Saudi university Kaust is an international achievement

11 December 2009

The delivery of the Kaust project has been the result of a huge collaborative effort involving both local companies such as Saudi Aramco and leading firms from the US and Europe

Of the companies involved in the construction and running of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust), pride of place goes to Saudi Aramco.

The state-owned oil company was chosen to partner with the Saudi Higher Education Ministry on the project for several reasons. First, it has considerable experience building large, gated communities, research centres and industrial sites such as its headquarters in Dhahran. But more importantly, it has a track record in the management of large sites, aided by a workforce of more than 50,000 employees from more than 50 countries, and one of the largest corporate security forces in the world.

Key facts

15.4 kilometres - Length of the secure perimeter fence that surrounds the 36-square-kilometre campus

3 years - Length of time taken to design and build the Kaust project

3,000 - Number of residential units at Kaust for both staff and students

Source: MEED

“We are not just running a university; we are running a city,” says Nadhmi al-Nasr, interim executive vice-president of Kaust, who was previously vice-president of engineering services for Aramco. “Aramco was asked to lead in two areas. First, to physically build the facilities. And second, to create the academic institution itself.”

Having provided the initial impetus for the university, Aramco’s role will be gradually scaled back to a purely academic relationship. Like Al-Nasr, most senior faculty members at Kaust at the time of its inauguration in September were seconded from Aramco, and will be gradually replaced by academic staff over the next year. “The aim is to ensure the smooth running of Kaust,” says Al-Nasr.

Ambitious design

The campus was designed by HOK Inter-national, a multidisciplinary architect based in the US. While HOK has considerable experience working on academic projects, it describes Kaust as “arguably the most ambitious delivery effort” in its 54-year history. The university was designed and built in just three years.

The project required considerable co-ordination. HOK dealt simultaneously with four engineering teams, three interior design groups, two urban design groups, lighting designers, two commissioning groups, a storm water management group and lighting consultants.

Zuhair Fayez & Partners, an architect based in Jeddah, also worked on elements of the design. Its main responsibility was the residential area in Kaust, which has 3,000 residential units, nine community schools, kindergartens, recreational facilities, a medical clinic, central services and a golf course.

Several local contractors also helped build Kaust, notably Saudi Binladin Group and Saudi Oger, which brought in expertise from its Paris-based affiliate, Oger International. Both companies were awarded engineering, procurement and construction contracts covering 23 buildings in all. Huta Sete Marine Works of Jeddah was responsible for dredging and construction of the marina.

Nesma & Partners Construction Company, another Saudi contractor, was primarily involved in building the utilities for Kaust, which include a desalination plant, a waste-water treatment plant and a chiller plant, which supplies district cooling to the campus.

Even the subcontracts were substantial in terms of value. United Arab Aluminium Company, a subsidiary of the local Construction Projects Holding Company, won a $32m contract to install aluminium and glass facades in several of the buildings.

The US’ Mechdyne Corporation was awarded the contract to design, engineer and install advanced visualisation facilities in the Geometric Modelling & Scientific Visualisation Research Centre.

Germany’s Siemens Corporation and its Saudi partner Naizak provided IT services, completing the project in 110 days. The Shaheen supercomputer at the heart of the campus and its research facilities was designed and built by US computer giant IBM.

Security issues

With the structure built, the challenge is to run it. Security is a key concern. US-based manufacturer SightLogix provided long-range video cameras for Kaust’s 15.4-kilometre-long perimeter fence. It was  a project that has involved a long list of security firms, technology companies and contractors, including Aramco, Japan’s Sumitomo, the local Abdulla Fouad Holding Company, Germany’s Geutebruck, and Pelco and Global Defense Systems, both of the US.

Kaust has already partnered with a range of foreign universities, including Stanford University, the University of California in Berkeley and Imperial College London. The University of California in San Diego helped build Kaust’s Cornea virtual reality centre.

The private sector has also been involved. The US’ Dow Chemical Company in September announced it would build a research and development centre at Kaust to focus on water and water treatment technologies. Dow is a founding member of the university’s industrial collaboration programme.

As Kaust gets up and running, more foreign and local partnerships with the international business community and academia will follow. This variety of engagement and enterprise, and the approach the faculty has taken to attract research students, will be its key to success.

Although Saudi Arabia deserves the highest praise for the project, Kaust is clearly an international achievement.

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