It normally takes years, even centuries, for a university to become established as a world-recognised centre for research.

The UK’s Oxford University was founded in the 11th century, while its rival, the University of Cambridge, opened in the 12th century, as did the University of Paris. Even the relative newcomers in the US have histories that stretch back hundreds of years. Harvard University opened in 1636, Yale in 1701, and Prince-ton in 1746.

On 23 September 2009, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud travelled to the small Red Sea fishing town of Thuwal, 80 kilometres north of Jeddah, to open King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust), the occasion marked the creation, from scratch, of a major centre for cutting-edge scientific and technological research in just three years.

Key facts

40,000 – Number of construction workers on the Kaust site at the project’s peak

80 kilometres – Distance of the Kaust campus from Jeddah

2,000 – Number of research students Kaust aims to have within 10 years

Source: MEED

“Almost all the other universities were built to educate people,” says Mohamed Samaha, senior vice-president of research and economic development at Kaust.

“They evolved over hundreds of years. In the end they discovered that, if you teach the same subject matter for 10 or 20 years, you are educating people who are way behind, so the idea of having research that educated people with the latest ideas was born, and today all the best universities have research and education fully integrated. At Kaust, we couldn’t wait hundreds of years. And the model we chose was a novel one. We would integrate research and education from day one.”

Economic development

Kaust is one of the most strategically significant projects ever embarked upon in the region. As well as aiming to become a global centre of excellence for scientific and technological research, Kaust’s links with local and international private industry and other key Saudi government institutions place it at the heart of the kingdom’s drive to develop a diversified, knowledge-based economy.

To deliver such an ambitious project in such a short period of time, Riyadh turned to the organisation that has been responsible for delivering most of the kingdom’s megaprojects – state oil company Saudi Aramco. In mid-2006, the national oil company took control of the project.

Although Aramco’s primary business is developing oil fields, it has extensive experience of building associated infrastructure such as housing developments, offices and schools, giving it significant construction project management expertise.

By January 2007, it became clear that for Aramco to deliver the most appropriate buildings and the physical infrastructure, it had to define in detail exactly what Kaust’s academic focus was to be.

Several options were under consideration, such as whether Kaust would focus on postgraduate or undergraduate courses, whether the university would include a business school, and the level of interaction between the university’s departments.

“At that time we thought Aramco would be building the infrastructure and the facilities because that is what it is good at – building megaprojects,” says Samaha. “We never thought it would be tasked with the academic infrastructure as well.”

“Integrating science and engineering really forces the idea of education driving research and vice versa”

Mohamed Samaha, senior vice-president, Kaust

Aramco’s solution was to fast-track the initial design process by bringing in expertise from overseas. “We started working with experts from all over the world,” says Samaha. “We formed expert panels with consultants and leading figures from academia, and from those meetings were determined the univer-sity’s requirements, and that is what you see here at the university today.”

Instead of following the traditional academic structures of having different departments for different disciplines, the expert panels concluded that the best way to develop new ideas would be to integrate fields that are traditionally dealt with separately.

This approach has resulted in the integration of the faculties of chemical and life sciences, mathematics and computer science, and physical sciences.

“The model used at Kaust is unique,” says Samaha. “The idea of not having a department and integrating science and engineering really forces the idea of education driving research and research driving education. It allows research to be interdisciplinary and pulls together people from different backgrounds.”

With the academic structures decided, Aramco’s project managers and designers were able to define exactly what the requirements of the university were in terms of number, size and shape of key facilities including classrooms, research centres and laboratories. This in turn allowed them to begin developing the physical infrastructure for the campus, and construction had started by mid 2007.

Design philosophy

Aramco was assisted in the design by US-based architect HOK, which has extensive experience on university projects in the US at the University of California College of Natural Sciences, Texas Tech University, Georgia Institute of Science & Technology, the Uni-versity of Wisconsin, the school of medicine for Florida State University, and the Columbia University for Engineering & Physical Science Research.

HOK’s experience in university design in the US enabled the Aramco project team to develop a clear design philosophy that was adopted across the campus. The result at Kaust is an academic campus built around a series of large, open-plan buildings designed to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and to help students and researchers interact.

“If you walk into our labs, you don’t see walls, it is glass so people can see what other labs are working on,” says Samaha. “We also have a discovery square on the campus where people can meet each other every day from all over the university and share ideas.”

The campus buildings and their connecting infrastructure represented the principal construction challenge for the project team. In mid 2007, the campus building construction package was awarded to the local Saudi Oger. Under the terms of the contract, the firm was responsible for developing the detailed designs for all the buildings and completing the construction work, which began on site after the official groundbreaking ceremony in October 2007.

“The campus was definitely the most difficult part of the project because the infrastructure is so complex,” says Samaha.

Although Saudi Oger was responsible for most of the construction work on the campus, including all the academic buildings such as the library, research centre and teaching laboratories, other local contractors played a leading role in site preparation and building the adjacent community buildings and shops for staff working on the campus.

Marine research

Another major construction package was the university’s marina, which was built by the local Huta Marine. The facility will be used by Kaust’s marine research centre, which has been developed in collaboration with two US academic institutions, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Such was the scale of construction activity at Kaust that from mid 2007 to late 2009, the campus was one of the biggest construction sites in the kingdom, with 35,000-40,000 workers on site at its peak. Many more people worked offsite supplying materials and equipment.

One of the key suppliers was the local Construction Products Holding Company (CPC), which is part owned by the local Saudi Binladin Group. Through its numerous subsidiaries, CPC worked as a subcontractor and supplied cladding and glazing, ready-mix concrete and interior finishing.

CPC subsidiary United Arab Aluminum Company secured a SR120m ($32m) contract to supply and install aluminium and glass facades, while its ready-mix concrete subsidiary Premco Ready-Mix Company supplied 200,000 cubic metres of concrete worth SR52m.

Saudi Company for Development of Construction & Trading, also part of the CPC group, won a SR150m contract for internal and external finishing work, which included supplying doors, windows, wardrobes, floors, ceilings, wallpaper, gypsum, glass, reinforced concrete, painting, false ceilings and curtains. “Our contribution to Kaust was of great significance to us, considering the importance of the establishment of such an advanced educational institution,” says Faysal Alaquil, director of business development and administration affairs at CPC.

For Aramco’s Kaust project team, the most important challenge was to correctly phase the many construction packages. A high-profile opening was planned for September 2009 and it was imperative that the university opened on that day with everything in place that an operational university needs.

“We had to decide which buildings we needed to finish for the opening and which ones could be completed later, so getting the right priorities in place was important,” says Samaha.

By 23 September, with the university’s library fully operational, together with the classrooms, research centre and the main laboratory buildings, the university was ready for its official inauguration.

“Hiring the right staff and getting the students in place is just as challenging as getting the buildings finished”

Mohamed Samaha, senior vice-president, Kaust

However, the sheer scale of Kaust means construction work will continue for several years. “Some of the labs for new faculties are still ongoing, which is normal, and new faculties in any university take about a year to determine their exact requirements,” says Samaha.

The ongoing construction work has been carefully planned. The campus design includes passageways for workers and access points for vehicles to allow contrac-tors to move about without disrupting university operations.

The phased opening allows Kaust to adapt to any scientific advances for which the academic and research programmes may need to cater in the future. “Research is always evolving and we do not know what science will bring tomorrow,” says Samaha. “The science might change from one year to the next, so it is best to open up over a period of time.”

With the buildings and infrastructure in place, the principle challenge for Kaust’s management is to attract the best students and develop the best academic and research programmes.

The university’s growth plans are ambitious. At its opening, the university had 400 students enrolled in its masters and doctoral programmes with 73 teaching staff. Over the coming 10 years, Kaust is seeking to increase this to 2,000 research students and 250 professors. It is a big challenge.

“Hiring the right staff and getting the students in place is just as challenging as getting the buildings finished,” says Samaha.

In the increasingly competitive and commercial world of international research, Kaust benefits from the backing of the Saudi state. As a strategic project for the country, Riyadh is willing to provide initial and long-term funding to support the development of the university.

Backed by the king, and propelled by enormous ambition, Kaust is set to continue expanding for years to come as it seeks to establish itself as a world centre for research.