This interview was first published in November, 2011
Opened late 2009, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, has come to be Saudi Arabia’s first LEED certified project and the world’s largest LEED Platinum project. Designed by HOK, the university is a super sustainable learning institution dedicated to advancing science and technology with a fellowship program that provides full tuition to both male and female graduate and doctorate students. The campus was designed as part of a larger master plan (also designed by HOK) to support a new town of 12,000 people living in over 6.5 million sqf on a 3,200 acre space along the Red Sea. Sited in an environment facing extraordinary challenges, including an extremely hot, humid climate, HOK was asked to create a low-energy, sustainable project that would also provide the necessary facilities to support cutting edge research and education, and a comfortable place to live. What resulted was a spectacular campus, that while modern in design, also draws deeply upon the traditional architecture of Saudi Arabia to minimize its energy needs. Structured like a traditional Arabic city, the campus is compressed to minimize the amount of exterior envelope exposed to the sun and reduce outdoor walking distances. The project also utilizes everything from passively cooled circulation thoroughfares, solar towers, traditional Arabic ‘mashrabiya‘ screens, water reclamation able to capture 100% of the wastewater, and more. We recently sat down with HOK’s Bill Odell, architect and Director of HOK’s Science & Technology group, to talk about the design of KAUST. Read on for Bill’s fascinating story on how he and his global team at HOK were able to construct this top-notch, high-tech institution, and how the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) helped them turn out the world’s biggest sustainable project in just 28 months.
INHABITAT: How did you get your start with HOK?
BILL: I came to HOK for one year in 1975 as a young designer. At the end of that year I intended to move to London to work for a British architect. However, things were going very well for me at HOK and the British architect’s office wasn’t doing so well. I stayed another year and have been here ever since.
INHABITAT: How did HOK’s involvement in the design of KAUST come about?
BILL: We responded to a fax requesting qualifications for a project that was not very well defined. We learned later that the same fax had gone to 70 or 80 firms around the world including the best of the best. Many firms simply didn’t respond. There was something very interesting if unclear about the request. We responded quickly, as did a dozen or so other firms.
The people from what became KAUST visited all of these firms over a couple of weeks time. At the end or our interview, they asked us to have another meeting several days later in London. We assumed this was a second interview. However, after about 30 minutes one of our group asked a question about the intent of the meeting. The answer was something like “Oh, you have the project, I guess we forgot to tell you that.” Ten days later we were in the middle of the first programming and design charrette. Afterwards they told us that we were selected because we were very enthusiastic about the mission, were positive that we could meet their schedule and organized in our approach. 34 months after this first meeting, KAUST opened for business.
INHABITAT: What role did traditional Saudi architecture play in the design of KAUST — both in terms of aesthetics and engineering?
BILL:Traditional regional architecture played a very significant role in the design of KAUST. It did so not in the aesthetic of the campus, but rather in the performance of the campus. There are many examples, such as traditional elements like a dense urban fabric where buildings shade each other. The solar load on building traditionally is almost completely controlled by many devices, including Mashrabiya screens. Homes and other buildings traditionally use wind towers that let warm air rise drawing cooler air low into the building. All of these are traditional approaches to the hot climate devised before electricity and air conditioning. We used all of these ideas and more to reduce the overall energy consumption of the campus. However, while we used the design principles of traditional elements, the architectural expression is clearly modern and employs modern materials and methods.
INHABITAT: What were the biggest challenges in designing the campus?
BILL: The schedule was the biggest challenge. We had 28 months from the start of design until move in for 5.5 million square feet of very complex space distributed in 27 separate buildings along with a community for 25,000 residents. One of the challenges that came from this schedule was selecting materials and design elements that not only would able to be procured quickly and be assembled by local labor, but also that could easily be maintained over time. An additional challenge was that KAUST, the organization, was being formed in parallel with the building design. This meant that we had no real client/user. The people representing KAUST were senior people on loan from ARAMCO, the large Saudi Oil company. Together we assembles a series of “expert panels” around various topics which served as our surrogate client for various aspects of the project.
INHABITAT: The university is located within a harsh climate, and you were asked to create a low-energy, highly sustainable project. How did BIM help you meet the points required to achieve LEED Platinum on such a complex project?
BILL: BIM was critical to all aspects of the project. It allowed up to model things very quickly. The architecture of course, but also the energy aspects, daylighting aspects and the computational fluid dynamic models all had their origin in the original BIM model.
INHABITAT: One standout structure is the monumental roof system that spans across building masses to block sun on facades and into the pedestrian spine in order to facilitate natural ventilation and to filter light. The structure also hosts solar panels on its outside surface. How did BIM help you optimize this particular structure?
BILL: In the first two to three weeks of design we were able to model literally dozens of scenarios. While all of these were not tested using BIM, many of them were. We had one Revit model we could study many different versions of the roof form very quickly, including daylight, energy and flows modeling. With Revit, this was able to be done with a very small team who focused only on the roof. We could never have done this using any other system.
INHABITAT: The KAUST design team was large and complex, working across several office locations, managing both an overall campus plan as well as detailed design of many different types of individual buildings. How did BIM help you work with different teams in addition to coordinating with other consultants?
BILL: We had people working on the project in 9 different HOK locations. We all worked from the same model, which made communication easy. In addition, for the first few months of the project, when the core design team was still small, we brought everyone together in one location for a week, one week here, one week there and so on. In this way, the team got to know each other very well. This made future communication much easier. We also were able to assign different parts of the overall design, the roof for example or the exterior skin system, to a subset of the team. They developed the key details in BIM that were then applied by the individual building design teams. It works fairly seamlessly.
INHABITAT: Impressively, the university was successfully completed in just 3 short years. What to you attribute the swift design and construction to?
BILL: Actually the design and construction were just under 28 months. We were able to do this for three key reasons. First, we had an outstanding contractor, Oger International / Saudi Oger, who worked with us from almost the beginning of design. They were embedded in our office, and we in theirs. With their extensive experience in the region, we were able to quickly zero-in on assemblies and materials that would work. The second reason was that we simplified the overall “kit of parts” for the design. While each of the 27 buildings house different functions, have different massings and orientations, the set of details of the exterior skin is very small. This made the design, procurement and construction go very quickly. The third reason we were successful was that we had an extraordinary team who were dedicated to the very visionary mission of KAUST. We were highly motivated to make KAUST a success.
INHABITAT: What has been the response to the building from the faculty, students and Saudi community?
BILL: The reaction has been extremely positive. We are still working for KAUST (fitting out the laboratories as they bring on new researchers) and we keep up with quite a few people there on a regular basis.
INHABITAT: What do you hope this campus will bring to the region?
BILL: Peace – followed by prosperity.