From concept to reality

The National Museum of Qatar – a collaborative approach to deliver pioneering design. By David Gilpin

The National Museum of Qatar recently opened its doors to the public, celebrating the culture, heritage and future of the Persian Gulf state and its people. For Arup, this is the culmination of an 11-year collaborative project with architect Jean Nouvel and the transformation of a remarkable design from vision to reality.

Inspired by the desert rose sand formations, the complicated form comprises over 500 intersecting horizontal and vertical discs stitched together to create a complete structure. Constructed on either side of the historic Royal Palace, the design is a significant departure from ordinary engineering practice and combines ambitious modern architecture with complex analysis.

Arup provided a range of services for this piece of work, including structural, geotechnical, mechanical, electrical and public health engineering design, vertical transportation, fire strategy, civil engineering, facilities access and management, IT and communications design, security consulting, sustainability, LEED strategy and accreditation processes.

This piece will provide an overview of some of the most notable project elements, and the collaborative approach that enabled this ambitious project to be delivered.

A unique structure
Each of the 539 disks are unique in size, location and inclination and are all formed from the same ‘family’ of shapes, creating the structural roof, walls and floors of the building. The negative spaces between the intersecting discs also create the dramatic interior galleries and museum spaces. This created one of the biggest design challenges for the team where the architectural form and structural form were one and the same. As the architectural design evolved – walls were moved, rooms were repositioned – the structural modelling had to keep pace, resulting in an iterative cycle that saw the engineering analysis feed into the architectural design iterations.

The geographically dispersed team used parametric tools and a 3D/BIM environment to define the complex building geometry and co-ordinate the structure and building services with the architecture.

With no two discs the same, and no two discs intersecting each other in precisely the same way, the Arup team developed an automated model generation process that linked to structural analysis software and defined each disc’s size, location, orientation and curvature whilst adhering to the aesthetic and structural constraints. This was fed into the shared master BIM model and enhanced the efficiency of the design process and facilitated co-ordination during design, manufacturing and construction. It was, at the time, the biggest BIM project in the world in terms of project scope and degree of detailing.

Gold Star Energy efficiency
Not only visually striking, the cantilevered discs also provide shading for the canopies, courtyards and walkways for visitors as well as shading the windows, reducing the heat that enters the building and reducing glare.

The discs house the energy efficient building service systems, which are essential to achieving tightly controlled international environmental standards. The design includes thermal buffer zones which reduce cooling loads, resilient systems that mitigate power loss and respond to weather conditions and occupancy to significantly reduce energy use. Gallery areas are zoned allowing each to be independently controlled if required. The displacement strategy works well with the complex geometry of the space and focuses conditioning on the occupied areas where artefacts will be placed.

The energy efficient design and sustainable concept strategy guided the project team to achieve LEED Gold certification and Global Sustainability Assessment System four-star rating.

Open surroundings
The structure is surrounded by an exceptional landscape that reflects the local agriculture and heritage, and the engineers worked closely with the landscape architects to deliver several unique features that complement the nearby urban developments.

A large proportion of the landscape was developed using concrete structures to form raised planting beds and sculptural forms. In Qatar, however, the climate is so dry that typical concrete ‘sucks’ salt from ground, impacting its durability. This required extensive work from concrete specialists, to deliver a robust material that would be durable and beautiful.

The result is a unique, resilient aesthetic, and provides an elegant security solution. Physical barriers such as dunes, terraced walls and water ditches were incorporated into the security strategy, in addition to traditional bollards, to restrict vehicular and pedestrian access where necessary and avoid the use of fences.

Water as a precious commodity
Water is a precious a commodity in Doha and throughout the building water is used efficiently and recovered where possible. The cooling systems in particular minimise water use and recycle water where possible.

The central focus of the external space is a 900-metre-long artificial, saline lagoon that fronts the museum creating the illusion of a reflective surface aligned with the ground plane. The lagoon itself uses no unnecessary water; pumps are strategically located to collect and fill the lagoon, holding the tidal water at a static level via an outfall chamber. A saline lagoon of this scale is rarely seen, and it provides a natural microclimate to the building – actively bringing the surrounding temperature down.

It’s also key to the building and site drainage strategy. The lagoon acts as a safe depository for run-off in the event of a rain storm or unusually high tide. Given the complex geometry of the roof, extensive analysis was needed to understand how it would perform. An in-house tool was developed to model and design rainfall collection which runs to the lagoon.

Enabling a maintainable building
The access and maintenance strategy was considered early on in the design process, to ensure feasible, sympathetic solutions were provided to enable a maintainable building without the need for intrusive systems.

Again, the complex building geometry provided both challenge and opportunity. The shared 3D BIM model played a key role, used extensively as a design tool to help develop adequate internal and external access routes to all areas of this unusual building form.

For example, with every window different – in position, orientation and size – bespoke instructions for cleaning and replacement of every single glass pane were created.

The regular cleaning of the ‘roof’ discs and surface areas also necessitated a variety of solutions to accommodate the varying disc formations and the often-extreme slopes and large cantilevers. A combination of mobile platforms, cable line restraint systems and rope-access and abseiling were employed, to provide safe access while minimising the training required to operate the solutions.

Final thoughts
The Museum’s beautiful architectural concept posed significant challenges for the Jean Nouvel and Arup design team – the scale of the building and the unique interaction between each disc required an iterative and collaborative process.

By creating this technically integrated, sculptural form, whilst also delivering a functional world-class museum, the result is a pioneering project that is exceptional in both design and purpose.

David Gilpin is Director, Arup. Established in London in 1946, Arup is an independent firm of engineers, designers, consultants and technical specialists. It operates globally, with more than 14,000 staff, working from 89 offices in 34 countries. For over 50 years, Arup has collaborated with leading architects and played a defining role in the development and design of some of the world’s favourite cultural buildings including the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou.
For more information, please see: