Since the beginning of civilization, buildings have served as humanity’s stamp on time. From Neanderthal caves and exquisite hammams, to the boundary-pushing buildings in the Middle East, architectural innovations capture the zeitgeist; embodying the hopes and ambitions of the moment as well as the underlying technological prowess that points to the future of our built environment.
Backed by a searing ambition to fashion a new image for the region (and in many cases, funded by the deep pockets of sovereign funds), buildings in the Middle East have, in the past 15 years, achieved the impossible: They have quite simply raised the bar for architectural and structural innovation around the world. The journey hasn’t been without criticism: design purists have nicknamed region an architect’s Disneyland and eyebrows have been raised about the Middle East ‘buying’ design cred. And whilst that is true to a certain extent, it is also offering designers from around the world the infrastructure – and the funding – to imagine future icons.
A source familiar with the project stated: “The tower, exceeding 1,000 metres in height, is now in full swing.”
The developer has initiated the process of soliciting bids from contractors for the project’s completion, with a deadline for bids set for the end of this year. Kingdom Holding Company CEO Talal Ibrahim Almaiman confirmed the issuance of the official tender when contacted by MEED.
The companies invited to bid for the contract include:
China Harbour (China)
China State Construction Engineering Corporation (China)
Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC – Lebanon)
El-Seif Engineering Contracting (local)
Hyundai Engineering Construction (South Korea)
Mohammed Abdulmohsin al-Kharafi & Sons (Kuwait)
Nesma & Partners (local)
Samsung C+T (South Korea)
Saudi Freyssinet (local)
Contractors have been granted a three-month window to prepare their bids, with the expectation that these firms will establish partnerships involving both local and international participants. Notably, site visits have been conducted by the contractors.
Before issuing the tender, JEC took the initiative to commission an impartial assessment of the structure. The foundational and piling work for the groundbreaking tower has been successfully completed.
The construction of the tower’s superstructure, which commenced in the early 2010s with the local Saudi Binladin Group (SBG) as the contractor, has now achieved one-third completion. The piling work for the tower was skillfully executed by Germany’s Bauer.
JEC has initiated the process of invoking the performance guarantees or bonds provided by SBG, with these bonds totaling $174 million (SR653 million), as confirmed by a source closely connected to the project. Almaiman, the developer, has also confirmed the exercise of contractual rights after granting the contractor a five-year window for re-engagement.
Although SBG is no longer the project’s contractor, the consulting team remains consistent. The architect is Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill, headquartered in the United States, and the engineering consultant is Dar al-Handasah (Shair & Partners) from Lebanon.
JEC’s shareholder makeup includes the Kingdom Holding Company, holding a 40% stake, the Bakhsh Group, also with a 40% stake, and the Sharbatly Group, possessing a 20% share.
Jeddah Tower is on track to exceed Dubai’s Burj Khalifa by an impressive 172 metres in height, making it the centerpiece of the Jeddah Economic City development. The initial phase of the project, encompassing the main tower, spans an expansive 1.5 square kilometres.
1 Java Street in Brooklyn will use a geothermal system for heating and cooling. In the winter, when the underground temperature exceeds the surface air temperature, water is used to transfer heat from the ground to building interiors; the process is reversed in the summer. (Marvel and Lendlease)
New York (CNN) — In mid-July at the construction site at 1 Java Street in Brooklyn, New York, the outside temperatures can reach sweltering highs in the 90s. But 500-feet underground, it’s 55 degrees all year round.
That stable, underground temperature will be key to making life comfortable in the residential building that will soon sit on the site, a scenic spot in the Greenpoint neighborhood along Brooklyn’s waterfront.
With 834 rental apartments plus commercial space, 1 Java Street is set to be the largest multifamily, residential building with “geothermal” heating and cooling system in New York State — and potentially the country — when it’s completed in late 2025, according to developer Lendlease.
Geothermal technology is essentially a more eco-friendly version of an HVAC system, allowing the building spaces and water to be cooled and heated more efficiently, without traditional window AC units and natural gas. Lendlease says the technology will make it possible for the nearly 790,000-square foot building to release around 55% less carbon and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
With summer temperatures reaching record highs around the world, experts say finding ways to cool buildings that are less taxing on the environment could be crucial in fighting climate change. Even back in 2018, air conditioning and electric fans accounted for around 20% of total global electricity use, according to a report published that year by the International Energy Agency. Now, energy and urban development experts are urging cities and developers to implement new solutions to keep buildings cooler. And both New York City and the Biden administration have identified geothermal systems as one way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Whenever we look at a site, we consider how we can make it more sustainable,” Layth Madi, Lendlease’s senior vice president and director of development, told CNN, adding that the development firm is aiming to reach net zero by 2025 and be fully decarbonized by 2040.
“I think many residents will choose to live in this building because of its green credentials,” Madi said. “We know a lot of people are thinking about climate change and our impact on the planet.”
Geothermal plumbing works by sending water from a building deep into the ground below it to take advantage of the earth’s naturally stable internal temperature — on hot days, the underground temperature will reduce the temperature of warm water from the building to help with cooling; on cold days, it will warm up cold water to help with heating.
At 1 Java Street, construction crews are drilling 320 holes, each around 4 inches in diameter and 499-feet deep, to create the building’s geothermal piping system through which the water will be pumped.
“Your thermostat turns on and it tells your building, ‘I need heating or cooling.’ And it energizes pumps, and those pumps flow fluid through the [geothermal] circuit that we’ve established here on site,” said Adam Alaica, director of engineering and development at Geosource Energy, the Canadian firm that’s installing and drilling the vertical geothermal piping at 1 Java Street.
For now, the process doesn’t come cheap. Installing the building’s geothermal system increased construction costs by around 6%, according to Madi, and required securing equipment and trained manpower that remains relatively scarce.
“We’re seeing rapid growth — I would say approaching that of exponential growth year over year in interest in the technology, which is very exciting for the industry as a whole,” Alacia said. “The bottlenecks to that growth have always been, and will continue to be in the years to come, specialty machinery to implement this infrastructure and the people resources it takes to do this.”
Eventually, though, as more developers invest in geothermal and more companies provide the specialty training needed to install the technology — Geosource operates its own training program — Madi said he expects the costs to come down. And once the building is up and running, it should be more cost efficient to heat and cool.
Lendlease didn’t specify whether residents of 1 Java Street will experience any cost savings on utilities thanks to the geothermal system (the units themselves will be priced at market rate, with 30% of them set aside as affordable housing). “Ultimately, it will be up to tenants to manage their power consumption and work with the utility company on billing,” the company told CNN.
While 1 Java Street will be one of relatively few geothermal buildings in the state, the companies behind its development say New York — and the world — could use more buildings like it.
“Geothermal is not a new technology … there’s kind of a primitive component to it, using the earth as a heat source and heat sink,” Alacia said. “In general, geothermal can really be used anywhere you have ground under your feet … The cost and the business case can vary, but technically it has strong credentials really anywhere in the country.”
The trouble with megaprojects is, as per an anonymous GIS expert, Ill-advised government megaprojects are as old as time. Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plans for the Neom smart city may bring economic and political headaches.
Grand governmental designs often end up expensive failures
The damage from capital misallocation can be slow-burning
Saudi Arabia’s smart city ambitions will come at significant cost
Ambitious architectural, infrastructure and engineering megaprojects are nothing new. Rulers and governments of all kinds have long relied on them to project strength, to increase their appeal to the public and to attract trade and foreign visitors. Some of those structures have survived for centuries or millennia, still managing to fulfill these functions. The Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Egyptian pyramids: virtually all of the ancient wonders of the world, and many of the modern ones, could have been described as vanity projects, at least before they came to be recognized as feats of human civilization and creativity.
More recent projects have also added value, whether economic, aesthetic or functional, to the cities and populations that surround them. Consider the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, or the impressive Panama Canal, rendered even more impressive by its recent expansion. Even the International Space Station (ISS) – still the most expensive structure in the world, built at the cost of $150 billion – has delivered the intended results.
These successes, however, are exceptions to a very unfortunate rule: megastructures tend to turn out to be mega-failures. Inevitable cost and time overruns, combined with unpredictable external developments, often leave initial targets unmet by the time of completion. In some cases, governments and politicians (almost comically) overpromise and underdeliver, as it is the “vision” of the project, not the execution, that matters to their personal political gain. The result, unveiled only years after the end of their tenures, is someone else’s concern.
The successes are exceptions to a very unfortunate rule: megastructures tend to turn out to be mega-failures.
Accordingly, there are some obvious “duds” – projects that proved to be nothing more than a waste of time, human labor and money. As any country that has hosted the Olympics can testify, stadiums and facilities may be used once and then left to crumble. There is an abundance of other poorly thought-out examples, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the United States to failed city-building projects like Myanmar’s Naypyidaw, which still looks like a ghost town 17 years after its completion.
There is a basic criticism that faces most megaprojects, ancient or contemporary, paid for with public funds: the individual taxpayer usually has not asked for it. Even if it ends up a resounding success, any citizen forced to contribute to a project’s construction still has the right to argue that it was a waste of their resources. We might be enchanted today by the architectural marvel of the Acropolis or the massive amphitheaters that one stumbles upon when visiting Greece. But it’s not hard to understand the grievances of a poor, ordinary ancient Athenian who would rather have some extra food – or better yet, his money back.
When megaprojects fail
Still, one can distinguish between the success of different large-scale projects, especially in modern times. There is certainly some correlation between the motives behind a given megaproject and its fate. For instance, structures with a well-defined, practical and focused purpose tend to fare better than the alternatives. These often include science- or energy-oriented infrastructure projects, from dams and nuclear plants to the Large Hadron Collider or the aforementioned ISS.
On the contrary, the most ambitious “visions” – typically of the utopian kind – are often doomed to fail. These usually involve grand designs, based on unrealistic or impractical assumptions and a good dose of wishful thinking. Their primary purpose is to display a state’s strength, flaunt its wealth, or convince the rest of the world of its technological prowess. In some cases, they resemble the concept cars displayed by automotive companies at conventions. They are not so much a blueprint for an actual car, but a statement to competitors and the public: “Look what we could build if we wanted to.”
Even when “concept” megastructures are actually completed – and even if they look more or less like the pictures in the prospectus – they can still disappoint. That was arguably the case with the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar, for which the country spent more than $200 billion during a 12-year construction scheme. The gargantuan project employed hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who labored under harsh, widely criticized conditions. The result was eight spectacular stadiums for a tiny nation that has little further use for them, along with an entirely new city in Lusail.
Most of the new infrastructure was expected to be repurposed or dismantled and recycled, both options seeming somewhat cumbersome and completely inefficient. Qatar and FIFA also made bold environmental promises before the Word Cup that have not been met, according to a recent report by the Swiss Fairness Commission, an advertising and communications regulator.
Neom: The Saudi smart city
Saudi Arabia’s planned “smart city” of Neom is a core element of the country’s Vision 2030 plan, and the brainchild of its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often known as MbS). Named using a portmanteau of the Greek word for “new” and the Arabic word for “future,” the project has been promoted as part of an effort to diversify from a dependence on oil. It is designed to include a combination of ultra-futuristic structures in an area the size of Belgium, at the northern end of the Saudi Red Sea coastline.
The city’s centerpiece is a 170-kilometer-long sideways “skyscraper,” known as The Line, that will be the focal point of residential and tourist activities. It will have no cars, no roadways and no carbon emissions. Promotional materials say it will provide 380,000 jobs by 2030, powered entirely by renewable energy, and leave “95 percent of the land” preserved. “People’s health and well-being will be prioritized over transportation and infrastructure, unlike traditional cities,” the website claims. The Oxagon is meant to serve as the “industrial hub” of Neom, promising to be the “world’s largest floating structure with an automated port, smart supply chain network and innovation hubs.”
For a project that claims to prioritize preservation and environmental concerns, a floating megastructure is a strange choice. Major industrial activities involving chemicals and other kinds of pollution (both planned and accidental), as well as dramatic changes to the natural habitat of marine species, can hardly pass a green test. Questions also arise around the project’s practical implementation. The untested Oxagon concept will surely run into unforeseen challenges, including structural integrity, stability and other technical issues. If these are not impossible to overcome, they will at least require a massive expenditure of money and resources.
More interesting than the “how” is the “why.” Even assuming that these practical problems could somehow be solved, the real question is why anyone would want to solve them in the first place. What other reason could there be, if not vanity? Granted, a sense of curiosity and the desire to showcase the limits of human creativity and ingenuity could be understandable impulses. We might even concede that a genuine belief that the public could actually reap some benefit, at some point, is largely though not entirely inconceivable.
But why spend all these resources and insist on malinvestment on this scale, when all these funds, effort and talent could be directed at ventures that might appear less impressive, but could benefit the people of the country and the entire region much more directly, effectively, and sooner? After all, building a French embassy on the Moon might also be technically possible, and would probably make the French proud, but it is certainly not financially prudent nor practically sensible.
Barring major geopolitical events like a regional war, the next decade will likely bring great prosperity to Saudi Arabia. Serious domestic opposition to the regime is unlikely to emerge, as so much money being invested in the country will raise the general standard of living. At the same time, the harmful effects of capital misallocation will not yet be truly visible.
Even after the Vision 2030 “deadline” comes and goes, the country may still be able to mask any cracks that appear through further investments. That is hardly a sustainable strategy, however. At some point, there will be a price to pay for all the wasteful and inefficient ventures, and it will be one that the Saudi economy will be unable to afford. But abandoning these projects will also be politically untenable. Eventually, we could see a slide in the standard of living and rising public discontent, with serious social and political consequences.
Another scenario would be that these megastructures are never actually completed. The practical and technical challenges could be too difficult to overcome, the obstacles that are already obvious could multiply as work progresses on the ground, and foreign investment could begin to dry up. This may well cause political problems domestically, but economically, it might prove the lesser of two evils.
How did early humans first learn to build? It’s quite possible that it was by observing animals that had already mastered the art. Indeed, when you look at the animal world many birds, insects and mammals are excellent architects and builders.
Beavers are quite literally landscape engineers – they’re being reintroduced in the UK to help fight against the increased incidence and severity of flooding caused by climate change.
Social insects like bees, wasps, ants and termites construct what many have described as the animal equivalents of human cities.
Then there are the animals that carry their homes on their backs – the shells of snails and turtles, for example, are both extensions of and protection for their vulnerable soft bodies.
We might admire and even imitate animal architecture, but when it comes to human-designed buildings, we are usually extremely selective about what kinds of creatures we allow in.
In general, animals are only ever designed for when they are of use to humans – whether as livestock, domestic pets, spectacles to consume in zoos and aquariums, or objects of scientific manipulation in laboratories.
If animals can’t be put to use, they’re usually ignored. And if those animals take it upon themselves to inhabit buildings, they’re invariably regarded as pests and dealt with accordingly.
Examples in the book include spiders spinning their webs in the dark corners of rooms. Swallows finding ideal purchase on brick walls for their saliva and mud-based nest cups. Rats making their homes in the subterranean spaces of the city. And cats and dogs appropriating our furniture and fittings as their own places of rest.
There’s hardly any part of the human-built environment that can’t be inhabited or changed by insects, animals and birds. It’s easy enough to understand how this works in relation to animals that are classed as pets. It’s generally taken for granted that pet owners know how to care for their animals. But it’s much harder to care for animals that are mostly regarded as unwelcome intruders into buildings.
A powerful example of the potential breadth of such interspecies awareness is artist Fritz Haeg’s Animal Estates project, which ran from 2008 until 2013. In nine different cities, Haeg organised events to encourage participation in creating structures that would be attractive to a variety of native species, including bats, birds and insects.
As well as building structures for animals to inhabit, the project also hosted events designed to stimulate interest and knowledge about native animals (and, in many cases, to encourage urban dwellers to make structures themselves). This holistic approach to ecological design aimed to foster more care for animals in cities – animals that would probably otherwise go unnoticed.
Other wildlife-inspired architectural projects include the non-profit organisation The Expanded Environment, which provides helpful online resources on how to care for a much wider range of animals in relation to architecture – most notably in their collaborative design proposals and annual competitions for novel types of animal design.
The material on their website expands ideas about what might be considered appropriate animals for designers to work with as “clients”. Insects appear alongside dogs and cats, birds with lizards and bats with oysters.
Housing the non-human
Ultimately thinking beyond just people is important because all lifeforms create their own environments – and what humans generally call “the environment” is in reality the sum of these creations. Why then does the idea that humans live outside of the environment persist so strongly?
Perhaps, as any therapist will likely tell you, losing a fantasy is always much harder than losing a reality. Yet, as is all too obvious, the persistence of the fantasy of human exceptionalism is now endangering all life on the planet.
It is humans, and humans alone, who dominate every corner of the environment, while at the same time asserting they are actually removed from that environment. If my book has one core aim, it is to encourage readers to think beyond humans in the way we imagine, design and live in our buildings and cities.
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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