A Groundbreaking Women’s University in Saudi Arabia

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For the monumental Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, Perkins + Will conceived an entire campus from the ground up.

Working with local firm Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners), also known as Dar Group, Perkins + Will executed the design of this three-million-square-metre campus, providing state-of-the-art learning facilities to a student body of 60,000 undergrads and making it the largest women’s-only university on earth. The structures were all built concurrently over only three years.

“The major challenges we faced were the sheer size of the project and the extremely abbreviated time line for the tasks required,” says design director David Hansen. “Every task had to be extremely streamlined while also overlapping in fast track mode.” To keep things on track, they first carefully structured the employee teams from Perkins + Will and Dar to ensure frictionless chain of command and problem solving. “After Dar developed a working master plan,” Hansen says, “we created individual teams involving approximately 150 P+W employees from five offices, integrating multiple disciplines from architecture and interiors to branded environments and wayfinding.”

Under Hansen’s leadership, the Perkins + Will team planned the health sciences and research campus, academic and medical campuses, K-12 schools, and the sports and recreational facilities. Of these, only the research centre and areas of the medical centre are co-ed. In turn, Dar, as the engineer of record, committed several hundred employees to oversee the masterplan, the administrative and residential buildings, overall infrastructure, a campus-wide monorail system and management of the entire project.

The visual motif of the veil is carried throughout the project; as design principal Pat Bosch describes it, “PNU explores ideas of separation, threshold, transparency, pattern and sequence.” Using mashrabiya – decorative lattices traditional in Arabic architecture – throughout, P+W achieved the strict privacy local religious custom requires by breaking up sight lines. “It delves into the concepts of layered body massing, internal and external building expressions, and the women themselves,” she says.

As Bosch further explains, “The separation of sexes became a central tenet of the design, and carried through from urban design to the architectural design.” Besides incorporating mashrabiya, P+W elevated many of the major buildings and pedestrian spaces on a six-metre-high plinth, offering easy access and views of the campus while removing students from public circulation. “On this elevated ground plane, strategically screened, women experience a rare total privacy to explore their spiritually identity, and individuality. Figuratively and literally, they’re allowed to shed their traditional garb and veils.”

These mashrabiya, layered on both vertical and horizontal axes, also act as a shading strategy to reduce heat and glare – just one of the project’s green features. A total of 38 of the project’s buildings are LEED certified; at the time the buildings were registered, their certification doubled the number of LEED buildings in Saudi Arabia. For this, P+W relied heavily on thermal modelling software, which allowed them to adjust and refine their plans to optimize solar orientation and wind cooling early in the design stage. “The extreme solar conditions and intense heat of the region prompted the use of many innovative sustainable concepts,” Hansen says of their green strategy, which ultimately included solar power, reusable and recycled materials, high albedo surfaces to lower heat gain, water re-use, regional planting and the use of regional materials.

The desire to moderate the desert climate extends beyond the buildings to the comprehensive landscaping plan, which also mediates between the palatial scale of the central administration and the more intimate zones of the K-12 facilities and residences. Sustainable plantings are integrated into the patterned hardscape, combining pergolas and shade trees with the processional rows of palms that line pedestrian causeways.

The architects’ hope the project will help to position the region as a thought leader, developing the institution beyond the boundaries education and research to become an incubator for innovations in academia and the larger workforce. “PNU fits into this plan on a grandiose scale,” says Bosch. “It will introduce not only an opportunity for the growth of education facilities and open opportunities to more women, but also bring the system into the 21st century and beyond. It represents leadership of educational vision not only locally, but also internationally.”

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