Despite a design and construction timeline of just 30 months, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology fulfills its mission as a flexible, user-friendly lab space.


The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, situated on the shore of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, is the world’s largest LEED Platinum laboratory, totaling more than 5.5 million square feet. The research center will be the centerpiece of a new economic city that has been built to lead the country’s technological development. All Photos: Sam Fentress

The Arabian Peninsula is full of wonders, both ancient and new. It is home to the world's largest mosque, the Masjid al-Haran in Mecca, and the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Now, one of the world's largest laboratories can be added to the list. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) campus, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, was completed in September 2009 to meet the goals of its patron, King Abdullah, to diversify the country's economy.

Famous for its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia is eager to transition away from a resource-based economy. More than 40% of the country's population is age 15 or younger, and Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s monarch and originator of the project concept, understood that to encourage the growth of sectors beyond fossil fuels, a catalyst must be created.

The goal for KAUST was to create a highly flexible and adaptable lab environment, spur research and economic development, and integrate buildings with the Arabian environment. The university would accommodate up to 2,000 students, host dozens of research groups, and include a business incubator and research park. Research would take place in areas most in need of major advances, and in areas conducive to the expertise of the surrounding region. A catalyst research center, for example, would be developed to enable a variety of devices including sensors and fuel sensors. Geometric modeling and scientific visualization, powered by a supercomputer facility, would push the envelope of materials science. And a computational bioscience laboratory would develop innovative knowledge discovery and data integration platforms for the biomedical field.

To accommodate these and six other major research centers, a major facility would need to be constructed. From the beginning, the project was full of superlatives: 5.5 million square feet of facilities on 100 acres, support for up to 3,400 researchers, the world's largest LEED Platinum project, and a design and project completion time of just 30 months. But KAUST was selected as R&D Magazine's Laboratory of the Year (new construction category) for 2011 not just because the lab is impressive in scale. The annual competition evaluates the unique challenge such a project presented for designers. The competition’s judges were impressed that the laboratory's designer, HOK, was able to meet a demanding time frame and fulfill the client’s mission to create a magnet laboratory and university facility, and do so while meeting sustainability goals.

"It was a great challenge for anyone," says T.H. Chang, laboratory design leader at HOK. "They were a forward-thinking client, open to new, innovative ideas to explore."

Designing the design process
Rome was not built in a day, and neither was the world's largest LEED Platinum project. But KAUST did take shape in a startlingly short time.

Just three months after the formal design phase began, construction started on what would become a community able to support up to 20,000 people.

The project's goal was to establish KAUST as a player in the global research community. By building a spacious laboratory that was at the same time comfortable and flexible, the laboratory's owner and manager, Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, hoped to achieve a formula to successfully recruit international faculty.

KAUST Thin Film

One of the mandates for the lab’s design was the necessity for every laboratory space to be modular. Equipment, cabinetry, and fittings in this thin films laboratory, can be relocated if necessary.

One of the biggest challenges was melding what are usually two distinct stages in the formation of a new university. Typically, before ground is broken, academic, institutional, and industry partnerships must be established, and a vision for sustainable research should be clear. According to Richard R. Rietz, an independent laboratory design consultant, and 2011 Laboratory of the Year (LOY) judge, building both the concept and the structure is unprecedented.

"The 30-month schedule, and construction starting three months into the project, is almost unbelievable for a project of this scale. Many institutions take five to 10 years to do a project of only one-fiftieth the scale," says Rietz.

According to Jeff Ryan, HOK's vice president, King Abdullah wanted to set a new paradigm for research in the Middle East. And he wanted it yesterday.

"The good news is that we had that lofty charge, but the difficulty was that we had that schedule. Big decisions were made pretty quickly. Adopting a fast track was part of the process; we made decisions and lived with them," says Ryan.

That created some headaches. HOK began by attempting to provide unique signatures to different areas of what would be a very large campus. This time-consuming approach was ultimately replaced with a more efficient, integrated method.

"From my point of view, the project was very different from what we usually do. We couldn't tackle the project in the traditional way. For six weeks we did separate areas as separate projects. When we pinned the whole thing up, it was not what we expected and we had to rethink the whole process," says Ryan, who led the design of the laboratory buildings on campus, as well as the university center and business data center. To give some perspective, the laboratory spaces alone totaled more than 2 million square feet, exceeding the total square footage of the legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey.

The master plan was completed quickly, between October 2009 and January 2010. Experts were brought in to act as users or consultants during the design phase, a move that helped designers focus on the most important issues and make corrections early in the process.

Because the timeline was of paramount importance in the project, HOK's leadership was acutely aware of the pressure to produce a cohesive design early on in the process. Designing the design process first is crucial, Ryan says, so HOK took the time to hammer out a collective set of design principles, goals, and strategies for the whole campus.

"Everyone has a different sensibility and way of thinking about things. The trick is to have everyone going in the same direction," says Ryan.

Despite the size of the project's budget, the timescale and available resources meant that the sky wasn't always the limit for designers. Architects were forced to make decisions quickly while keeping in mind what the contractors were capable of delivering. "Simple", "repeatable", and "flexible" became watchwords that directed the final design.

"We ended up making a neighborhood concept where we repeated a theme over and over again while differentiating the details. The goal was to repeat something, but not make it homogeneous," says Ryan.


One of the major accomplishments of KAUST’s designers, led by HOK, was the construction of a lab space that, despite a challenging environment and intense sunlight, makes optimal use of open design and natural lighting effects to create a welcoming and productive atmosphere.

The same, but different
According to Rietz, KAUST contains just about every modern lab concept known today. Just a few of the notable features include: interchangeable lab neighborhoods, changeable lab support zones, grid planning, kit-of-parts lab furniture, walkable interstitial space, overhead lab services, MEP systems integrated with lab grid, heat recovery wheels, lab visibility/transparency, collaboration spaces, simple and large circulation spines, high-height pilot areas, and lab daylighting.

The full-coverage plinth, which helps the laboratory mitigate the effects of intense Red Sea sunshine, is one of the major design features and lends character and lightness to a design that might otherwise be weighed down by its sheer size.

The arrangement of the lab's footprint was one of the earliest decisions that had to be made. Interestingly, says Ryan, the best solution was something of an echo of traditional Arabic towns. When designers looked at the layout of these towns, "everything was super-tight and really pushed together. People didn't have to travel far, and the buildings helped each other shoulder the burden of the sun."

This measure was necessary, because the energy load on the surface of the buildings would be high. HOK was forced to be conservative in their approach to daylighting as well. To capitalize on the desire to make a more compact campus, daylighting was used more at the perimeter and minimized toward the center to produce a cooler campus core.

Repetitious lab blocks meant that any program could go in any location, and be moved whenever needed. According to LOY judge Barry Shiel, associate principal at Payette, Boston, the individual laboratory modules were accomplished with few structural interruptions, and provided well-organized access to systems and high bay capabilities for instrumentation. Based on his observations of the project, the laboratory interstitial space was the engine for the modular and repetitive laboratories. The scheme was effective, he says, because the approach allowed for high bay zones within the labs, increasing the long-term flexibility and adaptability of the labs.

"One of the strengths of the design of the labs is the repetitive modularity that supported flexible adaptability for laboratory fit-out. These generic plan modules enabled parallel development of the research program without limits," says Shiel.

The central atrium is part of the integrated dry laboratory, and the only partition between the lab desks and the wet laboratory is a glass wall. This layout, the judges recognized, provides a feeling of flexibility and promotes collaboration.

"The structure of the university was organized in such a way that there are no schools or departments in the conventional sense," says Chang. Instead, researchers were organized by the type of work they do so that collaboration could occur more easily.

"Our approach was to make sure we organize all these research laboratories to encourage interaction," Chang continues. That said, the adaptability of the lab spaces was also important.

"Two items in particular stand out with me. First, the very large, truly open, column-free spaces allow easy movement of people and materials. Second, the ability to truly move an entire lab, even the sinks, brought ‘flexibility’ to a new level. These are features that every facility could consider," says LOY judge David Withee, SEFA representative and manager, sales and marketing, Diversified Woodcrafts, Suring, Wis.

Judges observed that energy costs for building access and public circulation were effectively eliminated through the use of shade and natural ventilation driven by the solar chimneys.

KAUST Daylight

To maximize sustainable design and minimize isolation, designers drew inspiration from the close-knit model of the traditional Arabian village. This encouraged the formation of collaboration spaces in between core research laboratories.

A challenging environment
The unique desert climate of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East created opportunities and challenges for HOK. Ample sunlight and limited rainfall and potable water resources all dictated careful designs in both earning LEED credits and ensuring the long-term viability of the lab.

"In Saudi Arabia, the sun is so difficult that making shade in a really effective way is important," says Ryan. To that end, the architects built a passively cool pedestrian spine. The hope, says Ryan, is that a sense of calm and relaxation would be provided by walking in this space. Conference rooms and cafes overlook the spine; a necklace of passages, with pockets of courtyards, surrounds it. The effect is of a shaded environment, but with dramatic natural light.

In addition to intense sunlight, designers had to consider the two significant nearby ecologies. The first is a coral reef located off the coast in the Red Sea. The other is a mangrove near the coast.

"This climate is one of the most saline-rich environments in the world to build in. We have to be careful of how materials oxidize," says Ryan.

Terra cotta was used extensively because of its ability to resist high salt content, but where metallic fittings were needed they were proofed against oxidation. The humidity of the region is also typically high, Ryan says, and employing successful sustainable strategies in hot, humid climates is one of the most challenging prospects an architect can face. The plans had to minimize impact on these areas while also being in the right location to connect with the future King Abdullah Economic City and with Jeddah, which is about 60 miles to the south.

Despite encountering difficulties in procuring certain types of materials, high levels of recycled products were used in the construction. Other sustainability measures built into the lab include widespread use of energy recovery wheels. The initial design relies on a high-efficiency fossil fuel physical plant, but the buildings support a roof capable of carrying 12,000-m2 of solar thermal and photovoltaic arrays. When installed, these arrays will use the sun to produce 3,300 MWh of energy per year. Overall, the competition's judges deemed KAUST’s sustainability measures a significant accomplishment given the project’s scope.

"First, it is an amazing building, built under extreme climate and demographic conditions. Second, the internal design stayed true to the vision of the experts who were consulted," says Withee. "Finally, to achieve Platinum LEED in this challenging environment is simply amazing. While the funding source makes this project unique and difficult to duplicate, there are still important lessons from which everyone can benefit."

All of the elements combined
The judges were impressed with KAUST on multiple fronts. The total flexibility, high hat areas for research, ability to attract world-class talent, LEED Platinum status, livability, and sustainability all contributed to its selection as a winner. It helped, too, that the project's price, which was ultimately not disclosed, was not the top priority in the design of the laboratory.

"While many people will likely focus on the extraordinary scale of this project, I am most impressed with the very short timeline. They succeeded because they concentrated from the beginning on working with partners with a proven track record of successful performance on similar projects. I realize this is not a 'new' approach per se, but it is an approach that most projects no longer use due to the focus on low-cost bidding,” says Withee.

As such, he continues, KAUST probably cannot serve as a model for future bid projects. But it does show that any project can be done quickly.

"The wide range of research centers housed in one facility makes this project unique and world class, not to mention the surroundings and buildings which encase this research," says LOY judge Jim Contratto, vice president of McCarthy Building Cos., St. Louis.

Vital Stats

Project: The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

Size: 4 million square feet; 2.1 million square foot laboratory; 5.5 million square foot campus

Cost: Cost not published

Owner: Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Architect, Lab Planner, Lead MEP Engineer, Interiors: HOK

Architect of Record: Oger International, Paris

MEP (Fire Protection): R.G. Vanderweil Engineers, Boston

MEP (Energy Modeling): Affiliated Engineers Inc., Seattle

Structural Engineer: HOK and Walter P. Moore, Houston

Environmental Consultant: RWDI, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Civil Engineer: LJA Engineering, Houston

Landscape Architect: HOK Planning Group, Atlanta

Lighting Design and Consulting: HOK and Pivotal Lighting Design, Seattle

Advanced Fabrication Cleanroom Consultant: Abbie Gregg, Inc., Tempe, Ariz.










Published in R & D magazine: Vol. 53, No. 3, 2011, June