Saudi University Tower Cools Down As It Lights Up

Although it’s used mostly as a symbolic lighthouse, an elegant tower on the new campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is even more impressive for its ability to provide a cool, shady spot for public gatherings in the unrelenting Saudi Arabian sun.

Located in the town of Thuwal, about 40 miles north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, the KAUST Breakwater Beacon rises nearly 200 feet at the end of a curved spit marking the entrance to the harbor. Besides being aesthetically striking, the honeycombed walls and hollow spire of the concrete structure act together as the building’s own air-conditioning system.

The KAUST Breakwater Beacon sits at the end of a curved spit on the Red Sea coast. Image via Urban Art Projects.

The KAUST Breakwater Beacon sits at the end of a curved spit on the Red Sea coast. Image via Urban Art Projects.

Designers Daniel Tobin, Matthew Tobin and Jamie Perrow, which led an Australian architecture team called Urban Art Projects (UAP) on the project, harnessed a phenomenon known as the “stack effect” to regulate the temperatures within the beacon. The elliptical spire is shaped so that warm air rises through the central shaft, drawing in cooler ocean breezes from below, which circulate through the hexagonal openings at the base. This effect keeps the interior noticeably cooler for people seeking a shady spot along the breakwater.

Interior view of the spire, which draws heat upward via the chimney effect. Image via Urban Art Projects.

Interior view of the spire, which draws heat upward via the “stack effect.” Image via Urban Art Projects.

At night, the beacon is lit from within, with light shining through the hundreds of openings that can be seen by ships for many miles out at sea. In the daytime, the irregularly shaped openings produce a dappled sunlight effect in the central atrium, which constantly shifts as the sun arcs across the sky.

A series of forms (left) created pre-cast concrete sections (right) that make up the nearly 200-foot-tall spire. Image via Urban Art Projects.

A series of forms (left) created pre-cast concrete sections (right) that make up the nearly 200-foot-tall spire. Image via Urban Art Projects.

UAP built the beacon in 2009 with the assistance of Bureau^Proberts, Norman Disney & Young and Robert Bird Group. The tower design was based on “ancient Arabic maritime traditions” and regional architecture, according to UAP. It was constructed using pre-cast concrete forms that made up a series of asymmetrical hexagonal sections at the curved base, gradually becoming more uniform higher up the spire.

The finished spire is used as a much-needed shady outdoor spot for public gatherings at KAUST. Image via Urban Art Projects.

The finished spire is used as a much-needed shady outdoor spot for public gatherings at KAUST. Image via Urban Art Projects.

The surrounding KAUST campus also contains many sustainable features, having been awarded Saudi Arabia’s first-ever LEED Platinum rating back in 2010. The campus, designed by HOK, used recycled content in most of its construction material and diverted more than 75 percent of its construction waste from landfills. The buildings on campus also use thermal massing systems, sunlight-reflecting materials, water-conserving fixtures and glass “solar chimneys” that produce cool breezes using the same principle as the Breakwater Beacon.

Plans are also under way to add photovoltaic and solar thermal panels to the roofs of the North and South Laboratory buildings on the KAUST campus. Once completed, the 129,000 square feet of solar arrays are expected to produce 3,300 megawatt-hours, saving the equivalent of 1,700 tons of carbon emissions.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.