Terra ― The Sustainability Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai: Case Study   Dubai, UAE

The sustainability drivers for the Sustainability Pavilion were net zero energy and water. The Pavilion is an opportunity for the U.A.E. to showcase innovations in energy generation and water management for the region and deliver an aspirational message about the natural world and technology to a global audience. Built for client Emaar Properties, this Pavilion is a permanent structure which will become a sustainability museum after Expo.

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Sustainability was not just a discipline on the project, rather it was the basis of every engineering and architectural decision taken. The Pavilion explores the potential for buildings and their community of users to be both self-sustaining and regenerative - aiming to influence thousands of visitors, by empowering them to understand the environmental impacts, both positive and negative, of the choices they make daily.

A regenerative approach shifts the focus of sustainable design from slowing down entropy, or doing less harm, to building the capacity of communities to evolve toward greater social, economic, and ecological value. Key to our design approach was developing a ranked matrix of project and place-based potential, leading the team to prioritize designs which will have the greatest potential to yield positive transformational change for our client and the communities in which the project is situated. For this project, we can point to both the combination of passive design strategies energy efficiency optimizations and on-site energy generation as well as the on-site water reuse, as the key prioritizations.

The Grimshaw sustainable and regenerative design process began with a rigorously defined performance framework composed of 11 performance areas. Within these performance areas, we defined goals and targets, building to strategies, systems, and eventually through detailed co-optimization analysis and simulation to integrated design solutions. Certain key design solutions are didactic in their prioritization of passive and low energy, low carbon systems, with an aspirational goal of becoming a net zero energy and water building.

For net zero energy, the major design challenges have been meeting the energy balance post Expo when in museum mode (also referred to as Legacy mode). This is due to the expected energy intensive program and the need to generate enough energy from the on-site PV to meet this demand. The major design challenges for net zero water were meeting the water balance in both Expo and Legacy, given the water intensive landscaping in the relatively dry environment and integrating on-site water reuse to meet the demand.

In terms of what we did differently for energy targets, we employed passive cooling by means of shading via 130m wide main roof canopy, and buried accommodation coupled with the use of high U-value materials for walls and roof, reduce cooling energy demand. This was perhaps the most significant first step in the energy reduction and optimization process. Specific to our water targets, no water from the Dubai potable water network will be consumed in operation. 

Inspired by Nature


The Inspiration for the Main Roof Canopy  was the desert Ghaf Tree, a drought-tolerant  tree, which can remain green even in harsh desert environments, essential  for the survival of animal and plant species alike. The Socotra dragon tree, native to an archipelago in the Arabian Sea, is the inspiration for elements of the main canopy, the Energy Trees, and the Water Trees. Its dichotomous branching and umbrella canopy produce dense shade preventing evaporation – a critical adaptation to region’s arid conditions.

The Pavilion supplies 100% of its water use from on-site sources. A wide range of innovative strategies and technologies were integrated to achieve this target, including wastewater reuse and sewer mining, which have pushed code variance and approvals from the local authorities. Water usage in the region is exceptionally high and yet water is a scarce resource in the Middle East. This is a key message that the building aims to portray to visitors in attempt to improve practices in the region.

The high levels of solar radiation or sunshine present a challenge and a resource for the project. The Energy Trees have been designed to produce energy and provide shade.

They also have PV on the underside as reflected light hits them, maximizing the opportunity for energy generation. The Water Tree enables a passive method of dew harvesting (30 liters a day on average), taking advantage of the rapid change in temperature overnight where the inner cone surface becomes cooler to generate droplets of water that gather and run down to a collection point, irrigating the performative landscape below supporting their ecological services, including providing thermal comfort for visitors.


1. Canopy – The 135-metre wide canopy, which features more than 1,055 solar panels (8,000 m2), is multi-functional. 

2. The Pavilion energy demand – Generates its own power supply (a total of 4GWh of annual energy), which is partially made possible by energy saving techniques employed when designing the pavilion. 

3. Buried accommodation – The Pavilion sits partially below ground, creating a thermal effect that means it is generally cooler than the ambient temperature. 

4. Daylight – Daylight is used where appropriate and a range of light pipe and fiber-optic systems are incorporated to provide daylight to deep spaces.

5. Canopy shading – The shading provided by the canopy reduces the energy consumption of the internal exhibition spaces through reducing the solar irradiation they receive.

6. Water – Rainwater is collected and percolated into the landscape to recharge the ground water that is then being extracted and treated for use as potable water within the building in line with net zero water aspiration.

7. Ecology – Integrated into this landscape of native and adapted species are new crops which provide food and biofuel.

8. Energy Trees – Eighteen E-Trees, which support a smaller axially rotating PV array dish on a long stem, provide an additional 4,000 m2 of solar PV, approximately 2.6 GWh of power annually.

9. Comfort – Due to its high thermal mass the earth below ground is generally cooler than the ambient temperature during the occupied periods.

10. Night cooling – Low landscaping to the south-east of the site maximizes inflow of cool night air. 

11. Canopy materials – The canopy is constructed from steel with 97% recycled content. To further lower the Pavilion’s carbon footprint associated with the transport of materials, the steel elements were manufactured less than 15 minutes away. 

12. Cement and embodied carbon reduction – Strategies to reduce the use of cement included constructing approximately 10,900 m2 of the upper floors with bubble decks, which uses approximately 25% less concrete and subsequently less steel compared to a solid concrete slab construction. 

13. Education – The design for each exhibit area encourages learning that can happen as part of school groups and other organized uses, particularly for Legacy.

Key Sustainability Facts

Project Site

Greenfield - Native Desert

Transect Zone / Climate Zone

Campus zone / 1B


Palearctic / The Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian Xeric Shrublands

Operational Energy/Carbon

- Aspirational net zero energy in Legacy mode
- pEUI: 226 kWh/m2/year or 71.6 kBTU/ft2/year (regulated loads). In order to meet the net zero energy aspirations, EUI needs to be reduced to further 180 kWh/m2/year or 57 kBTU/ft2/year.
- Reduction of pEUI from an equivalent new building: 42%
- Energy/fuel types annual energy demand carbon intensity:
total site PV annual energy generation is 4.015 GWh, 100% renewable in Legacy mode.

Embodied Carbon

Reduction of GWP from an equivalent new building: 41%


- Aspirational net zero water in Expo and Legacy mode
- The Pavilion is a small-scale water treatment plant. It reuses water from various sources: near surface brackish surface, AC condensate reuse, grey
water reuse and black water reuse. The black water reuse collects sewage from site and the external grid to be treated for irrigation.

Dubai, UAE

LEED Platinum (expected), LEED Zero – Energy and Water (expected)

Project Partner/Lead
Andrew Whalley/Mark Rhoads

Project Team
Grimshaw, Rice Perry Ellis, ASGC, Buro Happold, Thinc Design, The Eden Project, Sherwood, Desert Inc., Cerami, Omnium, Emaar Properties, T|ME – Turner Construction Middle East

Expo 2020 Dubai UAE