'Smart means that a building touches the ground more lightly'

Andrew Whalley, Chairman of Grimshaw, discusses his ideas for smart buildings and the Sustainability Pavilion he designed for Expo 2020 in Dubai.

In the run-up to “The World’s Greatest Show” – Expo 2020 Dubai, which will showcase innovations under the motto “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” – work is underway on the three thematic pavilions for Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability. Our correspondent Dan Whitaker met with Andrew Whalley, chairman of Grimshaw, designers of the Sustainability Pavilion, to discuss carbon-neutrality and smart buildings.


Interview by Dan Whitaker

Walking from a wet Tuesday morning into the London architecture studio of Grimshaw is a bit like entering the Tardis of Britain’s favourite science fiction television program, Dr. Who. The unassuming plain exterior conceals a light-flooded complex, blending workspaces filled with diligent creatives, a steep-banked chamber where a lecture is being delivered and, finally, the office Andrew Whalley uses when visiting from the company’s New York studio. Andrew is enthusiastic to talk to me about Expo 2020 in Dubai, where Grimshaw and Siemens are part of delivering a truly smart building, and much more besides across the site. 

Dan Whitaker: Andrew, we hear plenty about smart and intelligent buildings. What do those terms mean to you? 


Andrew Whalley: For me, “smart” or “intelligent” means that a building touches the ground more lightly – responding to its wider environment and to how it is being used: use less energy, harness more, employ recycled materials. This is essential if we are to meet the UN goals that all new buildings are carbon-neutral or better by 2030, and all older buildings are retro-fitted to be so by 2050. At Grimshaw, we want to go further and are aiming for all of our new buildings to be carbon-neutral by the end of this year. 

For me, “smart” or “intelligent” means that a building touches the ground more lightly – responding to its wider environment and to how it is being used. 

So, how smart is the Sustainability Pavilion you designed for Expo 2020 in Dubai?


The Pavilion will be responding to an outside temperature that can reach 50° Celsius, and to an expected 4400 people flowing through it per hour, so we hope it will be seen as a showcase of what can be achieved. One example of this responsiveness is that the enormous humidity and heat which the visitors bring will be harnessed by the building’s cooling system. The mobile shade structures outside the Pavilion track the sun’s path; like the main canopy, they were inspired by desert trees, such as the Ghaf, and capture breezes. We are also using real desert plants outside, such as halophytes, which act to desalinate water. The gallery sections are buried underground, away from strong light that they don’t require.

Just how sustainable will the Pavilion ultimately be?


Unlike some structures built for past Expo events, this is also a “legacy” project. The Pavilion will be a permanent and resilient extension to the city it adjoins. 

To improve its carbon balance, will the Pavilion also generate energy?


Generation opportunities must be taken advantage of, drawing inspiration from nature. The Pavilion is fully clad with photovoltaic panels, accessible to facilitate cleaning. The (sunflower-like) sun-tracking feature mimics the shifting of desert plant to protect their seeds; but it also serves to increase yield by 25 percent. 

More sophisticated buildings need greater collaboration across disciplines.

Looking back over the many years since you graduated as an architect, how does the rate of technological change now compare to previous moments?


It is accelerating – like everything else in civilization! Computational design has revolutionized architecture. When I worked under Ron Herron [notable London architect with the Archigram group], he saw the first desktop computer and rightly predicted it would change everything. It goes beyond BIM [Building Information Modeling]. We used virtual reality for the first time as a design tool in the Expo, which allowed us and our clients to “walk around” in the building plans. 

Does computational design make for a changed creative process?


It allows us to consider a vaster range of options – for example, by analyzing all the ways we might use exterior air breezes to cool a structure, using algorithms. So now our imaginations run more freely. And the world’s environmental challenge badly needs this increase in creative, rather than just empirical thinking. Can you give us an example of a specific application?

With computational design, our imaginations run more freely.

How about the interaction that architecture now needs with other professions in delivering smart buildings?


More sophisticated buildings need greater collaboration across disciplines. For example, architects now need many types of engineers and designers: structural, mechanical, information system, façade, lighting. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, so long as dialogue allows everyone to put forward their best ideas. 

Architecture has a social responsibility to put right what we have done wrong.

You’ve also studied and worked in several countries; how do things vary between them?


Grimshaw now deliberately establishes separate studios around the world to immerse ourselves in local architectural culture. For example, in the US, architects tend to lead design teams, choosing their consultants. In the UK, the client or an engineering firm may do this. Even within Australia, Melbourne has a very different design approach from Sydney!

Why do you think Expo 2020 selected Siemens for all of its buildings?


Siemens is known as a world leader in building technology. I believe the Expo wanted a high-quality common platform – that consistency will be essential if the structures are to remain sustainable. 

Can architecture save the planet?


Architecture has a social responsibility to put right what we have done wrong – 36 percent of carbon emissions come from buildings, 70 percent overall come from cities. And solving the problems won’t always cost money. With our own buildings, Grimshaw found that switching to renewable energy was actually a saving. We must walk the walk as well as talking the talk!

  • Chair of Grimshaw
  • Led award-winning projects such as Waterloo’s International Terminal and the Eden Project (UK) and the Experimental Music and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York (USA)
  • Helped set up Grimshaw’s New York studio in 2001, Partner-in-Chief there for a decade
  • Now overseeing the Sustainability Pavilion, one of the centerpieces of Expo 2020
  • Taught at six universities in UK, US, and Italy


Author: Dan Whitaker is an independent journalist based in London. He has written for leading British media outlets including the Financial Times and The Guardian.

Picture credits: Andrea Artz, Grimshaw, Handforth Photography

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