adds Alex Upson of the estate agency Cluttons. "I know that developers in Dubai are doing in-depth environmental impact studies. Matthew Plumbridge, the senior research and development manager at Nakheel, says that it is possible for a company which builds as densely as Nakheel does to call itself green - his argument is that by building more, the company can innovate more, and push the boundaries of eco building further.
"One of the benefits of being the world's biggest urban developer is that we have the money for research and to work out ways of doing things better," he says. "If we start a drive towards lowering carbon emissions, we will start to influence India and China, so there's enormous positive leadership potential there. In Dubai, everything is delivered to the best of our ability, which in this day and age means using low carbon. The rampant development is a thing of the past - well-planned development that is sensitive to the environment is the future."
To back this up, Nakheel's Waterfront development will feature "concentrated collectors", devices to capture heat from the sun and generate hot water for homes and offices. The cold water created by air conditioning units will be channelled and used to cool other areas within the development. And at its project, The Gardens, a pilot energy conservation programme has meant the building uses 27.4 per cent less electricity than it did a year ago, according to their research.
Streets and buildings are being carefully mapped out and in Nakheel's developments generally - as in the Masdar development - angled to maximise the flow of cooling winds through streets. The shade from buildings will be used to help cool public spaces such as squares and playing fields. The idea is that this will contribute to people's sense of well-being and will help to encourage healthier lifestyles.
It may seem ironic to some observers that oil-rich Abu Dhabi is leading the way on renewable energy - and that Dubai is making some positive steps, too. "For an oil supplier such as Abu Dhabi to have the foresight to tackle renewable energy is amazing - a huge step," says Evenden. "I think the emirate has benefited from seeing what Dubai has been doing and has now stepped up to another level. It will be interesting to see how Dubai in turn reacts to what its neighbour is doing. I think we'll also see the other emirates responding to the bar being raised in this way - and countries over the world will, too. It is simply no longer acceptable to continue designing buildings in the same way as we have been, and I think Abu Dhabi truly appreciates this."