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The dune in the desert

Associate Professor, XJTLU, Industrial Design

Building in the middle of the desert is quite a challenge: for thousands of years nomads were able to cope with its harsh arid climate by moving from place to place with their animal herds, leaving behind part of the resources that the land could offer, preventing them from totally exhausting places of drinkable water, flora and fauna. They avoided settling and building shelters with durable materials, while using temporary structures and tents that could be easily dismantled and reassembled during their perennial moving. They were the first environmentalists ahead of their time, and in fact they contributed to the preservation of the land that reached us mostly intact, for future generations.

The fast pace of development sustained by the United Arab Emirates in the last three decades, beyond enhancing the living conditions of the autochthonous population to modern standards, has completely subverted rules and habits that had been developed in harmony with the territory along the millennia. This ongoing discussion, despite being seemingly obvious, still has not found an appropriate response and the need for rapid growth has sacrificed social and environmental components of the society in favor of financial achievements. Abundance of empty land gave an excuse to indiscriminate exploitation, while by products of contemporary living started to accumulate unnoticed in remote landfills, standing high as mountains in the tranquil flatness of the desert. “Barjeels”, the traditional wind catcher towers, were abandoned for more effective solutions: the air conditioning system paved the way to the international style with continuous glass façades, pulling down even cultural taboos of blind walls for privacy.

This domino effect went on, deconstructing brick by brick the entire legacy behind an ancestral know-how that was grounding its stability on the thin balance among inhabitants, climatic and geographic infamous conditions. The central courtyard was eliminated to make space to large living rooms or monumental foyers with scenographic twisting staircases. Every building was free to express a presence fostering its own flamboyant style, ranging from classic pronaos prostyle with double colonnade to the Andalusian arched portico without any constraint of orientation and sun exposure.

After the excesses of forced development settled, what was left was a nostalgic sense of displacement and longing for the good old bygone days, while elements from the past started to resurface from the memory of dusty catalogues as solely visual remembrance, as a dull picture of ancestors whose names were forgotten, purged from their functional requirement and significance. Nowadays streets across the Emirates are dotted with pseudo-traditional buildings with decorative wind catchers, mashrabiya window panels and fake wooden beams sprouting from the perimetral walls.

In this context in the last few years Bee’ah, the fully integrated Middle East’s leading environmental and waste management company, has emerged because of the necessity of its services, transforming not only materials through recovery and energy generation, but also society, via social outreach and educational programs, to create a holistic ecosystem for the future. From this perspective their new 7.000 m2 headquarters, located on a 90.000 m2 site, a step away from the Sharjah’s Bee’ah Waste Management Centre, and set to come into operation in 2019, is about to prove that contemporary architecture can be as sustainable as the vernacular models. The project started from a competition in 2013 and was designed by Zaha Hadid, while the building system was developed with Atelier Ten to minimize both the energy required for cooling and the need for potable water consumption. Instead, the building’s structure has been engineered in conjunction with Buro Happold to reduce material consumption through architectural and structural integration.

The Bee’ah Headquarters building will have a LEED Platinum Certification due to minimized material consumption in construction, ultra-low carbon and minimal water consumption in operation. It is designed to allow the implementation of materials from the local construction and demolition waste streams managed by Bee’ah.

Active and passive energy approaches are predicted to provide a 30% reduction in energy consumption. Low and zero carbon sources, as municipal waste conversion into energy and photovoltaic cells incorporated within the site’s landscaping, will provide all the power needed, while its excess will be stored into a Tesla’s battery system. The project already won ahead of its completion the Green building category at the Gulf Sustainability and CSR Awards.

During her existence Zaha Hadid has been a revolutionist, a game changer architect, opening the way to signature architecture in the Middle East […] Through this building, her legacy continues to innovate the architectural scene in the United Arab Emirates after life.

If biomimicry has always been seen as a strong visual component of Zaha Hadid Architects’ projects, with the sinuous lines and organic shapes recollecting natural systems, not so often her buildings imitate nature to benefit from energetic savings and improved comfort. The extreme climatic conditions and the requirements of an exigent client push the limit of commitment toward implementing biologically inspired architectural strategies that cope with sandstorms, solar irradiation, ventilation and other typical challenges buildings are subjected to in the Gulf Region.

Rather than a building, the Bee’ah Headquarters configures as a complex, a composition of several dunes emerging from the desert sand. The main two volumes at the center constitute the most essential functions, while the remaining ones generate a landscape that blends within the desert setting in a fluid and seamless manner. The minor decreasing dunes distribute around, sheltering the main ones from sand storms by reducing the wind pressure as a flying flock formation does with its typical V arrangement, oriented by the strong Shamal winds direction.

The main unit intakes natural ventilation from the operable façade in an upgraded technological version of a wind catcher, that during the mild months avoids the need for air conditioning.

At the heart of the building, the idea of the central courtyard is upgraded to contemporary standards too, while keeping strong reference to the environment that generated it, the oasis. This environment, blending outdoor with indoor, hosts one of the water bodies that cool down the open areas and is the main provider of natural indirect light for the main building units.

Most of existing public buildings in UAE possess dubious architectural qualities, apart from their imposing monumental scale. The project is innovative for the region for one more reason since it will be one of the first government-led corporate’s industrial-complex to educate visitors through a public program and inspiring them to join the challenge for a more sustainable future. During her existence Zaha Hadid has been a revolutionist, a game changer architect, opening the way to signature architecture in the Middle East with her Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Bridge. Through this building, her legacy continues to innovate the architectural scene in the United Arab Emirates after life.

Zaha Hadid Architects

Bee’ah Headquarters


Sharjah, UAE

Project Year
2013-in progress

Architecture and Design
Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA)

Design: Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher
ZHA Director: Charles Walker
ZHA Project Director: Tariq Khayyat

Project Team
ZHA Project Architect: Sara Sheikh Akbari
ZHA Design Architect: Kutbuddin Nadiadi
ZHA Team: John Simpson, Gerry Cruz, Drew Merkle, Maria Chaparro, Matthew Le Grice, Vivian Pashiali, Alia Zayani, Alessandra Lazzoni, Dennis Brezina, Yuxi Fu, Xiaosheng Li, Edward Luckmann, Eleni Mente, Kwanphil Cho, Mu Ren, Harry Ibbs, Mostafa El Sayed, Suryansh Chandra, Thomas Jensen, Alexandra Fisher, Spyridon Kaprinis, John Randle, Bechara Malkoun, Reda Kessanti, Eider Fernandez-Eibar, Carolina López-Blanco, Matthew Johnston, Sabrina Sayed, Zohra Rougab, Carl Khourey, Anas Younes, Lauren Barclay, Mubarak Al Fahim

Local Architect: Bin Dalmouk

Structure/Façade: Buro Happold, London
MEP: Atelier Ten, London
Cost: Gardiner & Theobald, London

Francis Landscape, Beirut

Size and total area
Site Area: 90.000 m2
Floor Area: 7.000 m2
Height: 18 m

Image credits
Renders: MIR


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