Qatar Foundation: Building world-class facilities

18 September 2009

Ensuring high architectural standards has been a key focus for the Qatar Foundation in its bid to transform a barren patch of land into a modern centre of educational excellence

“The facilities and environment add to the educational process,” says Saad al-Muhannadi, vice-president of capital projects and facilities management for the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development. “If you have a beautifully designed building with daylight and natural ventilation, it helps the process of learning.”

The Qatar Foundation has spared no expense in its efforts to deliver the infrastructure needed to transform a barren patch of land on the western edge of Doha into Education City, its model of excellence for education, research and healthcare in the region. The young people who study at the campus today are fortunate enough to attend lectures in what are probably the best designed and most modern university buildings in the world.

Highest standards

“The golden word for the Qatar Foundation was quality,” says Al-Muhannadi. “That is why we have chosen quality architects and contractors to execute these projects. Our philosophy is that the facilities have to be the highest quality you can achieve in the market today.”

Given the enormity of the task assigned to the Qatar Foundation by Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani when it was set up in 1995 to spearhead the transformation of Qatar into a knowledge-based economy by 2030, it would have been inappropriate if the facilities had been anything other than architectural masterpieces.

One of the many incentives used to attract the six US universities that have so far opened satellite campuses at Education City was the promise of a world-class, purpose-built building, for which the university could help select the architect and be consulted on the design. The quality of building on the universities projects has far exceeded expectations.

Japan’s Arata Isozaki set the style and tone of the project, drawing up the conceptual masterplan for the site. The chief objective was to create aesthetically striking, modern buildings that reflect both the surrounding environment and Qatar’s Islamic heritage, while being practical and functional.

One recurring feature is the clever use of space, natural light and geometric patterns. Isozaki has also designed several individual buildings, including the ceremonial court, the convention centre, the liberal arts and science building, and a facility for Weill Cornell Medical College.

However, Mexican father and son architectural team Legorreta & Legorreta take the credit for what is widely considered the most beautiful building delivered to date at Education City, occupied by Carnegie Mellon University.

The architects specified the use of materials such as marble and stone that both match the environment and age well. Daylight and water features have been used to create a tranquil central atrium, while elsewhere in the 42,000-square-metre building, bold splashes of colour have been used.

Ground was broken on the project in May 2006, and at the height of the construction, 2,300 workers were on site. In the process, 87,173 cubic metres of soil and rock were excavated and 38,283 cubic metres of concrete were poured. The building was completed in August 2008 and contains 1,590 kilometres of data and power cables, 734 interior doors, and more than 9,000 lighting fixtures.

Legorreta & Legorreta also designed the -neighbouring Texas A&M building, which was completed in 2007, having taken one year and 10 months to construct. The facility is best known for the pyramids that cluster around its -forecourt. The main door to the building was made by Saudi firm Metal Artwork, and -weighing 2.5 tonnes, it had to be installed using a forklift truck.

Legorreta & Legorreta was also the architect for the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service facility, a project it says attempts to break down the monumentality of the building to a more human scale to make the student feel comfortable and create a homely environment. The handover is due to take place in 2010.

Education City will be home to more than just educational facilities. It is a hugely ambitious project that includes a $2.3bn hospital, a conference and exhibition centre, an equine centre and a light railway, among many other complex schemes.

The futuristic Sidra Medical & Research Centre was designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli. The use of natural lighting and indoor gardens are described as central to the ‘healing experience’ Sidra hopes to offer to its patients in an effort to avoid the institutionalised feeling associated with many hospitals. The hospital will initially house 412 beds when it opens in 2012, but will have infrastructure to expand to 550 beds.

Al-Shaqab equestrian centre is being built on an 800,000 sq m plot in Education City. It will accommodate more than 400 horses and include competition arenas, a veterinary hospital, a museum and a library.

The Qatar National Convention Centre will include a 2,500-seat, three-tiered auditorium, a conference hall for up to 4,000 delegates, 40,000 sq m of exhibition space and a further 52 meeting rooms.

Rail connections

Education City is also intended to have a main rail station, which will connect the light rail system for travel within the campus to the underground railway planned by the government, and in time with the GCC railway. 

The first three buildings of the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), which also forms part of the Education City masterplan, are already occupied. QSTP’s inauguration in March 2009 was a significant milestone for the Qatar Foundation and its bid to jump-start a research culture in Qatar. The foundation was applauded by the 20 or so international technology firms that are now tenants of the building for providing them with world-class research facilities.

Australia’s Woods Bagot was the architect for the project. The company says the initial bid documents for QSTP requested the construction of a Western-style business park. It was only as face-to-face talks with the Qatar Foundation began and the wider aims of the Education City project became obvious that QSTP turned from being a -pragmatic series of warehouses into an iconic landmark. “The function of building is all about innovation and research, and we felt it had to reflect that in the design as well,” says Mark Mitcheson-Low, project director for QSTP at Woods Bagot. “The brief was for something not just unique to Qatar but for the science park industry, because why else would people come to Qatar unless the facilities set a new benchmark for this type of industry?”

The result has been the creation of three integrated buildings comprising flexible workspaces that can easily be adapted to the research needs of the tenant.

“We wanted to give it a campus feel to create the sense of a knowledge community around the building,” says Mitcheson-Low. “So it had to have semi-public spaces and courtyards where people could meet.”

To achieve this in a desert environment, the buildings were sited close together and linked by shaded walkways. The car park was located underground both for practical reasons and to assist with creating a car-free, campus-like atmosphere. Filtered light, steel, glass and stone were used to give the building a contemporary feel and patterning reminiscent of the local architecture.

“We used durable material that reflected the technology and innovation but would also last,” says Mitcheson-Low. “It has set a benchmark for this type of facility worldwide. It has given an insight to what these types of buildings can be.”

From design to completion, the QSTP project took five years.

The construction of Education City has been an enormous challenge on many fronts. First was the sheer number of projects to execute in a tight timeframe. This was complicated by the fact that the masterplan has continually evolved as new institutions sign up to Education City or another idea is born, necessitating another building to be designed and constructed.

“We are growing so fast and have a very dynamic masterplan that can accommodate changes,” says Al-Muhannadi. “But trying to keep yourself up to date with the growth and control the infrastructure design and implementation has been a big challenge.”

The Qatar Foundation has had to enlist the help of state energy firm Qatar Petroleum to execute all the projects on its books. “The Qatar Foundation has exploded in terms of projects and requirements, and the pool of people we had at the time was not sufficient to handle such projects,” says Al-Muhannadi. “Qatar Petroleum had the human resources and processes and policies that could manage the huge projects because of its experience. It has been very helpful.”

A further frustration is that the major construction push for the Education City project coincided with a region-wide construction boom that resulted in a shortage of qualified contractors and consultants, as well as sharp increases in the cost of raw materials. Inevit-ably, this has led to significant cost overruns.

“There was a huge jump in construction costs, almost 100 per cent,” says Al-Muhannadi. “But it did not deter us from seeking the quality we were looking for.”

He is quick to dismiss suggestions that the Qatar Foundation tried to achieve too much too soon. “The region is in serious need of quality educational institutions,” he says. “The ambition was high and for this region to catch up with the rest of the world we needed to do things much faster than normal. We have taken the challenge on in all aspects. Everything has been done in a very short time with a lot of effort, but we have never lost sight of the quality in what we are trying to achieve, and I think that is very evident now.”

Despite these self-imposed time constraints, the Qatar Foundation has made environmental awareness a priority. About five years ago, the foundation’s board decided that all future buildings at Education City should be certified by the ratings system used by the US’ Green Buildings Council, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (Leed). “In most of our buildings we are aspiring to achieve not less than gold certification,” says Al-Muhannadi.

The design of student accommodation in Education City achieved a platinum rating. However, since this standard demands that materials are procured within a 600km radius, the intricate designs of the other buildings at Education City make it impractical for the Qatar Foundation to aim for this level of certification across the whole site.

In the near future, part of Education City’s power requirement will be met through solar technology. GreenGulf, a tenant of QSTP, is researching solar-to-electricity conversion methods. It will run trials of photovoltaic and solar-thermal power generation technologies before building a 500kW solar plant. The plant will only be able to make a small contribution to the power requirement of Education City because of the immense size of the project.

Although Education City already occupies a vast site, covering 14 sq km, Al-Muhannadi says the Qatar Foundation is examining possibilities for further land acquisitions.

“We are fortunate to have a huge area that will accommodate our requirements for 10 years to come, but we don’t want to repeat the example of some of the American universities that had campuses in the middle of the city and could not expand due to the limitations of the site,” he says. “They have had to create branch campuses elsewhere and it really cuts the connectivity between them. That is why we were given so much land.

“But with the growth we are experiencing, most of it has already been masterplanned. So I think there will be a need to increase in size, as there are a lot of new projects on the radar. I hope it will not affect the existing residential areas around us, but any successful project naturally grows.”

The masterplan includes provisions to accommodate another 10 universities. “We don’t know how many universities there will be,” says Al-Muhannadi. “We know two more major programmes are coming, but we have planned to accommodate 10 more in terms of plot allocation just in case. This is not necessarily an indication of how many universities the Qatar Foundation will seek.”

Facilities management

Building the physical infrastructure is only the start of the Education City project. The Qatar Foundation then has to manage and operate the vast complex.

The foundation initially looked at contracting out the facilities management but having studied the market, it decided to bring it in-house. “We felt the culture of facilities management was not yet there in Qatar and the region,” says Al-Muhannadi. “So we established our own department and staffed it with qualified people, and it has been very successful.

“Of course we have contracted out a lot of activities as maintenance contracts, such as MEPs [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] and civils, cleaning and security, but the main management is done in-house.”

He does not rule out the Qatar Foundation contracting out its facilities management one day, however. “Every two years we evaluate what is the best way forward,” says Al-Muhannadi. “We are not rigid and are looking at the models used in advanced countries. If there is a chance we can get a good organisation to help us with facilities management, we would not shy away from that.”

Even the Qatar Foundation does not know when Education City will shift from being a construction project to purely a facilities management operation.“The end-date keeps changing,” says Al-Muhannadi. “Once we have a deadline, suddenly there are more projects. But we are looking at 2015 as our target to finish the whole of Education City. That is the known projects, of course. There will probably be other projects that are not yet on the radar screen.”

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