Dubai Expo: sustainable innovation in the Netherlands pavilion

A small-scale natural habitat created in the Dubai desert for the Expo explores how the supply of water, renewable energy and food can be integrated. Forming the main focus for the Netherlands Pavilion, Niels Bouwman, Director at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO.nl) sets out the thinking and innovations that have gone into this sustainable exemplar.

Around the world demand for water, energy and food has risen as populations have grown, urbanised and extended their diets and economies. Ensuring a sustainable balance in the supply and consumption of all three to support a global population that is expected to reach almost ten billion by 2050 requires fresh thinking.

One way ahead can be seen in a project in Dubai that is creating a small-scale natural habitat with its own micro-climate, called a biotope. The biotope, which will be in place for a six-month period, combines renewable energy generation and extraction of water from the desert air to help grow a host of edible plants and micro-vegetables.

In this way, the biotope makes explicit links between the three essentials of water, energy and food and demonstrates in microcosm how the challenges of security of supply and the transition to renewable energy can be addressed through integrated action.

This biotope will form the Netherlands pavilion at the Expo, an international event held in Dubai over six months from October 2021. With a sustainability theme at the core, the Expo will showcase 192 country participants and welcome visitors from around the globe.

The biotope is also part of a multi-year campaign in the Gulf region on the theme of Uniting Water, Energy and Food, launched by the Dutch government in 2018.

“For every important trade fair in the region, we have organised the participation of Dutch companies in the events. RVO.nl has also organised official visits from the Gulf regions to the Netherlands. We want to share our knowledge and expertise. By working together, we can find solutions that will contribute to a more sustainable planet. This thought is reflected in our programming,” explains Bouwman, who has been commissioned by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deliver and manage all aspects of the pavilion.

Its pavilion brings the campaign messages to life. “We’ll be harvesting water from the air to grow crops beneath, which we will then use in the menu for the pavilion’s restaurant,” says Bouwman.

We’re not giving visitors screens to look at, but an experience where they can taste and feel the exhibits. The experience is designed to trigger the senses.”

It is intended to make a visit to the Netherlands pavilion memorable at a busy event where more than 20 nations will be putting their innovations on show.

Construction ethos

Sustainability is central not only to the purpose of the biotope but also to its design, construction and ultimate disposal. “At a showcase like this, sustainability needs to be a starting point rather than an add-on,” explains Bouwman.

Throughout the development process, decision-making has been driven by a circular economy ethos, with its objectives of limiting waste and pollution and using materials and resources wisely.

The project is targeting high sustainability standards, in both the LEED Gold rating set as a target for all the Dubai pavilions and the client’s own objective of a BREEAM score of Outstanding. It is also looking at ways of scoring the circularity of the project.

The biotope is housed not in a building, but in a structure made from steel sheet piles, which gives it a deliberately raw aesthetic. The exposed piles were chosen to represent Dutch expertise in civil engineering, and are complemented by interiors inspired by Arabic art. “It was very efficient to build and in line with our sustainability objectives,” Bouwman says of the structure. Once the steel structure was complete, that effectively completed 70 percent of the project.

The sheet piles and accompanying steel tubes are the largest and heaviest construction materials used on this project and have been leased from a Dutch company, based in Abu Dhabi.

To keep the ecological footprint of the pavilion as low as possible, other materials are being sourced locally and will be recycled and reused when Expo ends.

The interior materials are either bio-based or biodegradable, with floor tiles and acoustic elements made from fungus-like mycelium. Products such as the lighting and elevator are being leased, an unfamiliar business relationship for a number of subcontractors and suppliers working on the project. “Some are not used to rental contracts for their products, so it took some patience and effort to convince them that this could be beneficial,” says Bouwman.

Sow sustainable

The green heart of the project is a giant vertical cone, rising up through the structure and its canopy. The food cone’s exterior is lined with concentric rings of edible plants, while its dark, humid and cool interior will provide a good growing environment for oyster mushrooms.

Water for the plants will come from a solar-powered harvester, which relies on condensation to collect water from the hot desert air. The exact quantity of water produced will depend on the degree of humidity in the air, but the system is capable of collecting up to 800 litres a day.

Solar cells to provide electricity for the water harvesting process are located in the pavilion’s skylights, and are transparent to allow essential photosynthesis for the plants.

Alongside this innovation, there are standard photovoltaic roof panels, enabling the pavilion to meet all its own energy needs.

Construction of the structure began in September 2019 to minimise mid-summer working. Still, some of the work, particularly the welding for the sheet piles, had to be carried out at night while temperatures were at their lowest.

The construction programme had to take on board the impacts of COVID-19 and the decision to delay Expo 2020’s opening. Precautionary measures were introduced in early March 2020. Bouwman says:

We did risk analysis on what the pandemic would mean for the workforce and the project as a whole.”

“We came up with a plan for each critical part of the development, while the situation was progressing by the day.” The postponement of Expo, confirmed in May 2020, necessitated further re-appraisal, Bouwman adds. “We’ve had to look at how the project needs to be reorganised – what to postpone, what to finish and potential storage costs.”

When the Dubai Expo ends, the biotope’s plants – like the pavilion itself – will be recycled. They will either be given to the general public or converted to energy by a Dubai-based Dutch anaerobic digestion business. Above all, the pavilion gives the region a powerful demonstration of sustainability in action and how the challenges around water, energy and food can be addressed through innovation.

For further information contact:

Ian O'Neill
Lead Project Manager