Bee’ah Headquarters: From mirage to reality
BuroHappold sets new standards in sustainability, delivering the LEED Platinum Bee’ah Headquarters in the heat of the Sharjah desert
Engineering a large scale, energy efficient office complex in the harsh desert climate of Sharjah was always going to be tough. Add a beautiful but complicated architectural concept by Zaha Hadid, and the client’s aim to achieve LEED Platinum certification to the mix, and you have a project that poses the kind of unprecedented challenges that our engineers thrive on solving.
The client, Bee’ah, is an integrated environmental and waste management company that was established by royal decree in 2007. Working with local communities, schools and businesses, the company promotes sustainable initiatives across the Emirate, and provides the infrastructure, tools and facilities needed to turn waste materials into resources. Over the last decade, Bee’ah’s work has successfully positioned Sharjah as the environmental capital of the UAE.
Bee’ah wanted its new headquarters to reflect this strong ethos and forward-looking vision, architecturally and in terms of environmental performance. We worked alongside Zaha Hadid to realise an iconic building that is as ecologically efficient as it is visually arresting.
As an engineering practice with a reputation for its bold and daring approach, BuroHappold has been a natural collaborator with Zaha Hadid on a number of previous projects. Known for designing some of the world’s most avant garde buildings, it was no surprise that the architect’s vision for Bee’ah Headquarters was challenging and unique.
Rising from the desert sands that surround it, the building comprises two intersecting ‘dunes’ that echo the organic shape of the natural landscape. A central courtyard creates a sheltered ‘oasis’ that draws natural light into the heart of the complex, while limiting solar glare and heat gain.
Never ones to shy away from innovation, our engineers initially considered shaping the undulating form of the concrete roof shells over real sand dunes. It was an option that, if viable, would maintain the integrity of Zaha Hadid’s vision and realise a building whose form was authentic to the surrounding landscape.
We carried out extensive analysis of this concept using the latest design software, and our work revealed that the approach wasn’t feasible from the perspective of structural safety. Instead, we went back to the drawing board, collaborating with the wider design team to find an alternative solution that would have the same aesthetic quality, but yield a stronger structure.
Our resulting design replaced the initial freeform concrete structure with a glass reinforced concrete (GRC) shell cast over steel framework. It took over 4,000 unique GRC panels, each moulded into individually customised wood frames, to create the dynamic curved surface of the building. As GRC is up to 80% lighter than ordinary reinforced concrete, this concept achieved a roof that uses less materials than our original idea, and delivers a lighter, more buildable and ultimately more cost-effective solution.
Glass reinforced concrete is also a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional reinforced concrete, generating far less CO2 emissions during manufacture. Its high thermal mass means the material minimises solar absorption as the ferocious midday sun beats down on the roof, creating temperate conditions within the building without the need for expensive mechanical systems. This effect is enhanced by the sweeping overhangs that shade the headquarters’ glazed facades and prevent unwanted solar glare and heat gain.
Material selection was a key feature throughout our environmental strategy for Bee’ah, as we believe durability is a core tenet of sustainable design – but one that is often undervalued and overlooked. Poor choice of materials results in designs with a shorter lifecycle, and higher maintenance and repair costs for clients. As we are committed to realising high performance engineering on every project, we tested and specified robust materials across the Bee’ah complex that we are confident will deliver long term value, even in the aggressive climate of Sharjah.
This approach continues inside the building, where our building services engineers work alongside our specialist sustainability team to design systems that allow all power for the building to be generated from low and zero carbon sources. These include using converted municipal waste from the adjacent Bee’ah Waste Management Centre, and solar energy captured by large arrays of photovoltaic cells incorporated within the site’s landscaping.
LEED by example
While setting a new precedent for sustainable design in harsh environments is an impressive achievement with far reaching results, our real focus on this project was to deliver tangible, day-to-day benefits for the people that work within and around Bee’ah Headquarters. This is because we believe sustainability goes beyond meeting the environmental targets set out on a tick list, to encompass long term economic development and social improvement.
From the earliest stages of the project, we worked with local experts and companies to understand which materials and techniques were most appropriate to use in this unique and challenging location. Exchanging this knowledge with our own skills and expertise created mutually beneficial relationships that brought positive social and economic benefits to the surrounding community.
Bee’ah employees themselves now enjoy working within a building in which every element – from the inspiring architecture to the low carbon materials – has been designed to improve their health and wellbeing. These features have been proven to raise productivity levels, which in turn boosts the business bottom line for our client.
Across the project, BuroHappold collaborated with the wider team to push the boundaries and realise a LEED Platinum project in one of the most extreme climates on Earth. In doing so, we succeeded in putting Bee’ah in an even stronger position to promote sustainable values across the UAE, delivering a new headquarters that not only exemplifies their principles, but also demonstrates first-hand the environmental, economic and social benefits that are to be gained by living more sustainably.
All images: © ZHA/MIR