Inside Besix-Orascom's construction plan for Grand Egyptian Museum
EXCLUSIVE: CW tours the construction site of the Egyptian megaproject that sits on a 50ha plot 15km southeast of Cairo
Located near the internationally famed Giza Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt’s planned Grand Egyptian Museum is set to become one of the largest – if not the biggest – archaeological museum in the world. Devoted entirely to a single civilisation, the museum – currently being built 15km southeast of Cairo – is set to galvanise the global fascination with ancient Egyptian culture.
Tasked with building the project is Belgian construction giant Besix, alongside its 50% owner, Egyptian contracting firm Cairo-based Orascom Construction, which is headed by chief executive officer, Osama Bishai.
The museum will house roughly 100,000 artefacts from various periods of Egypt’s history – 20,000 of which are being shown for the very first time. With its scale in mind, the size and complexity of the project mirrors that of the pyramids – Khufe, Khafre, and Menkaure – that sits at its base.
Grand Egyptian Museum – referred to as GEM by its project team – is not Besix’s first project in Egypt, with the group boasting more than 20 years of work in the country. Today, however, any project it carries out in the country is performed under a joint venture arrangement with Orascom, and GEM is no exception, as project director Laurens Schokking tells Construction Week during a tour of the site.
He explains: “Our client on the project is the Ministry of State for Antiquities, represented by the minister. But Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is actually with this project, and their representative comes from the armed forces – Engineering Authority of Armed Forces (EAAF).
“Our direct client, whom we deal with on a day to day basis is Maj Gen Atef Moftah, general supervisor of GEM. The project management consultant is a joint venture between Hill International and Ehaf – a local Egyptian consulting engineering group.”
The project is being built in three phases with the Besix-Orascom JV tasked with construction Phase 3 (GEM III), which covers the museum complex. The first phase concerned the construction of the museum’s conservation centre, which adjoins the main museum by an underground tunnel.
The second relates to the construction of the energy centre, adjacent to the conservation centre and tasked with provided electricity and cooling to the entire site.
“About 70% of the project’s total funding comes from Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica),” Schokking explains. “When the museum opens, everything will be [presented] in three languages – Arabic, English, and Japanese.”
According to Jica data, the Japanese government’s overseas development body provided two official development assistance loans in 2008 and 2016 representing $800m.
Funds under the arrangements were allocated to GEM’s construction, exhibition development, information and communications infrastructure, and consulting services, including construction supervision and procurement assistance.
Schokking says one of the stipulations of the Jica loans was that an international consultant is involved with the project, which was eventually fulfilled through Hill International joining the GEM team.
“The total plot size is around 50ha, with the built area standing at roughly 16.5ha,” adds Schokking.
“The exhibition area is about 6.2ha. The original contract was awarded in 2012 value was around $800m. This went up and down a little with currency fluctuations [and] some scope added.
“The total cost of the GEM project is something different, but our [share in the scheme] is around $800m,” he explains.
DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE
Irish architecture firm Heneghan Peng won the tender to design the mammoth structure, and construction on the museum started in 2012.
The firm’s eventual design incorporates a series of layers, where visitors can move through a forecourt, a shaded entrance hall – where the 3,200-year-old statue of King Ramses II, weighing 83t, stands – and a grand staircase that ascends to the plateau level where the galleries are located and visitors can see the pyramids from inside the museum.
“This was a design concept that really integrates this museum with the pyramids,” says Schokking. “That’s what it’s all about, particularly given its location.”
For example, the slant of the structures roof aligns with the axis from the neighbouring pyramids, conceptually linking modern Cairo and Egypt’s ancient history, Schokking explains in conversation with Construction Week.
“Other design features include, what we call the stilettos – massive downward pointing structures along the grand stairs. There are two rows – one on each side of the travellators that go up and down for those who do not want to, or cannot walk, the main stairs.”
Schokking says the stiletto structures “were very complicated to build”, adding the huge inverted triangle steel structures are clad with Egyptian stone.
He adds: “They have become structural to support the roof but that was not their main use. You could have put a column there but this [shape] was part of the design. The main ‘star’ of the entrance courtyard is the Rameses statue. The galleries are on the third level – their facades are actually inclined. To construct these was not easy either.”
BUILDING WITH BIM
The folded roof structure – another key component of the original architectural design – is another complex building feature, with rectangular panels spread across all parts of the roof and its underside, as well as the project’s suspended ceilings, as the project director explains.
“You’ll see these rectangles everywhere, and [they] must line up with each other,” he says.
“To match all of these patterns is quite difficult and needs a lot of precision. This whole project was modelled using building information technology (Bim).
“Nowadays you would consider that completely normal – every project generally gets done using Bim. But, bear in mind, this project was awarded end-2011 to early-2012, and at that time it was quite an impressive feature to do it fully through Bim.”
One of the major design features in the original Heneghan Peng design was a Sierpinsky wall, a freestanding structure that would run alongside the multi-function parking complex and lead to the food court.
However, as Schokking points out, the client decided to change the design it to a “pyramid wall”, which features huge pyramids that are clad with translucent Onyx stone – expected to make for particularly impressive viewing when lit up at night.
Two firms are handling the showcases that will house the thousands of ancient artefacts set to be displayed once the museum opens, which is set for 20 October, 2020, according to Moftah.
Based out of the Italian city of Milan is Goppion, which designs, develops, and builds display cases and museum installations, is working on the project.
Tasked with carrying out half of the museum’s displays cases and installations, the group is known for designing the first display case for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in Paris’ Musee de Louvre. The company recently took the contract to design a high-tech display case for the museum.
Germany’s Glasbau Hahn is also providing display cases for GEM. Headquartered in Frankfurt, the group has provided glass cases for some of the world’s most prominent attractions, including the Westminster Abbey.
“There are not that many reputable showcase manufacturers, so these are probably two of the best ones – or at least in the top five,” Schokking says.
“They are each doing half. Most of these cases are already on site, or at least in part. Installation is supposed to start soon. The galleries are generally quite dark to focus as much as possible on the objects,” he adds.
“Because there is a lot of gold in the Tutankhamun collection in particular, lighting is being used to really focus on the objects.”
To date, around 320,000m3 of concrete has been poured at the project, with the structure’s complex shape needing 620,000m2 of formwork. Overall works at the project stand at 93%, Schokking explains, noting concrete and steel works are at 99% and 98% respectively.
Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, and finishing works are also progressively solidly, respectively standing at 84% and 96%.
“Our aim is to complete the majority of the building work by the end of this year,” Schokking explains.
“The only thing that is not in our scope is the placement of the artefacts. This is fully done by the client and the conservation team.
“We still have our maintenance period and defect liability period where we can do snagging work, or when something breaks down, we will then have to fix it. But, in principle, we will hand over the key, they install the artefacts, and it’s [the Egyptian government’s to manage].”