Andrew Whalley
Chairman/Partner, Grimshaw

Dubai and the United Arab Emirates will be on the global stage when Expo 2020 Dubai – the first World Expo in the Arab world – opens to great anticipation. At the heart of the Expo, the Sustainability Pavilion is an ambitious and innovative signature structure whose design and contents will captivate the world. The pavilion is a chance for Dubai and the UAE to lead a new approach to sustainability and conservation, showcasing interesting and innovative methodologies of adapting to ecology and climate, while promoting long term solutions for society.

As Dubai has emerged as a hub for global exchange, as well as a city of wonders, Expo 2020 and the Sustainability Pavilion offer an unparalleled opportunity to firmly establish a stance on leadership for sustainability and planetary stewardship. Not only does the pavilion aim to fascinate and enlighten millions of Expo visitors from across the globe, it will also live on as an internationally recognised institution. This will extend the pavilion’s reach beyond just a visitor destination to include exhibition and research facilities where science and the public intersect, simultaneously illuminating the wonders of our fragile planet and the potential that our future Earth holds.

Grimshaw has developed a design for the pavilion that we believe to be inventive, pointed in its mission and, above all, inspiring. We have sought to achieve this through a quantum leap in thinking, designing a first-of-its-kind demonstration building that is completely self-sustaining and capable of generating its own power and water supply. What we strive for – and what is conspicuous in our best work – is the moment a brilliant idea emerges that will drive the identity of a good project to somewhere extraordinary, challenging and completely unique.

"The challenges we have addressed in our pavilion design are those that are affecting the world on a global scale"

This dedication to exploration and innovation has allowed us to develop memorable temporary and permanent fixtures for cultural organisations and bespoke events of international significance across the globe. The vision we have realised for the Sustainability Pavilion is representative of the ingenuity and innovation we have harnessed among our design team in pursuit of a pavilion that inspires wonder and delight, captures the imagination and offers the promise of possibility.

The challenges we have addressed in our pavilion design are those that are affecting the world on a global scale. While in this project we seek to highlight strategies and opportunities relative to Dubai’s native landscape and climate, it is important to note that populations are facing similar issues the world over. By incorporating high levels of new technology that are inspiring, diversifiable, highly recyclable and reasonable to maintain, we will be raising awareness about the environmental problems we face in this century and hope to inspire people with solutions that can efficiently address them on a multigenerational timescale.

To present and illuminate the issues at hand, through both innovative architectural design and the provision of timely and effective exhibition content, Grimshaw assembled both a design team, underpinned by the engineering expertise of BuroHappold, as well as an Advisory Group Committee composed of some of the brightest and most ingenious minds practicing in fields directly relevant to sustainable development and environmental conservation. This committee, derived from some of the world’s leading research institutions including NASA, the California Academy of Sciences and the Eden Project, has ensured that the pavilion design and its content are absolutely at the cutting edge of thinking and accurate in their interpretations and assertions.

The central design thrust for the pavilion is an exemplar of sustainable design informing, inspiring and empowering visitors to make effective change in their lifestyles, as well as becoming generally more aware of the still unfolding interdependence of the global, regional and local ecological systems (including microbiological systems within us) upon which we depend, support, and are ourselves enmeshed. More than a static experience, the pavilion will retain, and even elevate, its relevance long past the opening day of Expo 2020 - and beyond its doors closing in April 2021. The ultimate goal is a lasting standard-bearer for sustainable living, sitting in harmony with the environmental context that frames it. However, to merely sustain is perhaps to tread water; the Sustainability Pavilion has greater ambitions. To ensure lasting relevance, the pavilion, its occupants and its natural context must thrive.

"The Sustainability Pavilion will educate and delight visitors, as well as serving as a demonstration building and living landmark to sustainability"

Expo 2020 is intended to bring the world together to envision an optimistic and sustainable future. As part of that vision, the Sustainability Pavilion will educate and delight visitors, as well as serving as a demonstration building and living landmark to sustainability. Sustainability is not just an aspiration of the project, but also implicit in its design and content. Every aspect of the pavilion has been built from the ground up, with sustainability as the guiding principle. The Advisory Group Committee served to holistically define that principle from a diverse range of approaches and fields. With such high aspirations to integrate sustainability throughout the design to deliver positive environmental, social and human benefits, a clear and coherent sustainability strategy was implemented, providing a clear set of goals and a path forward. At the centre of this strategy was a sustainability framework through which the detailed and advanced knowledge of specialists can be integrated to deliver the vision. The framework has provided a transparent means for those engaged with the project to understand the various goals and targets, how they have been defined and ultimately the strategies developed to achieve these.

The building aims to be net-zero energy and net-zero water throughout its lifetime of operation, while minimising material environmental impacts from construction. The building also aims to act as a living laboratory that will inspire visitors to live more sustainably.

"Energy will be saved by burying much of the occupied spaces below the ground"

Energy will be generated through the highest specification photovoltaic panels available, arranged on the large roof canopy and atop a series of “Energy Trees” in the landscape. The panels are carefully placed at the best possible angle to maximise output. The roof canopy pattern follows principles of nature to maximise the area of solar panels and allow automated panel-cleaning systems to be deployed. The 18 bespoke Energy Trees will also be placed around the building to provide shade in external spaces and will track the path of the sun to generate as much power as possible.

Energy will be saved by burying much of the occupied spaces below the ground and providing thick, insulated walls with minimal glazing. Simultaneously, the solar roof acts as a giant shade to reduce the sun's heating effect. Energy usage will be carefully controlled through intelligent systems that sense occupancy and adjust lighting, display screens and ventilation requirements appropriately.

Water will be generated from all available sources on site including the humid air, salty ground water extracted from near the surface and recycled water. These techniques are combined with water-saving measures to ensure that water demand is 80% less than a typical building and the remaining water demand is provided from on-site sources. The water system includes two unique dew-harvesting water trees, passive sunlight water disinfection systems, and natural reed-bed water-filtration techniques. These environmental strategies will lend legitimacy and substance to the research institute that will live on in the pavilion’s legacy mode.

Beyond its outward architectural expression, a critical component to the pavilion is its content, a primary driver in our design thinking, helping Expo 2020 to create the visitor experience. Following on the exterior architecture that is finely tuned to local circumstances, Expo 2020's exhibition programme leverages the incredible biodiversity of the region and the striking ways in which nature has adapted to harsh climates and challenging conditions. The UAE is a rich source of natural inspiration, bringing together a range of ecologies and opportunities. Precious biodiversity and a wide range of landscapes and coastal habitats are expansive sources of inspiration and nature’s ingenuity. Efficiencies and strategies for survival developed by plants and animals can often be emulated in pursuit of architecture that is both responsive and at home in its environment while educating guests on the incredible ways in which nature meets the challenges of the natural environment.

The pavilion has been developed with a holistic approach that includes its immediate landscape and landscaping treatments. The gardens surrounding our pavilion design are an integral part of the visitor experience, and are both experiential and functional, setting the stage for the exhibition contents within and creating gathering areas that will manage and distribute crowds while providing retail, food-and-beverage opportunities. The pavilion structure works in tandem with the considered landscape of demonstration gardens, winding pathways and shaded enclaves to help create an aura of magic punctuated by the sights, smells and tactile opportunities of nature. In the legacy mode, the gardens will remain critical to a project of international importance, extending the ethos and mission of the institution inside to the immediate surrounds, properly establishing the stage for an institution of import and innovation. The pavilion grounds are being designed as a bee-friendly environment – bees originally moved away from the Expo 2020 site during construction will be rehoused in a hive on the site after the completion of Expo.

"Longevity is critical to the sustainability of architecture"

That the pavilion is designed to perpetuate beyond the life of the Expo is, in and of itself, a sustainable strategy. Longevity is critical to the sustainability of architecture, reducing the usage of resources over time and imbuing a sense of adaptability that allows for future flexibility and purposeful reprogramming. This also presents a challenge, as any time a structure is erected for one purpose followed by a transition to another, a careful balance between cost and value must be sought. As Expo 2020 Dubai endeavours to establish itself as a cultural leader – not only during the tenure of the event, but also over the life of the Sustainability Pavilion architecture – it is important to be represented by design that is both functional and revelatory, using technology and inventive design to deliver a distinct architectural presence driven by the message it intends to convey.

Grimshaw is thrilled to be participating in Expo 2020 Dubai and to have the opportunity to deliver innovative and exciting architecture underpinned by a message of hope and potential for the future. We look forward to seeing the building open to the public and joining the world in celebration in Dubai.


This article is adapted from a text that was first published in the 2017 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled “Sustainable Innovation and Legacies in Expos of the 21st Century: A World in Common”. It was written with contributions from Dr. Robert Cooke (Associate Director, BuroHappold) and John Leimbach (Research Manager, Grimshaw).

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