Qatar Science and Technology Park

November 5, 2010

Woods Bagot’s Rodger Dalling and Peter Miglis talk about how architecture is helping drive Qatar’s long-sighted take on ‘nation building’.

Maitiú Ward: Could you describe for me a little about the brief and the client for the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP)?
Rodger Dalling: Qatar Foundation was the client, but they were actually acting as a project management organisational structure in front of the ruler. In fact, his wife, Sheikha Mozah [Bint Nasser Al-Missned], she was actually our client, and she drove the vision. She drove the high-level design agenda. Fortunately for us, she was a very well-educated woman, with a very good knowledge of urban design principles.

MW She had a very clear vision for what she wanted from the project?
RD Yes. The very core brief was to create an internationally recognised project that set Qatar apart as a benchmark for other countries to follow. Unlike their cousin in Dubai, their vision was much less commercial; it was more about creating precincts. The precinct we were in was master planned by Arata Isozaki. He was doing a convention centre on one of our flanking boundaries, and also master planning for a training hospital, a university and a TAFE-type college. The medical campus faculty was by Cornell – that was the first one actually built, and when we went to the site for the first time, that was the only object there; everything else was just desert. Arata’s buildings, they set a very high standard, and they highlighted to us finishes that the local labour and trades were good at, and other things they were not so good at. So that was quite a learning experience for us.
Peter Miglis: Qatar Science and Technology Park is part of a much bigger precinct called Education City, which included the convention centre and these other US teaching facilities. This science and technology park creates industry links back to education, so that their people after their education didn’t leave the country. After they graduated they could actually move into the science and technology precinct. Part of our response to that was the Incubator building, which features cells for small start-ups. We also created the ITTC buildings, the information technology buildings, which flanked the Incubator building, where industry could go. So, for example, Microsoft would be in there, Shell would be in there. It’s about self-development and keeping the intellectual property in the country rather than it fleeing overseas.

MW Which would be the key difference between Qatar and Dubai; Qatar is ‘nation building’ essentially.
RD Correct. I think they’ve been much more focused on building infrastructure that is about their people. It’s interesting, if you look at the Qatar Foundation symbol, it’s a tree called the Sidra tree. When you drive out into the desert landscape, you see clusters of these trees, very sparse, but when they occur they always seem to be in a cluster. When it gets too hot, the community comes together and tells stories and shares knowledge under these trees. We took in that symbol in the context of the architecture, I suppose, to try to create spaces that were protected but were also outside, which is a very difficult concept in these harsh conditions. We also looked for different ways of presenting the ensemble of buildings typically referred to in the architectural community as ‘campus style’ buildings. I think Peter, you drew a little pond with a couple of ducks with cars parked out in the open and buildings surrounded by trees…
PM That’s the typical typology for these science and technology parks that we looked at in Oxford; you had a car park facility that was totally separate to your research building, so you had to traverse externally to get to it. We saw that as a big issue in this context, where we were trying to minimise people being exposed directly to the sun. So what we did was put the car park below the buildings. You move vertically up into these protected outdoor spaces that were landscaped under a large roof, which then gave the ability for the buildings to be linked externally through these protective areas. We created microclimates where we not only have landscaping, but we also have misters, so we started to externally condition the air. We saw, very importantly, that people could collaborate externally as well as internally. Roger touched on the other buildings that Arata did; they are of a high quality and they also have a strong contextual understanding of the site in terms of the mass to void ratio, the colour of the materials, the amount of fenestration and the patternation. That’s when we started to look at some very large ideas about the veil and how that encompasses the whole campus and allows people to comfortably move around it. We took it a step further, where we started using technology to move away from traditional concrete materials, and we started using steel, which also gave us the ability to prefabricate components. This creates a new language within which, at the same time, we were able to interlay those elements of Islamic architecture, which were very much about geometry and screening. For example, the ITTC buildings are continually shrouded with a perforated metal façade that provides both privacy and an environmental layer that also conceals the infrastructure.
RD The brief for the ITTCs was rather unique because they wanted floor plates that could subdivide into 500-square metre elements. Each pod turned out to be a 1500-square metre element in itself, but they then wanted it to be column free, so there were no obstructions whatsoever to the tenant, and they wanted the ability to house a high-level laboratory mixed with possible testing elements that needed greater heights than a typical 2.7-metre office space. Office spaces needed to be above and below, so if there were alterations done to one of your neighbouring tenants, it would not interfere with you as an occupier. So that brief effectively evolved into an interstitial floor as well as a peristitial zone to allow us to move services without interfering with any of the tenants. And that broke down into further sub-elements within the main Incubator building, where it was then broken down into sub-units of 50 square metres. So start-ups could begin at 50 square metres and then the idea was they would move into these larger elements of 500-plus as they grew.

MW In terms of the shared tenancy, there’s obviously a lot of potential for competing companies to be tenanted in the Incubator building. How is that managed?
RD We ran a strategy that was based on 100 percent visual security in all of the space elements, so we used a combination of frit glass and a glazed panel system that obscured direct vision, but it allowed natural light to move and be shared by all. I think we were critical that they were over exaggerating that requirement, the nature of the security. But when you see the tenants that have gone in there, it was actually the right thing to do.

MW And there seems to be a nice connection there with the Arabesque motifs the building has.
RD Correct. That’s the other layer. It’s that sense of shade, dappled light, never direct light. As Peter said, it was also important in managing the journey from building-to-building. We saw it in the Cornell building, where the majority of the car parking was outside. The cars would simply cook. Some drivers would literally leave their cars running with the air conditioner while they were inside, and then come out an hour or so later and drive away. But the relative build-up of heat was simply phenomenal in these cars. We measured surface temperatures on the cars in the high sixties, and yet we were able to create courtyard experiences in our own building measuring sub-30 with the fusing of misters, shade and wind. We are actually aero-foiling wind through the undercroft of the Incubator unit, which is all left open.

MW These are very pedestrian oriented strategies. Qatar obviously has a car culture, and the climate is incredibly harsh. Have they been successful?
RD Certainly when you go there, they don’t go downstairs, get in their car and drive to the next building, which we saw with Cornell. To date, we’ve found there’s strong connectivity and reason to be in the main Incubator building because of its central amenity there, and the movement is certainly coming from an air-conditioned space to non-conditioned, to protected and then fully air-conditioned. So you go through this hierarchy of external experiences. But certainly by the number [of people using the outdoor circulation], it seems to be very effective.

MW So what was the design rationale for choosing steel? Superficially, it seems like it wouldn’t perform well thermally in that kind of environment; it would heat up.
RD It was actually something they wanted to try because they felt that it would deliver economies. They didn’t really have a steel fabricating industry, yet they used steel.

MW They do have a big steel industry though, don’t they?
RD They do because of the rigs, but it’s not linked into the buildings. The buildings are predominantly just concrete and block. But if we were going to use it, and obviously we did, we wanted to make sure we wrapped it, and effectively that’s why the double façade exists. Equally, the veil on the main building is literally a double skin. The plant is below that surface and the roof below that again. It’s there really to take the first blow of heat. The veil had to be done externally; a German contractor did it and they were fantastic. We document in ArchiCAD and they effectively took our three-dimensional model through their model, and in true BIM sense we pushed the button and they just came back with it in numbered boxes. They were extraordinary.
PM The use of steel provided a much more sophisticated aesthetic than if we went with the traditional block work and concrete produced locally.
RD Their ability to finish in stone is extraordinary, and the quality of that work was amazing on the site. They know how to deal with water features. Just simple cues that you could pick up from these other buildings that we looked at, that we knew we’d have a higher level of success in terms of the quality of the work. The steel was probably the biggest risk, and that was essentially again part of their brief, but we were determined to make sure that it was modular; we were determined to get that repetition.

MW So essentially, the steel was part of the brief. It’s part of a broader economic strategy for Qatar, more or less?
RD Yes, it builds their expertise. The oilrig stuff is obviously an entirely different scale; this is diminutive by comparison. We were very keen originally to shroud the main building with photovoltaics on the basis that they could set up some experimentation to drive a secondary industry, because that’s the one thing they’re missing: they’re missing manufacturing, they’re missing the ability to grow a middle class. I think clearly they’re in the right thermal conditions to create that industry if they want to. It was something we pushed for a while, but then gave up on it, mainly on the basis that they didn’t perceive it to have any real payback to them.

MW My understanding is that electricity is completely free, along with water, for anybody in Qatar.
RD Yes. Water is a by-product of them creating electricity effectively. So you can have a guy just water the median strip and not worry about it. That’s where things are a bit contradictory in terms of our own experience, but I think there is a need to understand what their conditions are and then begin to adapt and interpret them architecturally.

MW So neither water efficiency nor energy efficiency were a big requirement of the brief on the site?
RD No, energy efficiency in the context that we were very mindful of not heating the buildings, not leaving them open to Australia’s level of transparency; you simply couldn’t create a curtained wall of glass and not have another layer outside as a shade barrier. And it will be permanent, it won’t be operable.
PM We used high-performance glass, but we always had to shroud it with a secondary skin. There is a cultural connotation with the veil and concealing, but obviously also a performance aspect of stopping the heat from getting in.

MW Which is perhaps why the vernacular evolved in the first place?
RD Exactly.

MW From looking at the building, it’s obviously quite an expensive project. A lot of people might read that it’s a product of oil wealth, and they probably wouldn’t be too far wrong. One of the things we talked about earlier though was this concept of vision. Obviously there’s a long-term vision and this project is part of it. We talked about nation building. Do you think we’d ever get a project built like this in Australia?
RD Yes.
PM I agree. We’re currently working on a couple of projects in Australia where the briefs are very ambitious, hopefully setting a new benchmark. They may not have the budget of QSTP, but they allow for innovation. Fortunately, we have opportunities in Australia from state to state; the challenge as architects is to seize the opportunities together with our clients and make architecture meaningful.
RD Architecture I think personally has a secondary brief: to be an attractor. This was an attractor and a message to the world that they were fair dinkum about creating high quality space to attract the best science and the best people to teach their own community. In Adelaide, the project has got a very similar motive. They can’t attract the best scientists in the world just because they’ve got great wine and a good climate. They need to have the best scientific facilities and they need to have the most flexible labs. Literally, you’re competing on a world stage, and they won’t get the people that they want to get, that they want to lead the science, unless the building is up to it.

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