The Sustainability Pavilion is hovered by a solar-powered Canopy
The Sustainability Pavilion is hovered by a solar-powered Canopy Image Credit: Supplied

At the Expo 2020 Dubai, one pavilion sits amidst winding pathways, shaded enclaves and verdant gardens that are speckled with flora and fauna from the surrounding deserts. It’s a self-contained micro-ecosystem that draws on complex natural processes like photosynthesis, capturing energy from sunlight and fresh water from humid air. An architectural tour de force, it offers a telling look at how design can respond to nature and reshape the built environment to benefit both people and the planet. It’s Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion, a culmination of innovative technologies and deeply contemplative design that offers generous engagement with one of Expo 2020’s biggest subthemes, positioning it as one of the most sustainable World Expos ever to have taken place.

It debuted with great fanfare and continues to fascinate and enlighten visitors from across the globe. Behind Terra, which means ‘Home Earth’, is the world-renowned UK-based Grimshaw Architects, an architectural firm known for its high-tech ideals and engineering credentials.

“When we were first invited to put forward design proposals for Terra –The Sustainability Pavilion, we thought it’d be an incredible opportunity to demonstrate a truly self-sustaining pavilion on a world stage – a building that can generate its own energy, cooling and water within the context of a very challenging climate,” says Andrew Whalley, Chairman of Grimshaw Architects.

 Andrew Whalley, chairman of Grimshaw Architects
Andrew Whalley, chairman of Grimshaw Architects Image Credit: Supplied

Net zero by design

The pavilion is net zero for both energy and water – a challenging goal that the architectural team and its collaborating engineers, Buro Happold, worked tirelessly to accomplish “Meeting our net zero aspirations has as much to do with ingenuity as it does with the application of technology,” shares Andrew. “In the first instance, we’ve used our site as a natural insulator by sinking most of the exhibition space below ground, with the remaining area sitting under a heavily insulated landscape roof,” he adds.

The above ground surfaces are clad with a gabion rainscreen wall, which comprises local stones sourced from the Hajar Mountains and provides enough thermal mass to absorb heat. Among the most striking design elements is the solar-powered canopy that spans 132 meters and hovers over the entire pavilion, harvesting sunlight with its photovoltaic skin and shading everything below, whilst funneling breezes into the sunken courtyard. “To enable the canopy to span over the pavilion, it cantilevers 70 meters, but the lightweight lattice construction ensures that the structure is extremely efficient. It also uses a high proportion of recycled steel,” Andrew states.

Inspired by ghaf tree

The pavilion seamlessly embodies the physical and cultural contexts of its site, with nature’s ingenuity, and the United Arab Emirates’ biodiversity and wide range of landscapes and coastal habitats having informed its design. For instance, Grimshaw Architects took a cue for the pavilion from Ghaf, the national tree of the UAE, with its deep taproot that provides shade in the harsh heat of the desert. “The canopy has nearly 9,000 square meters of high efficiency photovoltaic panels laminated in glass, which are clearly visible from the underside and allow a dappled light to penetrate below,” explains Andrew.

The pavilion is also complemented by the installation of 19 Energy Trees (E-Trees) across the site, which contributes towards its goal of self-reliance by providing 28 per cent of the energy required to power the building. “The E-Trees were inspired by the Dragon Tree from the Socotra archipelago of the Arabian Sea. Optimized for efficiency, each of them has a motorized gimbal that allows it to track the sun throughout the day,” says Andrew, referencing that they follow sunlight in the same manner as a sunflower.

To keep their movement fluid, the E-Trees are constructed using composite carbon fiber, a material that’s typically used in the aerospace industry and high-performance yachts and is a new technology for buildings. “Between the canopy and the E-Trees, we expect to harness over 4 MWh a year. The sophisticated canopy and the advanced technology of the E-Trees were both manufactured in Dubai.”

The exterior of Terra is constituted of E-Trees
The exterior of Terra is constituted of E-Trees Image Credit: Supplied

Water from thin air

Speaking of self-sustenance, the pavilion generates water from all available sources on site, including humid air, salty ground water extracted near the surface, and recycled water, a feat achieved by Grimshaw Architects and engineers Sherwood and Buro Happold. These techniques have been combined with water-saving measures, ensuring that its demand is 80 per cent less than a typical building.

“The water system includes plans to create unique dew-harvesting water trees, passive sunlight water disinfection systems, and natural reed-bed water filtration techniques,” explains Andrew. “We’re working with major research universities to develop a new approach for the generation of water, using innovative, metal-organic framework chemicals that can capture moisture from the air and are entirely powered by the sun.”

The gardens surrounding the pavilion are an integral part of the visitor’s journey, setting the stage for the exhibition contents within, and creating gathering areas to accommodate crowds and provide retail, food and beverage opportunities. The gardens feature native plants from the surrounding deserts, mountains and wadis, evoking a multisensorial experience that’s punctuated with the sights, smells and tactile gems of nature.

A plant palette on rooftop 

Dubai-based landscape architects desert INK partnered with sister company Wahat Al Sahraa Nursery to gather seeds and samples to test their ability on a mass scale. Andrew explains that in some places, such as the sweeping rooftop of the building, a plant palette was developed using purely native grasses and perennials that grow in a shallow layer of desert sand that helps insulate the building. Plants, including Aerva javanica, Euphorbia tirucalli and Cenchrus ciliaris, have created a textured carpet on the roof and attracted a wide variety of native insects and birds. Terra has been designed in keeping with its long-term function as a public Science Center, dedicated to building a sustainable and resilient future for the planet. It has been adapted for its six-month Expo 2020 experience, so its design is amenable to high temperatures of the summer season.

“We felt that if you can operate a totally net zero building in one of the world’s most challenging climates, then it can be done anywhere in the world, and this was a real opportunity for Dubai to use this global stage and inspire millions of visitors,” states Andrew.

Interior view of the Terra
Interior view of the Terra Image Credit: Supplied

At the core of the pavilion is to become an exemplar of sustainable design, informing and empowering visitors to make effective change in their lifestyles and become more aware of ecological systems that we support and depend on.

“We’re at a critical juncture in time with the opportunity before us to author a healthy, lasting future for generations to come. The architecture and exhibitions of the pavilion will serve as an exciting reminder that the opportunity is ours to address a global human population, that innovation is already under way, and inspiration lies right before us within the amazing natural world,” he adds.

With its inventive design solutions and architectural splendour, the pavilion has furthered the UAE’s role as a thought leader in sustainability and conservation, and a breeding ground for identifying challenges and inspiring solutions that can efficiently address them on a multigenerational timescale. As Andrew concludes, “With Dubai emerging as a hub for global exchange, Expo 2020 and Terra offer an unparalleled opportunity to add depth and dimension to it by firmly establishing a stance on leadership for sustainability and planetary stewardship.”