Designing the new normal

Jeddah Waterfront
Jeddah Waterfront

Salim Hussain, Principal Architect, from SNC Lavalin’s Atkins business talks about the evolution of design in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and explores the importance of designing mixed use communities to cater to the needs of the current and future population

When we look at the world’s best cities, we look at a multitude of factors. The likes of Melbourne, Vienna and Vancouver consistently come out on top because of their excellent infrastructure, culture, education and environment. The physical environment is connected to the touchpoints of people’s lifestyle in a meaningful and beneficial way. So, when it comes to designing the cities of the future, and ensuring they flourish, we can engineer a ‘new normal’ by taking influence from these case studies and future proofing the new environments for future generations to enjoy.

These new environments are being realised when it comes to the transformation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Vision2030, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is accelerating the development of the country at pace. When it comes to the built environment, Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly becoming more sophisticated. Driven by the vision of His Royal Majesty, the growing voice of the younger generations and external forces, Saudi Arabia has reached a pivotal moment where the very essence of what ‘normal’ looks like is being re-defined. The broad changes that the country is undergoing are most immediately apparent in the physical environment.

There is an acute awareness of the need to build for the longer term. The new Jeddah Waterfront, along the city’s 4.5-kilometre-long coastline on the Red Sea, features dancing fountains, access to Wi-Fi, and facilities for the disabled and will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the lives of residents. The King Abdul Aziz Road project in Mecca is another sizable development that will fundamentally transform how people live, work and play by master planning a community that is fit for the future. Here we see how forward-thinking design, coupled with new techniques and technology, are really pushing the boundaries of what has been achieved before in Saudi Arabia.

There are, however, examples of more traditional buildings that showcase highly sophisticated and unique design. The National Museum of Saudi Arabia is an elegant building that uses natural light to enhance all facets of its experience. Beautiful mosques have been built with the layering, the form and the rhythm all being created in a way that makes people pause and look closer at what is there. These buildings are sophisticated, and bring an altogether more subtle, yet meaningful, aesthetic to the landscape.

On the other side of the coin, the King Abdullah Financial District presents a complete contrast: it is deliberate in its difference. At once both bold and brave, that is what makes it powerful and interesting. When it comes to designing buildings for the future, the aim should not be to make a pastiche of what came before, but to use these forms in a unique way.

The discussion spans more than the design and the aesthetics though, buildings have to cater to practicalities and functions as well. For example, cooling a house is not simply about putting the air conditioning on, it is impacted by the orientation of the building and the use of basic strategies that take into account the components and design of the building. So, designing the new normal has to take all elements into account.

At this pivotal point in development, there must also be a recognition that the country is steeped in heritage and history. There has been a great deal of sound urban planning that has grown organically in the past. The buildings of the future, will take heed of the country’s roots, so that the new normal is delivered sensitively and with the understanding that whilst there is a need to cater for future societies, there is also a need to take influence from the past.

Our clients have a vision that sets the direction for how this will play out. Marrying this vision with consultants and advisors helps realise the ambition. Their fingers are on the pulse of new trends around the world. Architectural language is broadening, and there is a notion that the world is becoming more connected; at the touch of a button we can use our smartphone devices to see and learn about iconic developments happening globally.

What we also see when we look at designing the new normal in Saudi Arabia is a focus on elements such as sustainability, and creating communities with sustainability at their core. As people worldwide become a lot more aware of the impact of humans on our planet, there is a recognition of a level of responsibility upon us and expectation from the younger generation that we slow the pace of negative changes to natural environments and resources. As we masterplan these new built environments, we will need to create communities where all amenities are on our doorsteps, therefore starting to reduce the need for as much polluting car travel, and in turn reduce the level of pollution affecting the environment.

Technology has given us tools so we can demonstrate ideas more quickly and more visually to our clients. It informs our design process, helping us plan for the physical environment in a positive way. Master-planning is a holistic process; firstly we need to understand how people get from one place to the other, how do people travel? How do they get to and from school or work? Where are their leisure destinations? Through the answers to these questions we can build environments where people live, work and play in close proximity, designing true mixed-use communities.

This mixed-use community does not always have to be centred on the residential.  Wider afield we see examples of where the community is centred on the industry. In Bourneville in the UK for instance, there is a whole community that was built up around local industry, with the opportunity for employment attracting a workforce and therefore residents living within the immediate proximity of their workplace. We see this same model demonstrated across the Middle East also.

What is most exciting to us is that all of these learnings on the international stage are influencing the future of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to be bold and ambitious. It has an opportunity to set a benchmark for the world to follow. There is a strong impetus behind the transformation, and technology is having a huge impact. As new generations come through there will be a different and higher expectation that will need to be met. They will bringing with them new innovation and ideals, and we’ll see the ‘new normal’ continually redefined.

Atkins member of the SCN-Lavalin group, is one of the world’s most respected design, engineering and project management consultancies, employing some 18,300 people across the UK, North America, Middle East, Asia Pacific and Europe. We build long term trusted partnerships to create a world where lives are enriched through the implementation of our ideas.

Founded in 1911, SNC-Lavalin is a global fully integrated professional services and project management company and a major player in the ownership of infrastructure. From offices around the world, SNC-Lavalin’s employees are proud to build what matters. Our teams provide comprehensive end-to-end project solutions – including capital investment, consulting, design, engineering, construction, sustaining capital and operations and maintenance – to clients in oil and gas, mining and metallurgy, infrastructure and power. On July 3, 2017, SNC-Lavalin acquired Atkins, one of the world’s most respected design, engineering and project management consultancies.