Various aspects of King Abdullah Financial District’s Phase One are being completed in tandem to give a feel of the district when it opens this year.
SAUDI Arabia’s iconic King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) is gearing up for a soft opening later this year, marking the completion of the first phase of this ambitious project that aims to transform the wadi Hanifa area of the capital Riyadh into a financial hub and an integrated city.
“The project is called King Abdullah Financial District but it is much more of a city within a city. Of course, there are the financial institutions and supporting facilities but around one-third of the build-up is for residential development,” declares Jacob Kurek, principal Middle East, partner and architect of Henning Larsen Architects, the masterplanner of the prestigious development.
Speaking exclusively to Gulf Construction, he indicates that some 70 parcels of land are currently on site at the KAFD which, in its current phase, will create some 3 million sq m of prime property of the total 5 million sq m envisaged in the masterplan. Being developed as a world-class sustainable development, it will include world-class financial institutions, residential and recreational areas, schools, cultural centres, museums, a financial academy, and retail offerings. The KAFD is the largest sustainable project globally, Kurek adds.
Come autumn, some 1.5 million to 2 million sq m of premium developments are set for a soft opening. This includes a conference centre, an architectural marvel designed by SOM of the US, which captures the essence of the Saudi Arabian landscape; a strategically placed Grand Mosque, which has been designed by Omrania and Associates (see Page 99); prestigious mixed-use towers that boast stunning architecture – including the Crystal Towers, The Gem and Villas in the Sky, which have been designed by Henning Larsen Architects; as well as the central Financial Plaza and air-conditioned skywalks, a novel concept in the region.
Currently, a significant number of buildings have been completed and are being fitted out; the infrastructure and the utilities supplies are being installed and commissioned and skywalks are being readied parallel with the public realm’s soft and hardscape so that a rich diversity of projects are completed in time for the soft opening, “to give a good sense of the masterplan’s ambitions from the first day you enter”, says Kurek.
He adds that it will probably be another year before the current projects on site are completed, although new developments continue to be launched.
The current masterplan outlines plans for four business hotels, three of which are currently under design and construction, he says.
The King Abdullah Financial District in the northeast of Riyadh sprawls across a small wadi branch over a 1.6-million-sq-m site that has been strategically transformed into a shaded public realm with inspiration from the intriguing landscape around wadi Hanifa. “The KAFD Wadi forms the backbone and the heart of the project, which derives benefits such as better connectivity of the public realm, easier circulation of pedestrian flow and better landscaping,” says Kurek.
The project is the brainchild of the Saudi Public Pension Agency (PPA), the land owner and prime developer, which set up the Rayadah Investment Company to bring it to fruition. It will be home to the head offices of Saudi Arabia’s Capital Markets Authority (CMA), the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul), Samba, World Trade Centre (WTC) and a host of other institutions.
Henning Larsen’s masterplan has focused on transforming the wadi area into an attractive urban space, ensuring not only that the buildings are uniform but also due attention is given to the aesthetics of roof skins so that they are visually appealing even from overhead.
Another key focus area of the masterplan is the ambient temperature: the practice has aimed to lower the outdoor temperature – which can touch 50 deg C in the peak of summer – by five to eight degrees by optimising the public realm through building proportions, utilising the cooling wind from the north and northeast and creating shade to control heat gain from the sun. Also, vegetation and water features in the landscape will go a long way in achieving lower temperatures.
“I would like to emphasise that this (lower temperatures) will be achieved purely by design, not by adding any technical devices which involve costs and ongoing running and maintenance costs,” he stresses.
In terms of building design, careful attention has been given to the profiles of buildings in terms of wind direction and their orientation so that the buildings respond to the sun; thus, the north-facing facades are glass-clad while the south-facing ones that are exposed to direct sun have a more solid appearance.
This has a dual benefit both to the public realm and the indoor temperature in buildings, he adds.
Kurek points out that building facades in the region need to have a depth. “You cannot have a single curtain-walling façade: you need to have a skin that can reflect the heat or a cooling element to it, or you can work with thick, solid walls as in the olden days. You need to understand the Middle Eastern climate and the orientation of the building,” he explains.
For the Crystal Towers, for instance, Henning Larsen has designed a deep façade so that the sun does not directly hit the glass. The glass is transparent and there is no reflectance, he points out.
The Crystal Towers comprises two towers rising to 18 and 26 storeys respectively connected through a raised podium that allows direct passage between the Financial Plaza and the wadi, the green thoroughfare of the district. The recessed, scaled, crystalline apertures of the towers have been designed to minimise solar heat gain and associated cooling requirements while optimising views to the surrounding plaza and landscape. To root the building in the region and contribute to a sustainable approach, a light local stone cladding with a long lifespan and low maintenance costs has been used.
For the 34-storey Villas in the Sky, the curtain-wall façade uses a combination of stone and glazing, with the angled panels that face upwards featuring stone and those oriented downwards being glazed.
“So when you look at the building from the ground it looks like a glazed structure while when viewed from above, it looks like a solid structure,” he explains.
Villas in the Sky is one of the last buildings in the wadi. The form of the tower, which enfolds a gross floor area of 41,000 sq m, is a polygon with four equal sides allowing for highly flexible spaces. The upper levels of the tower have shifted plates that create a jagged façade, thus visually differentiating the various components of the mixed-use building. The retail component spreads over the first three storeys. The office space is on the next 14 storeys while the top 12 floors house 22 residential units.
The striking Gem buildings rise to a height of 15 floors amidst high-rise buildings in the KAFD. “The size of the building is adapted to human scale and its crystalline form and faceted facades enhance its quality as a shining beacon,” says Kurek.
The Gem comprises three separate buildings – a residential block, an office block and a multi-purpose podium with a terrace overlooking the garden – linked to the green pedestrian thoroughfare of the district.
This cluster of “gems” creates spaces for fluid, flexible circulation around and through the buildings. Its form and intimate scale provides a unique destination and meeting place, enhanced by the facades that create shaded retreats from the desert sun.
“Wrapping the faceted exterior, a high-quality metal mesh fabric provides solar protection and weather resistance to local sandstorms. In addition, the geometry and siting of the building creates shade between the volumes,” says Kurek.
Water features are used judiciously in shaded areas and strategically located to improve the cooling in the public realm, for instance near the Grand Mosque and in the wadi.
Other striking aspects of the masterplan are the monorail that connects the various areas of the district and the air-conditioned footbridges that link all buildings and monorail stations above street level to enable denizens to walk to their destinations (see Page 93).
The monorail, a key aspect of the masterplan to get people out of their cars and start using public transport, is currently under construction by Saudi Oger. The 3.6-km monorail is a driverless straddle beam system which will also be linked to the Riyadh Metro – which has a station in the KAFD, providing vital connectivity to the downtown part of the city and the airport (see Page 97). The monorail will have six stations which will be integrated within the public realm as part of key attractor buildings – or cultural venues – in the district, and will be connected to the skywalks through corridors and lobbies within these buildings.
The network of skywalks is equally impressive as it connects every single building within the masterplan together with some 100 bridges, according to Kurek.
“We have more than 4 km of skywalks connecting buildings, so you can be walking 10 km indoors throughout the masterplan through lobbies and retail facilities of buildings,” he elaborates.
The road network has been meticulously planned so that it offers easy access to all the land parcels and – through the subterranean network – to the buildings. However, the strategy has been to ensure that there is less traffic as one goes further into the masterplan. The road network runs primarily along the perimeter of the district so that the main focus remains on pedestrian areas – as, in most cases, it is faster and safer to take the monorail or the skywalk than to drive, Kurek points out.
Extensive traffic simulations have been conducted by Buro Happold to ensure the smooth flow of traffic into, out of and within the KAFD with a particular focus on accessibility and visual orientation, Kurek adds.
The masterplanner’s focus on minimising heat gain is apparent even in the materials that will be used to build these roads: Black asphalt has been banned and only light aggregate that reflects the heat will be used, he says.
The Villas in the Sky, the Gem Building and Crystal Towers are all designed to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (Leed) certification upon completion. They are being constructed by Saudi Binladin Group, and have a common team comprising Thornton Tomasetti as the structural engineer, Hoare Lea Consulting Engineers as the MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) contractor and Geoffrey Barnett Associates, the quantity surveyor.
Apart from the Villas in the Sky, the Gem Building and Crystal Towers, Henning Larsen Architects has also been called upon to design two other mixed-use medium-rise buildings including the Cascading Condos and the Butterfly as well as a children’s interactive museum within the KAFD.
In addition to projects at the KAFD, Henning Larsen is handling three other projects in Saudi Arabia. These include the new Institute for Diplomatic Studies in Riyadh for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Al Khorayef Centre in Al Khobar – which will house a hotel that will be managed by the InterContinental hotel chain on completion in two years – and an office building in Riyadh for Mawten Real Estate, which is currently under construction for completion at the end of this year.