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Plenty of commentary exists about the unsustainable built environment that has sprouted up in Arabian Gulf cities like Doha and Dubai. The love affair for u-turns can add several kilometers to your trip; a lack of crosswalks discourage walking to that building across the street; and office buildings that may be a fit within Minneapolis or Stockholm zap up water and heat during the hot summer climate months. Then you have those malls, decadently delicious places to hang out; just do not try to do the math and sort out their electricity consumption or you will wince in pain.

But before the millions of expatriate workers made the Arabian Gulf region their temporary home, people did live here for centuries and survive. Design had a huge role in creating building environments that were comfortable. Thick walls helped to keep the cool in and heat out. Other passive cooling features like wind towers harnessed the harsh summer winds and cooled the rooms below. Houses were arranged in the direction to best take advantage of prevailing breezes, and of course never faced south. Gypsum, abundant locally, was mixed with other building materials, which in the end provided comfort inside homes while reflecting the sun’s rays outside.

One development in Doha should help to revive the city’s downtown while adding a new twist to these timeless architectural techniques.

Msheireb Properties is building a 35-hectare (86 acres) site (a model of which is pictured above) that will blend ancient building practices with modern green building techniques. In the center of downtown Doha, the first phase of the company’s eponymous project will open its first phase later this year. The goal of the complex is in part to stall the sprawl that has marred Doha and other Gulf cities like Dubai and bring back residents, offices and shoppers to the city’s center.

To start, the entire complex will only be open to pedestrians. All parking spaces will lie under Msheireb, so everyone will have to walk to their destination. All of the buildings will be designed and arranged not to overcome the local climate, but to adapt with the surrounding environment. Every structure will be placed to take advantage of the northerly winds that flow above Doha. In a region lacking resources except for fossil fuels, all building products will be brought in from no more than 500 kilometers (311 miles). The new National Archives Building will feature local stone on its facade, but  according to Issa Al Mohannadi, Msheireb’s CEO, that material was only sourced after environmental experts assured the company that its use would have a minimal impact on the area’s ecosystem. Meanwhile the company has engaged with local companies to ensure that all excavation and building materials are recycled--critical in a country that struggles with proper waste diversion.

We don’t want to mimic the past because no one wants to live in the old style of the past. So the challenge was to develop an architectural language that maintains our identity while respecting our environment.”

  • Issa Al Mohannadi, CEO of Msheireb Properties and head of the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC).

Newer, more modern features are included in Msheireb’s master plan. Drought resistant plants will encourage water stewardship. Wider passageways will be covered with roofs with solar panels on top that will reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed to power the complex. In a nod to the growing standardization of green building practices, most of the buildings will be LEED certified gold or platinum. A future rail project that is part of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup plan will also wind through this future neighborhood. Add the sublime design and geometric patterns that add to the joy of Arabian and Islamic architecture, and what Doha could have in Msheireb is a real architectural winner.

Will residents, expats and visitors flock to this new development after completion? In a city where everyone complains about driving conditions but keep driving anyway, that question has yet to be answered. But if Qatar is serious about reducing its per capital carbon footprint--the highest in the world by several measures--more focus on green construction, waste reduction and energy efficiency is sorely needed. The country has got to show that it is more than a place to live in a bubble, from air conditioned home to an SUV with AC to the office blasting even more air conditioning.

Much of the world is already skeptical of Doha’s hosting of a plethora of international events in the coming decade. Better buildings, improved transportation and a commitment to improved environmental stewardship will ensure that Doha and Qatar have truly arrived as a progressive city. Otherwise, Doha risks hosting an event like Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics, which turned the city into a joke. Odds are now, however, that the clean energy entrepreneurs sprouting up in the city, like Innovations Unlimited, a solar energy solutions provider led by Egyptian-American Amr Belal, will push the country into a wiser direction.

Qatar may just surprise us in 10 years.


Leon Kaye is winding down his month in the Middle East. He is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Earth911.com. You can follow him on Twitter.


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