Looking out from the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper in the Dubai Marina, with the prismatic city lights bouncing off every reflective surface from the water to the mile high glass buildings, the view seems more like the backdrop of a George Lucas film than someone’s private balcony. The Western world’s perception of Dubai is one of excess and extravagance. Dubai is known around the globe for its soaring skyscrapers, long, sandy beaches, and colossal shopping malls. So when I arrived in Dubai, I expected nothing less than the biggest, the tallest, the most expensive, and the most luxurious. And that’s exactly what the experience has been. I visited the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, Palm Jumeira, and a number of other man-made wonders that are screaming testaments to modern technology and innovation.
However, after every tour, every drive, and every elevator ride, the one question that I found myself constantly asking was: How? How is this kind of gargantuan development possible? And more importantly, how does this unprecedented infrastructure sustain itself, year after year? Without a doubt, the most eye-opening and noteworthy aspect of my Dubai experience was witnessing the amount of innovation and research that goes into trying to lessen the environmental impact of limitless luxury.
Naturally, as an eager tourist, one of my first sight-seeing stops during my stay was a trip to the top of the legendary Burj Khalifa. After weaving my way through the queues and metal detectors, I made my way towards the surprisingly ordinary looking chrome elevators. My fellow tourists and I were corralled and herded like cattle (as tourists often are) as we awaited the lift to take us up. As we entered the elevator, the attendant pushed the almost comically labeled ‘124’ button and sent us on our way. The moment the doors slid shut, the walls of what I had called an ordinary looking elevator lit up into a polychromatic symphony of moving colors, videos, and facts. Just as my eyes began to adjust and focus on the iridescent words that had unexpectedly appeared on the lift walls, the ride was over. The 10 meter per second elevator trip probably had lasted little over a minute, and we were at the top.
The view from the observation deck was surreal. Jutting out from the flat desert floor, the clusters of shiny skyscrapers combined with the dusty afternoon haze made the city look like something out of a video game. I lingered for a few minutes, taking the obligatory tourist pictures, marveling at the engineering feat that I was standing on.
What amazed me more than the view, the lights or the streamlined design, though, was something called the Burj Khalifa Condensate Collection System. According to the tower’s website, the Condensate Collection System stores the water that is collected from the surface of the Burj, day in and day out. Due to the intense desert heat and the high humidity, a significant amount of water collects on the cool glass surface of the constantly air conditioned goliath tower. Allegedly, about 15 million gallons of water are collected each year through this method and are used to help water the 11 hectares of meticulously manicured greenery at the base of the tower. To me, this is an extremely creative and innovative step towards more environmentally conscious developments. Massive amounts of waste and unregulated consumption are a natural result of building the world’s tallest tower and any attempt at conservation is a much needed step toward sustainability.
Of course, in one of the most visited cities in the world, my exploration and accidental discoveries did not end with the Burj Khalifa. The next stop on my Dubai must-see list was Ski Dubai, located at the Mall of the Emirates shopping center. Though I am no stranger to snow, coming from the northern United States, seeing the famed desert ice-box was too intriguing of an opportunity to pass upon.
The physical structure itself was fairly uninspiring and for someone who spends eight months out of the year buried in the white stuff, the snowy inside was not particularly astonishing either. What was truly amazing to me, however, was how a feat like this was even possible.
The idea of creating an isolated environment that is the polar opposite of Dubai’s natural climate would inevitably take massive amounts of water and energy, to be consumed simply for novel entertainment. To find out how the resort maintains its snowy climate throughout the blistering Arabian summers, I had to do a little research. What I found, however, was once again a testament to the innovative potential of the city. According to Ski Dubai, the walls of the structure are layered with different types of insulation that help maintain the cool inside temperatures. The roof and the ceiling are separated by an empty five meter space of air. The air in this space serves as a cheap and effective means of insulating the ice-box from the scorching sun outside. While it takes endless amounts of energy to keep the industrial coolers running each day, the insulation method helps maintain these cool temperatures at a low cost.
I came to Dubai knowing that I would see luxury and extravagance that I had never been exposed to before. I knew I would be awestruck and amazed by the lights and the sounds and the simple grandeur of every desert gem that makes up the Dubai skyline. What I was not expecting, however, was to be impressed by the engineering and technology that went into building these colossal tributes to wealth and excess. It is clear that Dubai is slowly making the move towards a greener economy. Steps are being taken in places one would least expect in order to make sure the city can indefinitely maintain its glitz and glamour at a realistic cost.
When it comes to building the biggest and the greatest, I learned there are two inevitable byproducts: expected wastefulness, and unexpected innovation. Many of Dubai’s most famous attractions pioneered new and unheard of technologies. Because of this, I have no doubt that Dubai will eventually make the shift from a city of inconceivable extravagance, to a city of sustainable superlatives.