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Hopkins Architects completes interpretation centre in Sharjah with ‘urchin’-inspired shape

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The Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre is sited on a former sea-bed in a region of geological and prehistoric significance in the centre of the UAE

This Hopkins-designed project sits in an area with an abundance of marine fossils from over 65 million years ago, as well as mountain ranges and ancient burial sites from the stone, bronze and iron ages.

The structure consists of a series of exhibition spaces designed to present the region’s significant geological phenomena – including deep earth structures, plate tectonics, geomorphology and sedimentation – in a series of five interconnected pods of varying sizes. Visitors enter the building along a ramp to the central hub, and in addition to exhibition areas, the pods accommodate a theatre, café, gift shop and other visitor facilities. A sixth, separate pod is used as a service building.

Aerial view of exhibition pod © marc goodwin

Aerial view of exhibition pod © marc goodwin

The centre’s prefabricated concrete structure is designed to minimise disruption to the existing fauna, geology and terrain, by only touching the ground on in-situ reinforced concrete foundation discs. 

The geometry of the pods was inspired by the fossilised urchins present on the site. They are clad in steel panels fixed on to steel ribs, which shade the precast concrete structures and are coloured to reference the hues of the surrounding landscape.

Linking the pods and looping around the site is an outdoor trail that is designed to encourage visitors to explore and view the nearby mountain ridge – incorporating viewing areas, a classroom shaded by a high-tensile canopy and raised walkways.

Visitor centre viewed from geological trail © marc goodwin

Visitor centre viewed from geological trail © marc goodwin

Architect’s view

From the offset, the pods were designed to endure the harsh desert environment. The project celebrates passive design principles throughout its construction including efficiently utilised thermal mass and carefully controlled solar exposure. This has been prioritised to minimise the operational energy demand, instead of a reliance on operational technological solutions. Photovoltaics had been considered, however, these were not viable due to cost constraints and the infrastructure that would be required in this naturally sensitive location. Initial ideas of forming the pods from cut stone elements were explored to minimise the material impact from construction.

To protect the interior spaces from the desert heat and to minimise the use of air-conditioning; the pods’ precast concrete shells, ribs and in-situ foundation discs provide a well-sealed, exposed thermal mass across their floors, walls and roofs. The concrete is further protected and insulated with a spray-applied Polyurea waterproofing and Polyurethane insulation foam, topped with a robust acrylic-modified cementitious coating. The products and spray method were chosen to ensure easy application and full coverage to the curved geometry, whilst minimising impact on the surrounding environment. The steel cladding is intended as a shading element. The shingles are offset from the precast concrete shell, creating a cavity to vent heat radiated from the metal shingles.

The form of the pods offers structure-free exhibition space for future-proof flexibility and adjustment with minimal intervention.

Bgp cafe interior 02 ©marc goodwin

Bgp cafe interior 02 ©marc goodwin

The visitor centre was designed as a daylit space and to reduce the reliance on background artificial lighting. Windows have been inserted only where necessary around the perimeter of the pods to afford key views, and tilted forward to minimise external glare and reflection. Apertures at the top of the concrete pods, the oculi, let in natural daylight to the centre, controlled by circular steel reflectors. These can be adjusted up or down to adapt to the exhibition’s specific requirements.

The elevated buildings touch the earth lightly, carefully located to avoid disturbance to natural drainage runs and wadis that collect and disperse downhill water from the jebel, attracting flora and fauna. Rainwater falling on the buildings is dispersed back into the natural drainage runs via water spouts, mitigating the requirement for a submerged rainwater drainage system. Water-saving sanitary fixtures are specified throughout.

In addition, the team was careful to source locally produced materials, with the majority coming from the United Arab Emirates. This included the precast concrete (Abu Dhabi), cladding metalwork (Dubai), glazing frames and metal doors (Sharjah), timber joinery (Dubai), and porcelain tiling and sanitaryware (Ras Al Khaimah).

Whilst the scheme incorporates a car and bus parking area for staff and visitors, electric buggies are provided for journeys from the arrival area to the interpretive centre to allow accessibility to all.

The geological trails around the site have been carefully planned within the contours of the land to offer accessibility to the points of interest on a path of least resistance.

Simon Fraser, principal and lead designer, Hopkins Architects

Ground floor plan ©hopkins architects

Ground floor plan ©hopkins architects

Source: Hopkins Architects

Ground floor plan

Project data

Start on site January 2018
Completion January 2020
Gross internal floor area 2,320m2 (visitor centre 1,275m2)
Gross (internal + external) floor area 15,915m2 (including trails & access roads)
Form of contract or procurement route Traditional lump sum
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect & lead consultant Hopkins Architects
Executive architect eConstruct
Client Hana Saif Al Suwaidi Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) with HH the Ruler’s Office
Structural engineer e.Construct
M&E consultant GAJ
QS De Leeuw
Lighting consultant Lux Populi
Landscape consultant Spencer
Acoustic consultant Gillieron Scott
Fire consultant Design Confidence
Exhibition design Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Main contractor Hardco Building Contracting
Specialist contractor MARF Steel
CAD software used Revit & AutoCAD

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