Interview With Dubai’s Most Innovative Design Couple

Studied Impact Design, Land Art Generator InitiativeRobert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian working in their Abu Dhabi Studied Impact Design studio.

Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian have made the United Arab Emirates their home, for which we are very grateful. Their teachings, their design studio Studied Impact, and their public initiatives such as the internationally-acclaimed Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) have coincided with a thrust to incorporate more renewable energy sources into the region’s portfolio. As we have noted time and again, Abu Dhabi is leading that paradigm shift, with brilliant innovators such as this extraordinarily-talented American couple making a crucial and heartfelt contribution. They talked with Green Prophet about their vision.

elizabeth-monoian Rob and Elizabeth, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves and how you ended up in Abu Dhabi [Dubai]?

Our shared interest has always been in developing social art projects that are community focused and that are examples of sustainable design. It’s literally what brought us together when we first met in Pittsburgh PA, USA, where we first worked on a project that would use renewable energy to power a new media art center with video art exhibits open to the public for free 24 hours a day. We came to the UAE on Elizabeth’s assistant professor appointment in 2008. She’s now at the Dubai campus of Zayed University where she teaches new media in the Art and Design department.

Since arriving here, we have focused our attention on providing examples of design solutions and working on community events that can point the way towards a more sustainable development path. Architecture, public art, new media, and social practice art are the tools that we use to communicate and help spread awareness.

You put a lot of emphasis on the notion that renewable energy can be beautiful. Can you comment on that?

The Land Art Generator Initiative is focused on expanding the popular notion of what renewable energy infrastructure can look like. Every day there is a new story about people disapproving of solar or wind installations in their communities. It’s not that they don’t care about the environment; in many cases the people opposing the installations are self-avowed environmentalists. The problem is often that, to some people, the addition of turbines to a skyline that they can see from their porch or long stretches of dark blue panels in a field that they drive by frequently (where there used to be waiving rows of wheat) are forms of visual pollution.

So LAGI is posing the question of public infrastructure aesthetics in the context of public art. Because solar, wind, and other renewable do not pollute in their daily operational capacity, they are more likely to be located near to population centers than are fossil fuel powered electrical generation facilities. Add to that the fact that it is a good idea in the long term to diversify the source of generation capacity to more numerous micro-generational nodes (decreasing likelihood of blackout events from plant or transmission line failures) and it is apparent that the future will be one in which much of the generation capacity is integrated into the fabric of our city and our residential communities.

If you accept that this is the case, then you have to look to ways in which this energy generation equipment can be made to look less utilitarian and instead actually contribute to the beautification of our built environment. In the 1960’s, when computers were the size of shipping containers, the aesthetics of the computing equipment was not as important as it is today—now you have the iPad. A similar trend will happen with energy generation equipment as it becomes more integrated into our daily lives.

robert-perryThe Guardian recently reported  – with details taken from a series of leaked US embassy cables – that Saudi Arabia has overestimated their oil supply by approximately 40%. How does this news bode for renewable energy projects in the United Arab Emirates?

We hope that it will bring the issue of the depletion of non-renewable resources to the attention of more people and support the cause of renewable energy projects in the UAE. But there is a lot of positive focus already on future energy, for example with Masdar. It is a very tall and steep mountain that we are climbing together and it the status quo will not change overnight. But we can envision the change and inspire people. Positive stories that show the greatness of a future beyond fossil fuels will do more good than the stories of doom and gloom.

In 2007, WWF reported that UAE residents have the highest carbon footprint in the world – higher even than Americans. Has this had any impact on Abu Dhabi’s attitude towards renewable energy?

Yes it has as far as we can tell anecdotally. To those Emiratis who are aware of the statistics, it has become increasingly something that they are very conscious of changing. There are two ways of changing our carbon footprint, both of them equally as important: demand side (energy conservation) and supply side (clean production).

There has been more focus on the demand side conservation initiatives as a result of the WWF report than there has been on the supply side initiatives towards renewable energy generation. But for the UAE, the demand side is a very big issue because there is an excess of consumption—some households consume as much as five times what comparable household consumes on average in the rest of the industrialized world.

land-art-generator-initiativePotentially one of the most exciting developments in Abu Dhabi after Masdar City is the Land Art Generator Initiative’s energy-generating public art design competition. Towards the end of January, Masdar awarded first place to the Lunar Cubit. Can you tell us a bit about the competition and its winner?

The Land Art Generator Initiative International Design Competition is a way to bring together interdisciplinary teams of artists, engineers, architects, scientists, planners, and landscape architects to develop sustainable and pragmatic renewable energy generation system designs that integrate with the built and natural environment in ways that invoke social harmony and greater public acceptance. It is a fusion of public art with renewable energy power plants.

The winner of the competition, Lunar Cubit, was chosen by a jury of 14 esteemed professionals from the worlds of art, architecture, design, and energy (as interdisciplinary as the design teams that participated). The Lunar Cubit project is one of the entries that really provided a great balance between pragmatism and artistic concept which was what we were looking to achieve when we created the design brief and guidelines for the competition. The head of the winning team, Robert Flottemesch, is an artist who also works as an engineer at Hudson Valley Clean Energy in New York.

What is the next step? Do you have any sense of how long it will be before these stunning, energy-generating pyramids will feed in to Abu Dhabi’s national grid?

We are really excited about the momentum that has been building around LAGI. It has received almost unanimous acclaim in the press both locally and internationally and it really is just a matter of time until we start to see some land art generators under construction. If we had to guess, we would estimate that within five years we’ll be able to continue this interview in person at the newly opened energy generating public artwork in Abu Dhabi and perhaps in other locations around the world as well.

image-of-WFES And when they are up and running, how much energy will they provide?

It depends on the design that is selected for construction and on the area available to build on. Many of the designs in the LAGI portfolio are modular so that they can be scaled up or down. A good estimate is that they will have the capacity to power between 200 and 2000 homes. But what is more important than the energy equivalence in homes is the inspiration that they will provide to the community and their ability to educate the public on issues of sustainable development, ecology, renewable energy, and conservation.

While these works of public art will serve to provide the same economic development and cultural capital that high profile works of public art have always provided cities, they will go much further and stimulate awareness, contributing to the acceleration of the shift from conventional to renewable forms of energy production at all scales.

How will the cost of developing the Lunar Cubit compare to the cost of a new coal or nuclear plant?

The comparison is one that is interesting but also slightly misleading unless you first understand that these public artworks are just that—public artworks. So it is not an apples to apples comparison. Cities around the world are (with good reason) constructing public artworks for millions of dollars that generate zero energy and in some cases require electricity to operate. But these cities make these investments in their cultural institutions because the payback in terms of increased economic development is measurable and obvious (look at Chicago’s Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, or New York City’s Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson, which brought a net $80m to the city from increased tourism).

But now that we have that clarification, the cost estimate for Lunar Cubit as designed is about $18m USD for complete construction. With a capacity of 2 megawatts, that comes to $9m per megawatt capacity or just about twice the cost that is being paid for the 5.6 gigawatt nuclear power plant in the UAE. It should be noted that a strictly utilitarian solar installation would have the potential to rival the cost.

I look at a project like this, and I think: if we have the savvy to design something so handsome and so clever, why aren’t we doing so on a massive scale?  Can you comment on that?

It’s kind of an idea whose time has come. A lot of people have been thinking around this kind of thing over the past decade. It comes from the combination of existing great ideas, 1. kinetic or media art that gets its power from a renewable source (powers itself but not the grid), 2. environmental art and land art movements, 3. sustainable design (idea of embodied energy), 4. ecological architecture, and most importantly, 5. expansion of achievements in renewable energy technology. Now that the world has become aware of the beautiful results of a fusion of these five things, it will not be long until we are doing this on a massive scale.

What does a future full of beautiful energy plants look like, compared with the conventional, sooty variety of power plants we seem to favor today?

It is a world that has the potential to live in complete harmony with nature. A world in which we can meet the needs of everyone on the planet without resorting to the exploitation of the earth’s resources or disruption of the earth’s delicate ecological balance. It is a world in which we can take pride in the use of energy, knowing that it has been generated everywhere sustainably. And it is a world in which our landscape is treated with respect and our build environment responds to amplify its natural beauty, enriching our experience and increasing our quality of life.

Apart from LAGI, what other projects are you working on at the moment?
Through our design firm, Studied Impact Design, we continue to work on positive and zero-impact architecture projects from single family residences to commercial and residential towers. And we continue to engage in community events and activities to promote renewable energy and energy conservation.

Any final words?
Just a thank you for your interest in our work and to let you know how much we appreciate your work. Thank you.

More on Studied Impact and LAGI:

Studied Impact’s Power Plant Fit For Living

READ: Lagi’s Guide To Making Renewable Energy Beautiful

Energy-Generating Pyramids Win Abu Dhabi’s LAGI Prize

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