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King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Thuwal, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Cooling Off An Arabian Night: Traditional Saudi design merges with modern technology and forms in the large and ambitious King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), establishing a benchmark for sustainable design in the Middle East.


By Jane Kolleeny

At 83, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has no intention of slowing down; he remains vitally engaged in the future of his country. In fact, he is enthusiastically responding to the population explosion there, where 70 percent of the people are younger than 30 years old and 50 percent are under 15. Various ambitious initiatives are underway as a result, including the recently completed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the only overseas winner of AIA’s 2010 COTE awards and the largest LEED Platinum project ever built.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
Photo © J. Picoulet
When the sun sets and the breezes pick up, the KAUST campus comes alive and the buildings light up with a welcoming glow.

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Location Thuwal, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Red Sea Coast)
Gross area 5,340,000 ft2 (496,000 m2)
Completed September 2009
Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation) 74 kBtu/ft2 (838 MJ/m2)
Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 18 lbs. CO2/ft2 (90 kg CO2/m2)
Program Multiple campus and research buildings, administration, commons, library, auditorium, Marine Oceanic Research Center

LEED Scores

Owner Aramco Services Company of North America
Planning, architect, interior design, lab design, and MEP Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK)
Contractor Oger International
Engineers LJA Engineering (civil); R.G. Vanderweil Engineering (MEP); Solar Design Associates (photovoltaic)
Structural Engineer for special structures, parking and traffic consultant Walter P. Moore
Energy consultant MEP Affiliated Engineers
Energy consultant Arup
Building envelope consultant Front
Greenhouse consultant Agritechnove

Structural system Steel Rebar Heavy Structural Steel, Attieh Steel Saudi Oger
Masonry Terracotta, NBK—A Hunter Douglas Company
Exterior cladding Terracotta, NBK—A Hunter Douglas Company
Metal/glass curtain wall Mashrabiya, Alumco
Façade mounted metalworks Metalco
Concrete Saudi Readymix
Internal Curtain Walls Glass Alumatec
Internal Curtain Walls glass façade Alumco
Roofing Al Latifia, Kalzip, Thyssen Decking
Cabinetwork/custom woodwork Abet Laminati, Flores Valles
Wallcoverings Al Mulhem
Floor and wall tile Al-Mulhelm
Special surfacing ceiling Armstrong, L’Atelier Aziz Moussawer
Flooring Bentley Prince Street, Shaw Industries, Forbo Flooring Linoleum, Johnsonite, Interface Flor, Miliken & Co
Office furniture Knoll, Steelcase, Vitra, Nienkamper, Haworth, Herman Miller
Fixed seating Knoll, Cassina, Fritz Hansen, B&B Italia
Chairs Knoll, Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth
Tables Knoll, B&B Italia, Cassina, Bernhardt
Conveyance Alumco
Interior ambient Artimede, Alkco, Bega, Bega Limburg, Belfer Birchwood Bruck, Corelite Color Kinetics Crompton Cole, Delta Light Designplan, Erco Elliptipar Edison Price, Focal Point, Fail-Safe, Forms + Surfaces, Gardco, Guth, GVA, Insight, Io, Kurt Versen, Kenall, Linear, Ledalite, Lightolie,r Lithonia, LSI, Leucos, Louis, Poulsen, Lightwild, Martini, Modular, Neidhardt, Nendo, Hanabi, Neoray, Phoenix, Prudential, Pro-lume, RSA, Rig-A-Lite, Se’lux, Sterner, Tre Ci Luce, TIR Lightpipe, Vode, Wila, Winona, We-ef Zumtobel
Exterior Hess Lighting, Se’lux Lighting, Erco Lighting, IO Lighting
Controls Lutron

Planned and designed by HOK, KAUST consists of a 5.3-million-square-foot university and town for 10,000 to 12,000 people, which occupy 3,200 acres on a flat desert coastal plain north of Jeddah on the Red Sea. The client, Aramco Services Company of North America, initiated the project as a key contributor to the transformation of the country’s economy and the reform of its educational system. In keeping with KAUST’s agenda, which focuses on researching renewable energy (perhaps anticipating a time when the country’s oil reserves run low), the campus demonstrates an impressive portfolio of sustainable-design strategies.

A green agenda in such an extremely hot and humid climate would prove challenging on its own, but a stringent three-year schedule ups the ante considerably. HOK, with its multi-disciplined staff of over 1,800 employees in 23 offices, had the resources needed to undertake such a project. Even still, responding to a commission at this scale, with the vastly compressed timeframe, compelled them to assemble planning and design staff from nine offices to work together at warp speed in an unprecedented integrated design effort. They started with an around-the-world charrette in 2006 dubbed “Racing the Sun,” which involved a 24-hour window where each office team had two hours to suggest ideas for the project. According to William Hellmuth, AIA, president of HOK, “The charrette resulted in many design ideas that found their way into the project at multiple levels, but the most important one was designing the ‘team’ that would work on the project.” Since that kick-off, dozens of HOK’s planning professionals joined hundreds of their colleagues to successfully complete the project by 2009. “What was driving people wasn’t ‘orders’ but rather that all of us got completely juiced by the incredibly audacious mission of KAUST,” remarks William Odell, FAIA, one of two lead designers on HOK’s team.

And what a plan it is—the campus includes a total of about 20 buildings arranged in a semi-circle, which border a harbor on the Red Sea. The architects raised the university a level above ground to allow room for support services necessary for lab buildings. In an effort to condense the space and reduce outdoor walking distances, they located the labs around a grand plaza called University Square, which is the hub of the complex and links it with a full range of community services and amenities. Activity is especially lively at night when the sun goes down and the breezes pick up. Conceived as an Arabian market, the central zone’s pedestrian scale and series of interlaced plazas, walkways, and connector streets feature open spaces and bridges that provide access to dining and retail, and places for people to gather. This square hugs the harbor, where a coral reef, marine sanctuary, and research area are located.

The architects used modern approaches to traditional Arabic design. Covered by 130,000 square feet of solar thermal and PV arrays (that together generate 9,616,481 kBtu a year), a Bedouin tent-inspired roof system spans across buildings to block the sun on facades and cover the outdoor pedestrian spine. In addition to this big move, other strategies include “the density of the plan so buildings self-shade themselves; the mashrabia [Arabic lattice screening] which morphed into terracotta screens in our design; the solar towers which borrow from traditional homes in Jeddah; and the covered streets of the souk, which became our spine,” says Odell.

Colin Rohlfing, HOK’s sustainability director, explains how light is brought into the interiors of buildings as singular “shards” to help control heat gain. A 5 percent aperture has been designed into specific roof areas to achieve this effect while also keeping solar heat gain low, as identified in energy models. “It took us a week of modeling to verify what thousands of years of traditional design were telling us,” he says.

Through convection, two solar towers use the sun and Red Sea breezes to naturally ventilate the approximately 1 million square feet of space within the outdoor circulation spine. “The towers use solar energy to heat the air and create a draft that builds on the air movement caused by other natural effects. Wind speed is monitored at several locations throughout the pedestrian spine and the information is used to control dampers in the solar towers to throttle wind speed to optimum comfort levels,” explains Gary Kuzma, HOK MEP engineer.

After employing as many passive strategies as possible, the team selected climate-appropriate and efficient MEP systems to further decrease demand. Chilled beams, heat-recovery wheels, displacement ventilation, smart lighting controls, variable frequency drives, and low-flow duct design were all incorporated into the design.

According to HOK’s Neil Eisenberger, landscape designers used water to connect the parts of the campus. This included fountains, runnels, a water wall, and the Sea Court, a large stepped water feature between the library and commons area and the harbor. “The whole system is envisioned as a ‘wadi’ [literally valley in Arabic], which cuts its way through the site towards the sea,” he explains. Water reclaimed from condensate, along with storm-, gray-, and blackwater systems, provide irrigation. Such water-saving strategies, as well as low-flow faucets, showerheads, and waterless urinals, have reduced demand by 40 percent.

Coordination and training of 25,000 on-site workers to follow LEED requirements for construction waste management, an indoor air quality management plan, commissioning, and erosion control were all monumental aspects of the scope. In addition, the entire university implemented a sustainable operations plan including recycling, composting, green cleaning, electric service vehicles, and an alternative transportation plan. Building automation allows the facilities staff to make changes to the systems to maintain efficiency.

The architects employed a materials palette of terracotta, stone, glass, and stainless steel. Few existing products in Saudi Arabia met LEED requirements before KAUST, but the scale of the project motivated contractors and manufacturers to create products that did. This resulted in 38 percent of materials being manufactured within 500 miles of the site, and 21 percent containing recycled content. Ninety-nine percent of the wood was FSC certified.

KAUST opened in September of 2009 as Saudi Arabia’s first coed campus. With King Abdullah’s $10-billion endowment, the campus has become the 10th wealthiest university in the world. Through post-occupancy surveys, automation systems, and built-in sub-metering and controls, facility managers will be apprised of how the building is performing. Locally, KAUST’s achievement of LEED Platinum certification created a cornerstone, which has inspired plans for the Saudi Arabian chapter of the World Green Building Council. One of the COTE jurors referred to the building as “a truly bold statement that [the country] is ready to move beyond the age of oil.”

This article appeared in the July 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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