Creating a science community

Since the Islamic Golden Age science has been key to the region. Can DuBiotech bring it back?

Bio-HQ building which serves as DuBiotech's centrepiece.
Bio-HQ building which serves as DuBiotech's centrepiece.

Since the Islamic Golden Age, the period between the 7th and 15th centuries when Islamic scholarship flourished in the Middle East and throughout the known world, scientific exploration has been an integral part of the evolution of this region.

Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815), the father of modern chemistry, is said to have influenced Roger Bacon and Isaac Newton with his work. Al-Khwarizmi (780-850) gave the world algebra and the algorithm.

Al-Battani (850-929) determined the 365-day year and developed modern astronomical tables and the precession of the earth's axis.

Al-Haytham (965-1039), the accepted father of optics, proved the modern intromission theory of vision in his Book of Optics. And, his use of quantitative, empirical and experimental methodology in his experiments led to his pioneering the modern scientific method.

People are looking at Dubai from the perspective of creative iconic buildings, but that's different than creating great architecture. Great architecture inspires the opportunity to create a community ' Brian Kowalchuk, CUH2A.

While extensive, these examples are just a fraction of the depth and breadth of scientific scholarship and collaboration that originated in the Middle East. While there has been a palpable shift toward commercial development in the modern Middle East, New Jersey-based CUH2A is building DuBiotech as a hi-tech, cutting-edge reminder of those scientific origins.

"The history of science in this region is very deep. Most people don't realise that it goes back thousands of years. This project brings science back to this region and places it at the forefront for the community at large," says Tom Smith, principal of CUH2A.

DuBiotech's function

The first of Dubai's initiatives under the 2015 Vision, which emphasises a commitment to creating a sustainable knowledge-based economy, DuBiotech represents the first super-community or ‘cluster' in the region to be wholly dedicated to scientific education, innovation and commercialisation.

"DuBiotech is clearly a very functional building," says Brian Kowalchuk, global design director and lead architect on DuBiotech. "The masterplan was designed around a competitive series of buildings that so many science parks lack today. We've worked in Shanghai, throughout Europe and the UK and part of the issue [with DuBiotech] is ‘How can we be competitive?' and ‘What will inspire companies to want to come here?'"

The masterplan incorporates 15.8 million ft² of space (30 million ft² of built space), which has been zoned and earmarked for various industries affiliated with Life Sciences. Warehouses have been constructed to store myriad biotech and pharmaceutical products awaiting export. Office space has been included to house legal, financial, R&D, sales/marketing and venture capital organisations for those companies in the industry looking to establish their regional offices.

Affordable entertainment and hotel facilities are included to service the scores of people who will inevitably attend DuBiotech's international conferences and exhibitions. Residential facilities, schools, universities, hospitals and retail space will complete the range of options available to visitors and residents of DuBiotech.

"All these groupings of buildings tie back to the headquarters. They're all connected via a series of walkways and roads and underground parking facilities," says Kowalchuk.

DuBiotech's mandate calls for it to be the ‘regional centre of excellence in biotechnology' and its strategic goals include: Creating, developing and advancing research in the region; fostering a framework that inspires innovation and collaboration; offering a world-class physical infrastructure to business and academic entities operating in the region.

"The whole site was designed for collaboration. If there are going to be 1,000 companies here, we want those scientists to collaborate and engage in creative science. It's a layered system where different sized universities or commercial clients take different sized plots. DuBiotech also incorporates manufacturing, storage and pilot facilities, retail space as well as the professionals to make these units function. This really helps to create a true community," says Kowalchuk.

DuBiotech's form

At first glance, the DuBiotech headquarters building (Bio-HQ) seems as much science-fiction as scientific. Two towers, alternately clad in stone or glass depending on the orientation of the façade to the sun, are joined together by a jewel-like structure that, to onlookers, must seem to connect two symmetrical pieces of architecture and float three storeys above the ground.

"My interpretation of the building is the organic connecting the rational. It's very much a slowly-evolving building. It is very well-organised in terms of its efficiency. It's really about the science of a building," says Kowalchuk.

I want the Dubai biotechnology initiative to be an incubator for researchers and scientists and a centre for production, creativity and development - H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

In an effort to achieve a level of sustainability and an efficient use of the site, the two symmetrical towers offer different side views depending on their direction. The east and west-facing elevations use a slender solid stone, which was sourced locally and chosen for stability and strength.

The south-facing elevation was built with a band of louvres and sunscreens to deal with the light correctly, which is easier in Dubai because of the height of the sun. And, the north-facing elevation, "...was built in a very open, kind of DNA-patterning context. It presents full-scale floor-to-ceiling windows, which use a glazing technique to create a pattern on the window," explains Kowalchuk.

Sustainability has been further tied into the architecture of Bio-HQ by incorporating a bio-garden on the roof of the building. Moreover, the north-facing glass facade allows sunlight in while the south-facing elevation is clad with PV panels, which provide energy and lighting to the entire building. The centrepiece of the structure is a glass meeting area that Kowalchuk calls an 'organic tool'.

"Science is about rational, logical, straightforwardness and symmetry, like the two towers, while the organic piece in the centre communicates the serendipity of the natural biological sciences as well," says Kowalchuk.

"The offices are in the rational towers of the building, while the organic centre houses the restaurants, museums, retail and other places where people gather. So, the idea was to have this building as an organic and rational monument to science," explains Kowalchuk.

DuBiotech's challenges

Kowalchuk is the first to admit that being based in Dubai and being the first science-related super-community in the Middle East comes with an inherent requirement to meld together a very rational context with a very commercial one.

"Other projects I've worked on of this magnitude were about teaching. [DuBiotech] is about commerce. In a way, the science part fits in really well with Dubai as a commercial application. Architecturally speaking, I think it's a great opportunity to build from the ground up; a great opportunity to be inspirational," says Kowalchuk.

The theoretical combination of organic versus rational was not the only challenge faced by Kowalchuk in the development of DuBiotech. CUH2A quickly realised just how much influence the commercial sector has over the building industry in this region.

"[In the development process] you are constantly faced with the challenges and balances of getting started on a project and getting it done quickly. Often the commercial attitude is 'just get it done'. That is truly the challenge of developing pure architecture on a very technical scientific endeavour with a developer that is unfamiliar with building for a scientific context," says Kowalchuk. "But I think our team did well to balance that."

To ensure a smooth relationship between client, developer and architect, CUH2A principal Tom Smith uses a strategy that has proven effective in past projects to ensure that the original vision goes uncompromised throughout the life of the project.

"We conduct a vision process, which is a graphical system of identifying the client's needs and aspirations. I think that process led to the foundation of our being commissioned to do DuBiotech," says Smith. "The client's vision had to do with their response to the need to focus on biotechnology and research in the region and defining their place in the world."

The CUH2A team of architects encountered a building climate in Dubai that they had never experienced prior to working here. They found that when it came to structural or architectural questions, theirs was just one of several voices. "When we were encountering challenges from different entities, we could always come back to that initial vision statement," says Smith.

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