The project is led by Masdar, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company. Initiated in 2006, the city was envisioned to cover 6 square kilometres (2.3 sq mi) and estimated to cost US$18-22 billion. It would take approximately eight years to build, with the first phase scheduled to be completed and habitable in 2009. Construction began on Masdar City in 2008 and the first six buildings of the city were completed and occupied in October 2010. However, due to the impact of the global financial crisis, the initial 1,000,000 square metres (0.39 sq mi) was estimated for completion in 2015; final completion was pushed back to between 2020 and 2025. By 2016, less than 300,000 square metres (0.12 sq mi) had been developed and final completion was estimated to be 2030.
As designed, the city would be home to 45,000 to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses, primarily commercial and manufacturing facilities specialising in environmentally friendly products. In turn, more than 60,000 workers are expected to commute to the city daily. As of 2016, fewer than 2,000 people are employed in Masdar, and only the 300 students of the Masdar Institute live on site.
Masdar City will be the latest of a small number of highly planned, specialized, research and technology-intensive municipalities that incorporate a living environment, similar to KAUST, Saudi Arabia or Tsukuba Science City, Japan.
Partners in the project through its Clean Tech Fund are Consensus Business Group, Credit Suisse and Siemens Venture Capital. Construction of the first phase of the project is being managed by CH2M Hill. Infrastructure construction for the city will be handled by the Al Jaber Group and design of the central Masdar headquarters building has been awarded to Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The city's wayfinding system was developed by Endpoint and City ID.
Masdar is a sustainable mixed-use development designed to be very friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.
Masdar City has terracotta walls decorated with arabesque patterns. From a distance, the city looks like a cube. The temperature in the streets is generally 15 to 20 °C (27 to 36 °F) cooler than the surrounding desert. The temperature difference is due to Masdar's unique construction. A 45-meter-high (148 ft) wind tower modeled on traditional Arab designs sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze through Masdar's streets. The site is raised above the surrounding land to create a slight cooling effect. Buildings are clustered close together to create streets and walkways shielded from the sun.
Masdar City was designed by Foster and Partners. Foster's design team started its work by touring ancient cities such as Cairo and Muscat to see how they kept cool. Foster found that these cities coped with hot desert temperatures through shorter, narrower streets usually no longer than 70 meters (230 ft). The buildings at the end of these streets create just enough wind turbulence to push air upwards, creating a flushing effect that cools the street.
The initial design banned automobiles, as travel will be accomplished via public mass transit and personal rapid transit (PRT) systems, with existing road and railways connecting to other locations outside the city. The absence of motor vehicles coupled with Masdar's perimeter wall, designed to keep out the hot desert winds, allows for narrow and shaded streets that help funnel cooler breezes across the city. In October 2010 it was announced the PRT would not expand beyond the pilot scheme due to the cost of creating the undercroft to segregate the system from pedestrian traffic. Subsequently, a test fleet of 10 Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars was deployed in 2011 as part of a one-year pilot to test a point-to-point transportation solution for the city as a complement to the PRT and the freight rapid transit (FRT), both of which consist of automated electric-powered vehicles.
Under a revised design, public transport within the city will rely on methods other than the PRTs. Masdar will instead use a mix of electric vehicles and other clean-energy vehicles for mass transit inside the city. The majority of private vehicles will be restricted to parking lots along the city's perimeter. Abu Dhabi's planned and delayed light rail and metro line will connect Masdar City's centre with the greater metropolitan area.
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is a graduate-level research university focused on alternative energy, environmental sustainability, and clean technology. Its campus is located in Masdar City. The Masdar Institute was Masdar City's first occupant. The design of the campus emphasizes flexibility, the use of traditional architectural elements, and modern materials to provide for an optimized combination of natural lighting and cooling that minimize energy needs. By 2013, 336 students were enrolled at the institute. These students were selected from more than 2,000 applicants. 42% of enrolled students are from the UAE and 35% are female. The Masdar Institute plans to eventually enroll about 800 students. Admitted students from all countries are offered a full-tuition scholarships, monthly stipends, travel expenses, laptop computers, textbooks, and accommodation in order to facilitate their studies. Masdar students and faculty are engaged in over 300 joint projects with academia, private enterprise, and government agencies. Their research tends to focus on renewable energy, smart grids and smart buildings, energy policy and planning, water consumption, environmental engineering, and electronics.
The Masdar Institute has been behind the engineering plans of Masdar City and is at the center of research and development activities. The institute's building, developed in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses 51% less electricity and 54% less potable water than traditional buildings in the UAE, and is fitted with a metering system that constantly observes power consumption.
Masdar City will host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency, commonly known as IRENA. As of May 2013, construction of IRENA's headquarters was underway. Masdar was selected to host IRENA's headquarters after a high-profile campaign by the UAE. In its bid, the UAE offered rent-free offices in Masdar City, 20 IRENA scholarships to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and up to US$350 million in loans for renewable energy projects in developing countries.
A regional headquarters for Siemens has been built in Masdar City. This building is the most energy efficient in all of Abu Dhabi. In 2014, more than 800 staff will start work there. The LEED Platinum building makes use of sustainable and energy efficient materials and building techniques. It was designed to use 45 percent less energy and 50 percent less water than typical office buildings. The Siemens headquarters won an award for best office building at the Mpim Architectural Review Future Projects Awards in 2012. The Middle East Architect Awards named it both the best and most sustainable office building the same year.
The 12,000 m2 (130,000 sq ft) building is built around the idea of a "box within a box". The structure includes a highly insulated airtight inner façade that insulates from the sun and a lightweight aluminium shading system on the exterior. The plaza beneath the building is funnel-shaped. This shape works to suck prevailing winds underneath the building. Due to the Venturi effect, a breeze flows up to the roof of the building through atria in the buildings structure, cooling public spaces without energy costs. These atria also allow daylight into the centre of the building in order to reduce the need for artificial lighting, further reducing energy consumption. The buildings automation systems are all from Siemens.
Siemens signed an initial ten-year lease.
The Incubator Building includes retail and office space to house start-ups, small-and-medium-sized enterprises, and regional offices for multinationals. The Incubator Building is designed to accommodate roughly fifty companies. Some of the most notable tenants include General Electric, Mitsubishi, Schneider Electric, and the Global Green Growth Institute. The Incubator Building is also home to the first LEED CI-certified office in Abu Dhabi, Alpin Limited.
The Incubator Building houses the General Electric Ecomagination Center. The center offers training and exhibitions on energy and water efficiency.
The project is supported by the global conservation charity World Wide Fund for Nature and the sustainability group BioRegional. In response to the project's commitment to zero carbon, zero waste and other environmentally friendly goals, WWF and BioRegional have endorsed Masdar City as an official One Planet Living Community.
The project is also supported by Greenpeace, which, however, stresses that there should be more focus on retrofitting existing cities to make them more sustainable rather than constructing new zero-carbon cities from scratch.
The US Government has supported the project. The US Department of Energy has signed a partnership agreement with the Masdar Group in a deal that will see the two organisations share expertise to support plans on zero-carbon cities.
The Alliance to Save Energy honoured Masdar City with a 2012 EE Visionary Award in recognition of the city's contributions to the advancement of energy efficiency.
Not all reaction to the project has been favorable. In an interview in 2011, Geoffrey M. Heal, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York City and an expert in environmental economics, called Masdar "a gimmick, a way of attracting publicity and attention." Its use of solar energy is not a practical model for others to follow, Heal further noted, given that few places in the world enjoy as much year-round sunlight as the Persian Gulf.
Some skeptics are concerned that the city will be only symbolic for Abu Dhabi, and that it may become just a luxury development for the wealthy. Nicolai Ouroussoff opined in The New York Times that Masdar is the culmination of the gated community concept: "the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance".