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Is LEEDing the Saudi Desert Really Green?

Posted by: Michael Arndt on April 21, 2010

Just in time for Earth Day (natch) the American Institute of Architects announced its Top 10 examples of environmentally benign building designs. The 2010 honor roll includes office towers, schools, and even a prototype of a prefab single-family home designed for post-Katrina New Orleans. It also includes the world’s largest project to be awarded a LEED Platinum designation by the U.S. Green Building Council—the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

HOK_KAUST.jpgBut after all the hullabaloo my recent blog posts on Frank Gehry caused, I have to ask: How green is it?

KAUST is the first to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design imprimatur in Saudi Arabia. (Interestingly, it’s also the kingdom’s first coed university campus.) The 6.5 million-sq.-ft. development, which encompasses 26 buildings on over 9,000 acres near Jeddah on the Red Sea, was designed by HOK, one of the world’s top architecture firms. It’s the eighth win for St. Louis-based HOK since the AIA’s Committee on the Environment began handing out awards in 1997.

HOK pats itself on the back for KAUST’s green touches, such as shading walkways and buildings from sunlight, installing wind turbines and 178,325 square feet of solar panels, sourcing 38% of materials within 500 miles of the Saudi port, and creating an infrastructure that reuses all waste water for onsite irrigation and other purposes. Contractors did two other things on the LEED checklist: They recycled 80% of waste materials and used wood that was sustainably harvested.

That’s all well and good, but the fact is that nearly two-thirds of the tens of thousands of tons of materials needed to construct this desert campus—paint, carpeting, furnishings, wood—had to be shipped in from more than 500 miles away. I don’t know how much greenhouse gas those vessels produced, but I do know that ocean freighters emit a lot. Back in 2007, I wrote in BusinessWeek that, based on a study, they produced more carbon dioxide than 10 of the 39 industrialized nations originally included in the Kyoto Protocol. A revised study finds that that’s still the case.

I asked one of the AIA committee members, Liz Ogbu of San Francisco-based Public Architecture, about how far judges should go in assessing environmental impact. She said the committee discussed whether it was right to award a LEED project in such a remote, resourceless, and inhospitable place. But she said it was precisely for that reason that the committee voted for HOK design. “Not every building can be built in California,” she noted. “There is going to be building going on in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, it’s important to have an example that green building is possible.”

I also asked HOK’s Colin Rohlfing the same question. Rohlfing is sustainable design leader in HOK’s Chicago office and was one of the hundreds of HOK employees on the project. “We had a lot of things working against us from the get-go,” he told me. In an ideal world, developers would build in temperate climates. Here, however, designers confronted a climate like Houston’s, except set in a desert, and coral reefs and mangroves that had to be protected.

“It’s always a dilemma,” he said. “Should we develop in those areas? Should we be going after greenfield developments in such a harsh environment? But if we don’t go after them and win them and try to make them as efficient as possible, some other firm will come in. The king was going to build in that location regardless. We had to make the best of it.”

I have to agree. If Saudi Arabia is going to develop as a nation, it does the world a favor by building to LEED standards. Still, I wonder what Frank Gehry would have to say.

Reader Comments


April 22, 2010 4:33 PM

I have been saying the same thing for a couple years now to anyone who will listen. Sure we can build gizmo green LEED platinum buildings in cornfields and apparently deserts, but how green is it really? I think there should be a much greater weighting to site selection and frankly this should not be able to achieve LEED platinum, only urban sites should be able to.


April 22, 2010 10:50 PM

No, the most important aspect of building green is energy efficiency. That's the 800 pound gorilla and products and recycling matter little. So when you talk to the architects, ask them how much solar heat gain all that glass allows? Ask them about thermal mass and natural ventilation and night-cooling. That matters.


April 23, 2010 8:03 AM

Fair disclosure: I work for HOK. I am often of the same mindset, i.e. should we build in Las Vegas, Dubai, etc. Here's the deal. I don't think it is realistic to say Saudi Arabia can't have a university or other institution of higher learning because we feel the environment that they live in is cdifficult. This is no suburban development of McMansions, or copious and conspicuous consumption, Mr. Arndt, this is the Kingdom's first coeducational university and one dedicated to science and technology at that. It is drawing students and faculty from Suadi Arabia as well as all over the world with an opportunity to do research and create new knowledge. I appreciate your light handed acknowledgement of the shaded walkways and solar panels with which we're patting ourselves on the back but there was considerable effort put into energy efficiency including hydronic systems (chilled slab, chilled beams), energy recovery systems, etc. as well as close attention paid to the vernacular style of architecture for the region, including a large wind tower to draw air through the spaces between buildings and naturally ventilate a large portion of the circulation areas. This project saves more energy than most of the LEED projects I've ever worked on in the U.S. and in a climate you acknowledge is extremely unforgiving.

Is it right to say a green school in the suburbs of Nevada or Arizona shouldn't have been built because these are technically 'inhospitable' landscapes, or that Saudi Arabia doesn't deserve to educate its own young people for similar reasons?


April 23, 2010 2:14 PM

Wendy, you could not be more wrong. Planning (as in City planning)is the most important "green" aspect of how we inhabit the landscape. It makes no sense, or should I say it does no good, to build a energy efficient building in the middle of nowhere when everyone who works there has to drive to it, then get in there car to go to lunch, or a meeting or anywhere. Buildings with in walking distance of housing, shopping, and restaurants is much more sustainable, especially when gas gets to $5-6 per gallon. That is why preservation (old urbanism) and New Urbanism are much "greener" and more sustainable. Also, my point was not that we shouldn't build anywhere, it is just let's not think we are really doing something sustainable because we called it LEED platinum and built it in the middle of a greenfield.


April 23, 2010 11:50 PM

more stupidity in liberal math

so the world population must live near factories and factories must locate near natural resources and every other place in the world must be depopulated because of the pollution from air, ocean, highway and rail, much less, breathing.

or perhaps, the entire student population of Saudi Arabia every year in perpetuity should use transportation to go to a newly built college in a location where building materials didnt need to be transported.

Its only a matter of time before the technical advances in cars spread to trucks, then rail and air finally ocean vessel propulsion.

Pursue the technical advances but spare us the liberal dribble


April 24, 2010 3:00 AM

Alan, KAUST is not just an Academic & Administration campus, that was only the HOK scope. The project includes a self suported compound to house Faculty and students within walking/cycling distance to the campus.


April 27, 2010 8:07 PM

We have to look at the project in its entirety, and the sustainability objectives that one wishes to achieve. Though a lot of carbon emissions may have released through the development of this project, there is the possibility to offset these emissions and make this project carbon neutral. Sustainability is not only environmental, it is also related to the sustainability of the activities and the practices of the community the project is being developed.

rosetta stone spanish

June 4, 2010 5:47 AM

HOK pats itself on the back for KAUST’s green touches, such as shading walkways
rosetta stone spanishand buildings from sunlight, installing wind turbines and 178,325 square feet of solar panels, sourcing 38% of materials within 500 miles of the Saudi port, and creating an infrastructure that reuses all waste water for onsite irrigation and other purposes. Contractors did two other things on the LEED checklist: They recycled 80% of waste materials and used wood that was sustainably harvested.

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