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Sheltering sky.

This competition-winning proposal by DEGW for a new headquarters building on the Gulf coast combines inventive use of technology with a formal refinement that could act as a paradigm for enlightened development in the region.

Established in 1975 by the governments of the member states of OPEC, the Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation (APICORP) is an investment company based in Al Khobar on the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. In 1995, the company needed a new headquarters and held an international competition to find a suitable design. Out of a field that included Harry Seidler, Henning Larsen and HOK, a proposal by British practice DEGW was accepted and is now under construction. The site lies next to the company's housing compound, an exercise in monumental geometry designed in the late '70s by Studio Nervi; two curved blocks of apartments, triangular in section, are arranged around a central courtyard. The brief stipulated that the new building should respect the existing context and allude to traditional Arab architecture without resorting to pastiche.

DEGW's response is a simple yet elegant structure that adroitly resolves issues of workplace organization and environmental control. The design is based on the concept of the office-as-village, arranged around a series of courtyards, sheltering under a protective roof. The roof oversails to form a broad colonnade around the perimeter. Services are placed on the edge of the building, increasing the flexibility of office floors, and providing extra protection from the extreme climate. The undulating profile of the shallow barrel-vaulted roof also acts as environmental buffer, its depth used as return-air plenum and modulator of daylight. Beneath the roof canopy are two three-storey bays of offices placed on either side of a large elliptical courtyard. Conceived as the formal and social nucleus of the building, the toplit courtyard is bisected by a series of bridges linking the two office wings. The front part of courtyard forms a public reception area; the rear part an informal space serving the adjacent auditorium, prayer room and canteen. Initially, the office accommodation will be mainly cellular, but the relatively large unequally sized floorplates (18m and 24m wide) can respond to a variety of future ways of working. Smaller rectangular courtyards in the centre of each office floorplate reinforce the concept of the office as a village-like series of courtyards and paths, enclosed and protected by the great roof.

Although in arid climates, traditional buildings rely on thermal mass as a means of environmental control, here the extreme conditions of the Gulf limited the scope for using the building fabric as a climate modifier. By day, ambient temperatures rise above 40 degrees Celsius for six months of the year, with humidity as high as 90 per cent. The coastal atmosphere is heavily saline which can corrode inadequately protected concrete and there are spectacular bursts of rain. Although there is some potential for night cooling between October and May (drawing night air through the building structure to cool it), because of high air resistance, the fan energy needed to push air through the filtration and heat-recovery equipment was calculated to exceed any energy saved by this method of passive cooling.

Even without this free cooling, the building's environmental control strategy can still demonstrate a 60 per cent reduction in annual energy consumption, compared with a typical North American office. Passive elements moderate the external climate, reducing heating and cooling demands, as well as the energy used by lighting, fans and refrigeration.

Developed in collaboration with Ove Arup & Partners, the environmental engineering strategy is based on the integration of structure and services notably in the barrel-vaulted roof, which supplies shelter and shade, while admitting indirect daylight through oval rooflights carved into the vaults. Service cores on the perimeter of the building also provide shade, and reduce surface glare generated by high sun angles (during the summer, the sun can be up to an angle of 81 degrees from the horizon). The undulating barrel vault appears to float above the floorplates, emphasized by cladding and internal partitions stopping short of the roof. Glazing is contained within the curvature of the vaults and the roof is clad in ceramic tiles to minimize heat gain.

The double skin roof forms the building's return-air plenum. Air is circulated through the office and ancillary spaces through displacement ventilation from the floors, rises to roof level and enters the roof structure. From here, it is drawn back via vertical ducts to plant in the plinth for heat recovery and recirculation. (The ducts are, in fact, the hollow cores of the structural columns.) Exhaust air is dumped in the enclosed car park housed in the plinth to provide a measure of cooling in summer.

The relatively deep plan creates two different sorts of environmental zones. The perimeter of the building is climatically dependent, where external influences induce relatively large changes in room loads. These fluctuations are controlled locally by fan-coil units in the floor. By contrast, the deep-plan zones are unaffected by the external environment and are conditioned by the displacement ventilation system. This uses the raised floor as a ventilation plenum, with air supplied through a series of low velocity floor outlets.

The exposed coffered concrete ceiling acts as a cool radiant source in summer and a warm source in winter. As room temperature increases, the high thermal capacity of the concrete reduces mechanical cooling by attenuating peaks in the internal load. High floor-to-ceiling heights of around 3m help to keep exhausted warm air above occupied height. On the top floor, this effect is more pronounced, within a lofty ceiling height of 5.2m.

Although essentially a simple shell and core plan sheltered under the commodious canopy of the roof, the building makes enlightened use of available technology to generate a formal and spatial refinement. Moreover, through its astute response to climate, context and tradition, it suggests an inspiring paradigm for new architecture in the region.
COPYRIGHT 1998 EMAP Architecture
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Title Annotation:DEGW's design for the Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation's new headquarters building in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:982
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