The award-winning Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is leading the way in sustainability, while sharing its heritage with future generations
“What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is to Al Ain and Abu Dhabi,” explains Afra Mohammed Al Darmaki, public programmes manager at Al Ain Zoo. “It’s a monument.”
Located in the heart of Al Ain, the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is a living testament to the legacy of the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Protecting the environment and local species was an important issue to the late leader, who in 1968 launched a captive breeding programme for the endangered Arabian Oryx, just a stone’s throw away from where the centre lies today.
As Sheikh Zayed once said: “The environment is a dear part of our heritage, civilisation and future. Moreover it represents a great emotional value of our consciousness so we took great care to exert every effort to protect it and protect our wealth.”
It’s with this sentiment in mind that the centre was built, to share the message of sustainability and conservation with a new generation and ensure that, as the UAE continues to prosper, it also retains its rich heritage.
“I think the centre perfectly represents the vision of the late father,” explains Afra.
“We are following his footsteps on a journey of sustainability and conserving the environment by educating visitors and giving them a memorable experience so that when they leave the centre they know they can have a positive impact and effect on the environment of the UAE.”
Dedicated to celebrating the history of the nation, its culture, environment and the lessons that can be learned from the Bedouin way of life, the centre is a hub where visitors can get a real sense of the essence of the nation and its humble origins.
The eco-friendly building, which is part museum and part science centre, can be broken down into three broad themes: learning from the past, assessing the present and sharing knowledge so that we can all benefit in the future.
With five galleries covering the legacy of Sheikh Zayed, geology, conservation, the local environment and future initiatives, the centre hopes to leave a lasting impression on young people who step through the doors.
Visitors will gain an understanding of the desert environment and how it was formed, the animals that thrive in the challenging conditions, how Bedouins used the land to survive and what they can do in their everyday lives to meet global challenges like climate change and water shortage.
“It’s a place for people to learn, especially children, where they can go on a journey from the past to the future,” adds Afra.
“Our aim is to truly inspire young people to pursue an education in sustainability and open their eyes to new fields of study that they can explore in their lives. We also want to share initiatives of the Abu Dhabi government to preserve the environment and encourage visitors to take responsibility to face global challenges and live in a sustainable way.
“Everyone that visits the centre and lives in the UAE can do more to protect the environment; it’s all about education, learning what needs to be done and how you can help.”
From the ground up
While the centre is helping to educate the people of the UAE, the building itself is worthy of recognition as a beacon for sustainable development practices.
The structure was designed to save 50 percent of the energy and water usage of buildings the same size and a 70 percent reduction on heat absorption to reduce the reliance on air conditioning during the summer months.
In addition, 92 percent of the construction waste was recycled, reused or repurposed, making the centre one of the most sustainable construction projects in the region.
In recognition of this, the centre has received local and international acclaim, being the first structure to receive a Five Pearl rating from Estidama as well as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification.
“This building is so beautiful and we don’t have anything else like it in Abu Dhabi. As an Emirati I’m very proud of it and the message it sends,” Afra explains.
“When making the building, they used materials from the surrounding region. The furthest away any of the materials came from was Oman where they brought some of the stone.
“Solar panels are being used to help power the building with clean energy; the whole building has been well thought-out, brilliantly designed and completed.
“When you visit you’ll notice that it’s designed as a spiral and most of the areas are open to help the air ventilate. Plus, at the heart of the building we have a well, where the cool water that sits at the bottom helps with ventilation around the building and to keep it cool in the summer.
“There are also a lot of windows that have been included to bring in more light and reduce energy consumption and the lights that we do use are LED. It was essential that the building had a very low carbon footprint.”
From the concept to the execution of the project, every effort has been made to be as sustainable as possible. So much so that even the water used in the centre is recycled and used to irrigate the plant life surrounding the building.
But it’s the message behind the centre as a whole that’s a sense of great pride to Afra and other Emiratis.
“Great effort has gone into making this centre a leading light for sustainable projects in the country,” says Afra.
“But the way we are carrying the message of Sheikh Zayed to protect, celebrate and honour the natural environment of the UAE is the most meaningful tribute we could have to a great leader.”
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WORDS Colin Armstrong