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Zira Zero Island is the up-and-coming carbon-neutral resort and housing development similar to Dongton in China, Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Rioja in Mexico. The development will include residential, commercial and recreational units and spaces, and will be located in the Caspian Sea on the crescent-shaped island off of the coast of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. It is one of the first urban developments of its kind within the Caucasus and Central Asia. In stride with the significant economic and political progress of the region, Zira Zero Island is to reflect the worldwide, increasingly popular trend that calls for modern architectural developments to be energy efficient, low in waste production and sustainable for life and business. It is expected to significantly decrease the levels of carbon emitted by its inhabitants over the next decade.
Over the last few years, Azerbaijan has collectively engaged in a quest to rediscover its national identity as a young, post-soviet democracy. Zira Zero Island is one such exploration of the nation’s new identity. Moreover, the development’s design as a carbon-neutral, green society is a step towards shifting the country’s dependence on oil. The Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels (BIG) designed the 1,000,000 square metre resort and residential development. BIG’s design of Zira Zero is founded largely on the notion that the island’s architectural landscape should reflect the natural topography of Azerbaijan as well as operate entirely off of its own resources. To this end, the design has been described as providing “high-end living with low-end resource usage.” Consequently, the Zira Zero Island development includes seven large peaks, a reflection and ode to the famous Seven Peaks of Azerbaijan and an intentional attempt by BIG to create an iconographic skyline easily recognizable from Baku’s nearby coast. In line with the philosophy that developments should be green, sustainable and less damaging to the earth like the countless developments of today and yesterday, Zira Zero Island has been designed as an autonomous ecosystem where air, water, heat and energy flows are all created and managed for future use thanks to almost entirely natural forces – some present in and around the island, and some created through BIG’s architectural design. For example, the island’s seven peaks create biotopes, areas with uniform environmental conditions that provide living spaces for a specific assemblage of plants and animals (otherwise known as a biological community). Wind simulations through the island’s mountains have pinpointed ideal locations for trees to be planted, meaning where simulations have shown that winds will be strongest, trees will be more densely planted to help reduce wind speeds and contribute to a more leisurely outdoor climate. The development’s design also allows for water to be channeled and heat to be stored, further contributing to the efficient and self-sustainable aspect of Zira Zero Island. Ultimately, the amount of energy consumed by the island will total the amount of energy it will produce.
The island’s buildings will be heated and cooled by heat pumps connected to the Caspian Sea, while solar heat panels that have been integrated into the architecture will provide hot water. Photovoltaics located on strategic locations such as facades and roof tops will power swimming pools, aqua parks and other daytime-use facilities. A wastewater treatment plant will help to collect, clean, process and recycle waste and storm water for irrigation. There will also be a desalination plant to provide the island with drinking water. Lastly, an offshore wind farm will provide a carbon dioxide-neutral energy supply.
The mountains stand out when observing the island from Baku’s coast, and while symbolic of the country’s natural landscape, they also have strong functional properties. Each mountain offers space for both public and private functions and services. Essentially, each mountain will function as a large, multi-purpose building. A public valley, including a golf course, will occupy the development’s central space, tying together all of the various private resort villages and beaches on the island’s periphery. The design’s master plan also includes 300 private villas with panoramic views of the Caspian Sea.
While admirable in theory and laudable for its size and ingenuity, whether or not the island will actually be a success is a point to debate. Its location does suggest that the island would not be fully inhabited due to its separation from the mainland despite the existence of ferries to and from Baku. Zira Zero Island is sure to sustain itself in terms of resources, but can the companies and individuals who opt to move there sustain their lives and businesses? Moreover, it is not yet known whom this development will cater to. Judging from the master plan, housing may be expensive and therefore exclusive. If the design’s philosophy is of a modern flavor, incorporating eco- conscious considerations, a more egalitarian view of the island’s potential patrons should be adopted.
If the island proves to be more of a resort, which some reports claim, the notion that it will dramatically reduce carbon emissions over the next decade is doubtful as there will be inconsistent numbers of people on the island throughout the seasons. Ultimately, the answer will be unknown until it is fully constructed and operational. On the other hand, exploring one’s history and new national identity through contemporary and innovative architectural structures is commendable. Using the countries natural landscape as inspiration and reflecting it in a modern style through industrial, architectural shapes will certainly be a landmark in the country’s recent history.