Reflections on Norman Foster’s RIBA Annual Discourse

During this stimulating and thought provoking talk, Lord Foster raised some very interesting points which, sat in the audience as a Human Factors professional, got me thinking….
A number of residental buildings were built in India (not by Foster) to re-house occupants of a slum. However, years later they still sat empty because dispite being more modern and providing sanitation, they did not provide the same quality of life and integration for live/work/retail that the close knit community of the slum provides.
Key lesson – Understand the User, understand how they live and work, understand how they interact and use their built environment – then start designing.
MASDAR – A sustainable city being built in Abu-Dhabi. Foster + Partners have been integral to the project developing the arcitectural blueprint and design thinking. They put a lot of effort into analysing how buildings have historically been built in hot environments and took a U turn from the “modern” building design that you commonly see across the middle east – large glass towers. 
To make the Masdar buildings and streets naturally cooler – thus requiring less air conditioning to maintain a comfortable environment, lessing the power burden that they had to produce using the solar panel farms.
They took inspiration from desert settlements to:
  • Orientate the city to ensure that the cooling winds naturally swept through the streets and open park areas.
  • Positioned wind collection towers to naturally ventilate buildings.
  • Constructed buildings with carefully orientated windows, which were shaded by arabic patterned fins to avoid direct sunlight.
  • Provided walkways and open courtyards between buildings with natural shade, foliage and small water features to provide usable outdoor space. Which have been shown to have significantly lower radiant heat than similar courtyards in Abu Dhabi City and thus feel more pleasant.
Lord Foster stated that it took a lot of convincing to get buy in from the developers, as his low rise buildings did not have his usual WoW factor. But through determination they got there, and he believes that is to key to enabling the city to be sustainable.
Key lesson – Don’t follow convention. Analyse the key challenging features of the local environment (e.g. intense heat) then investigate novel ways to overcome it, or at least best adapt to them. Look at historic designs in places you might not expect and look to nature for inspiration.
If you wish to see Lord Foster’s presentation, a video can be found at 


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