Author Archives: Bashar Al Shawa

The Process Behind A Better Architecture Building STACEY #2: Energy & Carbon

Previous post: Part I

I thought now might be a good time to bring some technical stuff again to this blog, and thus, the second part of STACEY 1.0; Energy & Carbon.

LEED gives a lot of attention and weight to credits related to “Energy & Atmosphere”. The reason behind that is its large contribution to human comfort and the environment. We also believed that doing such thing would contribute to humanity and the environment and would result in a good building that wouldn’t need as much resources to run – which is always good.

But one very important thing that most architects forget about or, rather, don’t want to do (because they will lose their reason for existing if they did) is to have a sustainable shape for these buildings that they claim to be sustainable. Certain shapes require a lot of resources to make and also produce a lot of carbon due to their engineering, how they stand up, and how they are constructed.

The shape of our building has been decided solely by quantifiable criteria such as solar gain, daylight to regularly-occupied spaces, natural ventilation, and water consumption. Unlike other “sustainable” buildings that we see, the result is that the shape – the basic building configuration – uses less energy than other shapes. Guess why? Because it was not the result of an starchitect’s inspiration, but rather the result of combining all these factors together to determine what was optimal.

Perspective section of STACEY

I just included that as an introduction in case you were wondering … Now lets get to the numbers.

Reduce the Energy Used – 43% less

One good thing to do before you even start thinking about producing your own energy is to reduce the energy used in the 1st place. One basic thing that contributes to that before you even begin the planning and detailing your building is to decide its basic shape and orientation. Certain shapes minimize the exposure of facades to east and west sun which are the least desirable and the hottest in the UAE, and can make a big contribution  to decreasing solar gain and therefore minimize the cooling load.

Trade Centre Road orientation.

The building has been oriented along the east-west axis to achieve the optimum for minimizing the cooling loads as well as give better year-round illumination levels as all windows face true north or south. This decreases the energy required for lighting and also enhances the indoor quality since natural daylight is more desirable and more healthy for people anyway.

Optimum orientation.

As you begin detailing the building, there are several strategies to help further reduce the energy demand. Selecting the best construction for exterior walls, windows, slabs, and doors is important. For the slabs, exterior walls, interior walls, and doors, we selected constructions that had the lowest u-value (overall heat transfer rate) to minimize the amount of heat that gets into the building.

For windows, it was a bit harder than just selecting low u-value windows because windows have another important variable called the VLT (Visible Light Transmittance). This expresses the amount of visible light that is transmitted and a higher VLT means that more light passes through the window. Another factor we had in mind was the SHGC (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient) which is a measure of how well a window blocks the heat from the sun. We had to find the optimum balance between the u-value, the VLT value, and the SHGC value to get the optimum result. Doing this minimized the heat gain from the windows, and this reduced the cooling load and meant lower energy consumption. On the other hand, maximizing the amount of daylight passing through these windows meant that we provided the occupants with a better indoor environment and, at the same time, reduce the energy load by lessening the need for artificial light.

Table comparing baseline constructions with propsed.

Another thing that helped reduce the energy demand was the use of absorption chillers. The absorption chiller uses a heat source (in this case, methane from the anaerobic digester on the water purification level) to provide the energy needed to power the cooling system. The absorption chiller uses much less electricity and produces less noise and without the vibration of the usual electrical chillers. Moreover, they do not use any CFC- or HFC-based refrigerants, and thus there is no risk of harm to the ozone layer.

Energy consumption of the baseline building in comparison with proposed.

Producing On-Site Energy – 70%

The building is able to produce 70% of its electricity using the PV roof it has. The building needs 1,648 MWh of energy annually, 1216 MWh of which are produced annually. This has been achieved through having a 20 degrees inclined roof supported by a space frame that, in turn, is supported by cross-braced steel columns. On top of that, are approximately 600 PV cells mounted on a single, planar array that avoids self-shading that otherwise results. The PV cells have dimensions of 3×2 meters and have an efficiency level of 19%. They can be safely cleaned every 4 months or as necessary using a gantry system as shown in the render below.

View of the PV roof.

All of this goes a long way towards reducing the carbon emissions by 95% when compared with a building of the same size and location.

Carbon emissions of proposed and baseline building.

That was all about energy and carbon. Until my next post, have a great life.


Architects, the new tailors

There’s an old fairy tale in which emperors were the people to work for and make a lot of money in return. And if you’re really clever, you could get a lot of money by doing the least amount of work possible, or even by simply doing nothing, as this story tells.

Once upon a time, in the ancient times, there was a very rich Emperor, who loved new clothes. He used to have clothes that he wore in the morning and other clothes that he wore in the evening. One day, two men visited the city, and they were actually two clever liars. The said to the Emperor: “We are great tailors and we sew the most beautiful and stunning clothes.” The emperor was very happy to hear that because he wanted to have a fancy suit. The emperor said: “So tell me about this amazing suit.” They replied: “Its one of it’s kind, my Lord, because only those who are smart can see it, and those who are stupid, wont be able to see it.” Hearing that, the emperor was pleased even more.

The Emperor ordered the two tailors to start working immediately, and for his assistants to provide them with whatever they needed to complete their job. The tailors said: “We need golden threads.” They were given a lot of golden threads but they didn’t use them and stored them away instead. After that, they pretended to be weaving some fantastic cloth for the Emperor out of threads that no one could see except clever people, or so they said. They kept working hard on the looms, forward and backwards, with much enthusiasm and effort, and all the people in the palace heard them and were impressed by their efforts.

One night, the Emperor wanted to make sure that the cloth was being made well so he ordered the Prime Minister to go and check upon it, and to tell him what he saw. So the Prime Minister went to check and saw the two tailors working really hard to get it finished on time. However, he didn’t see any cloth but then he remembered that only clever people could see it. So he said out loud: “That’s such wonderful cloth, I’ll tell the Emperor about your efforts.” As he left, the two tailors were happy and laughing at how easy it was to fool the Emperor and his Prime Minister. After that, they went to the Emperor and asked for some more golden threads, and their request was granted.

The two tailors kept on working and working, and it wasn’t long until the entire city had heard their story and about what they are making for the Emperor. Later, the Emperor wanted to ask about the cloth again, to make sure was going well. So he asked the Head Guard to go and have a look and to update him about the process. The Head Guard went to have a look, and he thought “mmm I can’t see what they’re weaving, but the Prime Minister saw some nice cloth and that whoever doesn’t see it, is stupid.” And so he said “What  beautiful cloth! I shall go and tell the Emperor about it. He will be so pleased.” As left, the tailors laughed because they had now fooled 3 people.

After a while, they pretended to have finished weaving the fabric, and that they were now ready to put all the pieces together to make one beautiful set of clothes.

On the next day, they asked that the Emperor comes and tries out his new clothes. The Emperor was so pleased to hear that, and went immediately. When he saw it, he thought: “I don’t see any clothes but the Head Guard did, and the Prime Minister did too.” The Emperor said in a loud voice: “Those are such wonderful clothes. Its even better than all the clothes I have!” The Emperor took off his clothes so that the two tailors could dress him – which they did. Although the Emperor was feeling a bit cold, he said “What amazing clothes. They are so light I cant even feel them!” After the Emperor had left the room, the two tailors laughed their lungs out, and said sarcastically: “Let’s work hard now, so that the Emperor’s new clothes fit him perfectly.

There was no one left in the city who hadn’t heard of the Emperor’s new clothes and all of them were wondering what such clothes that only clever people could see, would look like.

The next day, as the two tailors were pretending to dress the Emperor in his new clothes, all the city gathered in order to get a chance to see what these clothes looked like. When the tailors were done, they added: “Oh my Lord, you look so wonderful, we have never seen such a handsome Emperor before!” The Emperor was so pleased, and he ordered that the two tailors shall be rewarded with a large amount of gold. And so they were.

The big moment arriveed and the Emperor prepared himself to go out in his new clothes. All the city gathered. The Emperor was never happier. As he went out, all the people praised him since all of them had heard that only clever ones could see these clothes and nobody wanted to be stupid in front of everyone. They all shouted “Oh what wonderful clothes the Emperor has!” and “I have never see such amazing clothes!” Everyone was shouting “Beautiful clothes!” The Emperor was so pleased and felt like the happiest man on earth and started to salute people with his hand.

As the show was about to end and the Emperor was having probably his best day ever, one child pointed at the Emperor and started laughing and laughing, saying “The Emperor is naked! He is naked!” And all the other people followed the kid, laughing and pointing at the Emperor, as if they just realized that. The Emperor himself realized that he has been made a fool out of, and that there was no clothes, but only two smart tailors who received a lot of money for doing nothing and got away with it. End of story.

Q: “Why are you telling us this?”

Well, what we see today as architecture, is not much different from those clothes that no-one except clever ones could see. Clients pay a lot of money to architects so they can come up with shapes that have no explanation or reason. These shapes, like the “invisible clothes”, don’t cost much time or effort or thinking to invent, and yet, many of the famous and much-praised buildings around us are not very good buildings. And of course, no one wants to appear to be not clever in front of other people and so any building by a famous architect is very likely to be complimented.

We can take Villa Savoye for example, as Graham said in this post, it was a pretty bad building in many ways. (I have some more to write about some other ways, later.) However, someone, for some reason, decided that it should be famous. And it was duly famous and now students from all over the world visit it and look at it as an inspiration for their project due at the end of semester. And if the result is somehow like the Villa Savoye then the instructor will be happy and he or she will give the student an A. And the student will be happy too and think they did the right thing and designed a building the way it should be designed and hope to repeat that feeling the rest of their lives. But that’s a whole another story – how misguided the education of architects is. I will definitely share more of my observations and impression on this in a coming post. (It was really torture for me, the time I spent at architecture school.)

Mmmm …

What I want to say from this is basically 2 points. The first is that architects really take their clients for fools, and most other people as well. Clients pay architects a lot of money to make them bad buildings, buildings that the clients will not be even happy to live in, buildings that will actually make them suffer. (The Savoye family was never happy living in their house Corbusier designed for them). But once an architect has designed several buildings for rich and famous people, then everyone famous and rich wants his building to be designed by that architect, because he doesn’t like the idea of “Hey, I got my building designed by Architect X, who designed yours huh? Architect Y?? I’ve never heard of the guy, is he even an architect? No wonder your building is so ugly!” And so clients pay Architect X a lot of money to design their building and, even if he wasn’t happy with the results, which he shouldn’t be, he can’t say so because he will appear stupid (as in the story) and with no taste. And no one wants to appear either.

My 2nd point that I want to make here is even if we assumed that those shapes that architects invent are sufficient to make a building good, then I find it amazingly stupid that people think you need some sort of “special powers” or “inspiration” (as architects claim to have) to be able to imagine such shapes. Get yourself a two-months course in 3dsmax, maya 3d, or sketchup, and – I assure you – you can invent these shapes like this one all by yourself. I have. You can too. Anyone can.

Moral of story/blog: Don’t believe it when architects tell you they can make you something truly special.


The Process Behind A Better Architecture Building STACEY #1: Site

A result of all these thoughts is till now one project. We gave it a code name of STACEY. It was basically for my graduation project, which was for 2 semesters; the 1st semester being for the theory bits, and the 2nd semester being for the practical bits. STACEY was submitted for 2 competitions so far; SRD 2010, and Holcim Regional Awards 2011. It did not win anything with the SRD (sadly), and we’re still waiting for the Holcim results which should be out in June/July. Through these posts, I am going to track down the process of engineering Stacey, from the very beginning. Let’s get started.

The unique thing about Stacey is that all its components have been designed in-parallel. That is, for example, while we were doing some simulations to calculate the amount of heat that gets into the building through the exterior walls and windows, we were also considering the amount of light that comes through these windows. The ultimate result would be walls and windows that have a low u-value, as well as windows that have a high VLT value (relative light transmittance) to allow for maximized daylighting. This way of engineering has been followed for all the components of the buildings, to ensure that no component compromises the performance of another, and instead, adds to it.

To take the initiative, I am going to start talking about the site. One of the 1st ideas I had was to have a “virtual site”, by which that building can be put nearly anywhere, and it could. But, because we wanted from the beginning to use LEED for Core & Shell as a criteria to follow for most of the decisions, we had to choose a site. LEED does not allow for the building to move at any stage of its lifetime, and the location should be decided.

Many factors did affect the decision of choosing the site (we’re not talking about making wanky statements with our building here; like making it more iconic from a certain street or locating it next to a mountain so that we can later say that its a natural extension to that mountain, which it wouldn’t). The site had to be close to at least 10 basic services (a laundry, a bank, a gym, a public park, etc.) The site also had to be preferably on a a previously developed land, and close to public transportation, as well as its contribution to decrease the heat island effect. Which, if you thought about it, would make up for a good site, that would benefit the people who are going to live in that building, as well as piece of land that hosts the building.

Al Karama Metro Station
Al Madina Supermarket

The site of the building is located in Al Karama district in Dubai, UAE. It has been chosen due to its proximity to local amenities, public transportation, not being a greenfield, and its ability to enhance the natural habitat.

The design of the site had taken many factors into consideration. Decreasing the heat island effect was a critical thing that had to be eliminated. The heat island effect is when a certain area of land has a higher temperature than it’s surroundings. That can be caused by have large areas of asphalt, or covering the roof with conventional low SRI value materials. The amount of asphalt on the site has been minimized to optimize open space and thus decreasing the heat island effect. That has been done through using a 2-level robotic parking system inside the building that uses at least 50% less space and 26% less energy than a conventional on-site parking. At that stage we didnt decide about the PV cells on the roof yet, but we did make sure that the roof was to be covered with vegetation (not so it looks green, but to decrease the heat island effect and the solar gain) or a high SRI material, which the PV structure later on contributed to.

Open space on the site not only contributes to the minimizing the heat island effect, but it also decreases the amount of storm water run-off, by absorbing all the rainwater into the ground. The plants used on the site are the traditional Ghaaf Trees (Prosopis cineraria) which require hardly any water to grow and their roots can find water 30m below sand dunes, which would contribute to decreasing the amount of water used for landscaping. These trees had been used to provide shade to visitor’s parking and amenity areas, as well as to enhance the habitat for less-robust plants and various types of indigenous birds and insects.

The traditional Ghaaf tree (Prosopis cineraria)

During the site design, we also kept in mind that in this part of the world, the optimum orientation would be East-West. That orientation alone decreased the solar gain on the exterior envelope of the building by 53%, which had a large positive impact on the cooling load.

Here’s the final outcome of the site:

Site Plan

This is the first post on the process behind the engineering of Stacey. There will probably be 6 more; energy efficiency, water system, apartment systems, daylighting, natural ventilation, and combined building systems. So, stay tuned!


Architecture Myths #1: “Islamic Architecture”


The term “Islamic Architecture” is seen by many scholars and architects as a certain architectural style that most of the buildings in the Islamic World and others are still designed according to. They tend to believe, and make others believe too, that in order for a building to be of an “Islamic Style” it has to have certain physical components thought to have been created by Muslims, present in that building. However, many buildings that have all of those components are not called “Islamic Architecture”. These buildings did not try to be Islamic in style.  Most of these were built in ancient times and, although they have all the components of an Islamic Architecture building, those components were used to make the building stand using whatever building technology that was available at the time and this is the only reason why they have them. On the other hand, many buildings that do not have any of these component are still religious Islamic buildings that serve the Muslim communities in many parts of the world. Still others have none of these components but are still considered to be of Islamic style.

Take, for example, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. The Hagia Sophia was first constructed in the year 360. Since then, it has been used as a Cathedral for Constantinople first, a Cathedral of the Latin Empire second, a Mosque under the rule of Ottomans third, and a museum for tourists today. Hagia Sophia was first designed to be a church in Constantinople and according to A) whatever materials, building techniques, workmanship, and climate they had in Byzantium, and B) whatever opportunity there was for some “Byzantine”, “Christian”, etc. decoration or ornamentation as statements to be made by the rulers of Constantinople who wanted to show-off their power at that time. Most of what is standing today was completed in the year 537, which is 73 years before the rise of Islam, and was designed by two non Muslim people – the physicist Isidore of Miletus and the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles. The final outcome was a building that: has one huge and very significant dome, with many smaller domes surrounding it, a large number of arches both inside and outside of the building, was symmetrical on at least one of it’s axises, and finally had many ornate columns inside as well as outside. At the time, The Hagia Sophia had most of the physical characteristics required for a building to be Islamic (by today’s standards) although it was built years before the rise of Islam. This leads to the conclusion that the core physical components of an “Islamic Architecture” building, were actually created and invented by non Muslim architects, not while under Muslim rule, and before the rise of Islam anyway. The Hagia Sophia is seen by many historians, architects, and theorists as the symbol for “Islamic Architecture”, and many architects are use it as an example of a Mosque or building that represents the “greatness” of the Islamic Architecture. This is all despite it being designed to be a cathedral and not a mosque, it not being designed under Muslim rule, and not even designed by Muslim architects which would have been be impossible 73 years before the first Muslims.

A section of the original architecture of Hagia Sophia (source: Wikipedia)

Following on from this, we can see that there are now plenty of mosques and other types of buildings that took the Hagia Sophia as a symbol and example to follow when it comes to design something in an Islamic style. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo is a good example to begin with. The mosque, as ordered by Muhammad Ali, was designed according to the “Ottoman” style, which is said to be one of the forms of Islamic Architecture. Looking at the building, we can see that it looks much like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It has a large dome surrounded by smaller domes below it, it is symmetrical on at least one of its axes, it has many columns, both necessary and unnecessary on its interior and exterior, and those columns are connected to each other by very ornate arches.

Mohamad Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

Following the same sequence, Al Noor Mosque in Sharjah has been designed in exactly same way. It was designed to have the same “Ottoman” style that Hagia Sophia in Turkey was said to have.

Al Noor Mosque, Sharjah, UAE.

Funny that. If you look at the surroundings of the mosque, you can see that some people have “moved on”. While others, haven’t.


Al Andalus – the pride of Muslim engineering and design. One can clearly see that it is very different from the previous examples of the Islamic architectural style. This would be sufficient to destroy the whole theory that Islamic Architecture exists as a distinct style. But for the time being, let’s assume that it doesn’t.

According to most historians, Abd-ar-Rahman I was the only surviving Ummayad prince who survived from the Abbasids, and later on established his own capital in Cordoba. It is also known that he brought the architecture style at Damascus during the Ummayad dynasty there, which was not much different from the Byzantine Architecture in Syria before the Muslims took over it in 635. One of the most famous monuments built in Cordoba at the time was Cordoba Grand Mosque.

Great Mosque in Cordoba
Great Mosque in Cordoba from a different angle.
Ummayad Mosque in Damascus

The mosque was originally the other half of the Christian Visigothic church of St. Vincent that Abd-ur-Rahman purchased when he became ruler of Cordoba. Since 784, it underwent many alterations and modifications to remake it as a mosque and, over that time, it borrowed some local  architectural elements such as the horseshoe arch. The 856 columns that the mosque had, were salvaged from the Roman temple that had occupied the site previously. The colored vissoirs of the arches were inspired by the Dome of The Rock in Jerusalem. Also, one can clearly notice that the Great Mosque in Cordoba and the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus are not that different. This is because Abd-ar-Rahman I who ordered the building of the Cordoba Mosque, wanted it to be like the Ummayad mosque in Damascus in some way. And so it was, which is fine.

Speaking of that, the architecture of the Al Hambra, which many Muslims look at as their pride, and the most amazing thing ever built, was not much different from anything that had been built before.

Al Hambra
A paranomic view of Granada.

doesn’t look that much different from the buildings surrounding it. The greatest differences are for the decoration of the interior, as is often typical when clients have a lot of money to spend. This means that might be an “Islamic Art” since we’re talking about the interior decoration here, but that will bring up the question of what is Art, and what is Architecture. I don’t think they’re different really, in that most of the time, both exist to suck up people’s money when they have too much of it.

So we conclude from all this, that Islamic Architecture, wherever it was, was not much different from anything else at the time. As rulers, Muslims wanted to display their power, money, and fame, and hired architects to do this for them. After all, this is what architects mostly do.


If Islamic Architecture is a myth in terms of its architectural means, then someone might still say “But what about Islam as a religion? Didn’t it affect buildings that were built under Muslim rule?” The answer is “No, it didnt.” In fact, Islam as a religion is against all what we see in “Islamic Architecture” buildings.

Many of the mosques, and many of the new ones have elements that Islam either disproves of or forbids. There are many verses in the Holy Quran that forbid opulence in general and consider it a very un-Islamic thing. Opulence in mosques that have been built before and still get built till today can be clearly seen in the fancy, unneeded and very expensive ornamentation that covers the walls, domes, and columns. This opulence may extend to include the very pricey and luxurious carpets and marble usually used to cover the floors of mosques. In fact, adding all these things to a place of worship may, and probably will, distract Muslims from their one and only focus, Allah. That is why there were many sayings by the Prophet Muhammad warning people from ornamenting their houses of prayer. Moreover, when the 2nd Caliph, Umar ibn Al Khattab, wanted to rebuild the Prophet’s Mosque in Al Madina, he ordered who ever was responsible for doing the job to “cover the people from the rain, and to not make red nor make blue” as a sign for not adding anything unnecessary to the mosque. So, from this, we can see that the so called “Islamic Architecture” not only has nothing to do with Islam as a religion but is, in fact, completely and entirely against it.


There are many mosques and buildings in the Islamic World that serve the Muslim community but do not have any of these so-called Islamic Architecture components. The Great Mosque in Mali was first constructed in 1280. It was built on a raised plinth platform of rectangular sun-dried mud bricks that are held together by mud mortar and plastered over with mud. Its walls vary in thickness between sixteen and twenty four inches. Basically, it had been built according to whatever technology and building materials were available at that time and the people who built it certainly did not think much about making it look “Islamic”.  There are plenty of buildings serving Muslim all over the world and that do not have any traditional “Islamic” components in them. There are mosques in China that one can’t even tell that they are even mosques when they actually are. We decide that one building represents Islamic Architecture just because it is more “beautiful” and the other one does not because “it doesn’t look so good”, even whilst knowing that both buildings serve the Muslims community equally well.

The Great Mosque in Mali

Finally, if buildings like these are to be called “Islamic Architecture” then many buildings in the world can also be called Islamic Architecture for the same reasons. The Pyramids are Islamic Architecture because they are “amazing” and symmetrical. The Pantheon is Islamic Architecture because it has one big fancy dome that lets light come through and “light + feelings + worship = sacred = Islamic”. The Paris L’arc de Triumph is Islamic Architecture as well, since it is one big ornamented arch, which is a major component of Islamic Architecture. The Parthenon in Athens is Islamic Architecture because it has many fancy columns all over it. Following the same logic, anything with a dome, arches, and fancy columns can be said to be Islamic Architecture.

Saying that we have to make a mosque in a certain way, so that the prayers will have a spiritual feeling inside is wrong since you can feel whatever you want to feel if you have conviction in your heart. Early Muslims used to pray under palm trees and they were much better Muslims that we will ever be even though they didn’t have any sort of ornamentation in their “mosques”.