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In Dubai, where tower blocks seem to pop up almost overnight, residents have grown adept at averting their eyes from building sites. But one construction project has caught everyone’s attention: the Museum of the Future, which has loomed up over the city’s elevated, driverless metro system on the edge of the financial district.

The museum’s framework, comprising 2,400 diagonally intersecting steel members, was completed in November 2018; the facade panels now are being lifted into place. The museum is due to open in a year – a momentous time for Dubai as it will be hosting the World Expo from 20 October 2020.

The architectural world defines the futuristic shape of the museum as a torus with an elliptical void, but a giant hula hoop might be a more accessible point of reference. Lath Carlson, executive director of the Museum of the Future, prefers to liken it to an eye. “We struggle a bit to describe the building to people who haven’t seen it,” he admits. “There is nothing that quite evokes the shape."

Local architectural firm Killa Design, which won the design competition for the museum in 2015, came up with the shape. According to the architect, the solid part of the structure represents the knowledge that we have today. The void represents all that we do not yet know – in other words, the future.

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Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is illuminated to mark the one-year countdown to Expo 2020 on 20 October 2019 (Credit: Getty Images)

It is not just the unusual profile that marks the building out from the hundreds of other construction sites across the emirate. As each panel of the facade is fixed in place, more of the Arabic calligraphy that will adorn the exterior of the 78m-high museum comes into view. The museum directors have not yet revealed what the words say, but it is known to be phrases of poetry written by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. The cursive scripts double as the windows of the museum. By day, they cast dappled light throughout the column-free interior; at night, they will be illuminated to dramatic effect by 14 kilometres of LED lighting.

Complex construction

Together, the calligraphy and the building’s unconventional shape have made this one of the most complex construction projects ever attempted.

The building would have been an impossible undertaking without the help of new, sophisticated technologies (Credit: Getty Images)

The lead consultant on the project, the UK’s BuroHappold Engineering, says it would have been an impossible undertaking without parametric design and Building Information Modelling (Bim). Parametric design is a process based on algorithmic thinking, which allows specific variables or parameters to be manipulated to alter the outcome of an equation. Bim is a three-dimensional model-based technology for construction professionals to collaboratively design and document projects. Although Bim has been around for many years, the industry has been slow to embrace it..

“We knew we needed to have everything in a digital environment because geometrically you couldn’t define everything,” says Tobias Bauly, BuroHappold’s project director for the Museum of the Future. “It probably would have become something else; the shape would have been dumbed down and it would have been much more difficult to build. Technology has really been the enabler for this project.”

It required the project director and his team, used to working with 2D drawings, to rapidly upskill. “Everybody has had to learn Bim fully and radically change how they work day-to-day,” he says.

The first computational task was to fine-tune the theoretical shape of the building to eradicate as much of the complex curvatures as possible. These millimetric alterations, which took a long time to finalise, were undetectable to the eye – but removed a host of complications further down the line.

Dubai is no stranger to new construction, but even so, the Museum of the Future is known as one of the most complex construction projects ever attempted (Credit: Getty Images)

Next came the designs of the steel framework, known as a diagrid because it’s made of diagonally intersecting beams, and the lightweight facade. These were chosen over a steel or concrete shell as the most practicable solution for a building of this shape and complexity.

With endless possible permutations for the diagrid, BuroHappold wrote its own growth algorithm to arrive at the optimal arrangement.

Creating the parametric scripting was a lengthy process, but it allowed BuroHappold to dictate outcomes – such as having the steel members be of a single diameter size and orderable from the market. “It was quite new for what we do,” says Bauly.

The result was a diagrid that was optimised in terms of the number of connection points, the diameter of the steel tubes and even the total weight of steel used – which, according to BuroHappold, translated into cost and time savings for the client, contractors and fabricators. Contractor Bam Higgs & Hill and structural steel fabricator Eversendai Engineering then conducted the construction sequencing analysis and connection design for the structure, taking into account the shifting stresses and loads during the erection process, before moving ahead with construction.

“The construction sequencing analysis is always a big risk to a project and you usually get a lot of member changes because of it,” explains Bauly. But on this project, he says, none of the steel members were altered due to the effort that had earlier gone into optimising and modelling the diagrid. “We applied the lessons from previous projects and using new technologies, we developed tools to solve problems that we know exist so we didn’t have to face them again.”

Having built the reinforced concrete ring beam and tower that support the diagrid, it took 14 months to complete the steel work. Throughout the construction process, laser scanning was used to compare the as-built positions with the 3D model.

The exhaustive 3D modelling also removed the typical problems associated with the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) installation. “The MEP usually trips up a project in the later stages of the construction phase. We thought it would be one of the biggest risks, but it has just not happened. It has all gone in so well,” says Bauly. “You have gone through all of the heartache in the digital model, so as long as you stick to what you draw, you end up with what you had in the model. It almost becomes not very exciting because of how much work is put into the modelling side of it.”

The real game changer in the switch from working with 2D drawings to 3D models has been that coordination of the MEP engineering began much earlier in the project and so problems were resolved long before work moved onsite. Laser projections of the Bim models also helped.

Each of the 1,024 panels is unique and requires complex engineering before it even arrives at site (Credit: Getty Images)

About 60-70% of the facade of the museum is now in place. The relatively few workers on the construction site belies the complex engineering going on behind the scenes to make each panel. Because of the geometry of the seven-storey building and the calligraphy cut-outs, no two fibreglass panels are alike. Each of the 1,024 panels has to be individually moulded and manufactured before the addition of the stainless steel finish and the glazing. It is a hugely labour-intensive process – so much so that only up to six panels can be manufactured in a day. Bauly says it took a year of experimentation for the facade supplier Affan to develop the panel structure and design, and to prototype the production processes, which include computer-controlled machining tools.

Again, digital modelling has been critical. The glazing units are all unique pieces, too, as they combine with adjacent panels to form the free-flowing calligraphy. Parametric scripting was used to determine the final position and size of the lettering to find the optimum balance between the amount of natural light entering the museum, the solar heat gain, the air conditioning load and the aesthetics – while also achieving the points needed for the museum to be rated a LEED Platinum building (the highest-level certification awarded to green buildings).

Since every aspect of the building design is integrated, changes to the calligraphy had a knock-on effect on the diagrid and the MEP. “This was more complex than the diagrid work as we were trying to solve four or five simultaneous equations,” says Bauly. “There was a constant integration and evolution of all the component parts.”

I can’t tell you the joy when we fitted the first rung of panels and it all matched up – Tobias Bauly

As with the steel work, an enormous effort went into programming the sequencing of the panel installation. Some of the more complex pieces can take two or three days to install.

“I can’t tell you the joy when we fitted the first rung of panels and it all matched up,” says Bauly. “Like the MEP story, the modelling has been highly accurate. It just fits.

“We haven’t had a panel yet that has not fitted or has been the wrong shape or the word misspelt.”

Greener future

From the outset, it was determined that the Museum of the Future would aim for a LEED Platinum rating. The building will be equipped with advanced building control solutions, greywater recycling systems and regenerative drive lifts, while its power needs will be met through photovoltaic solar arrays located offsite. Visitors will be able to charge their electric vehicles while touring the museum and the number of car parking spaces is limited to encourage the use of public transport.

The museum itself will restrict single use plastic, while Carlson says alternative proteins and cultured meats are likely to be on the menu.

Once the work moves inside the museum, exhibits will focus on themes like sustainability (Credit: Dubai Future Foundation)

The museum’s exhibitions also will emphasise sustainability. There will be entire floors dedicated to climate change, as well as outer space and the future of healthcare and wellness. The museum will address the effect of global warming on critical ecosystems and how these might be repaired. It will look at how solar energy collection in space and asteroid mining could be used for the benefit of humanity, and will even touch upon the subject of spirituality.

“Rather than gadgets, we are focused on the human story of the future,” says Carlson. “We are looking at the big challenges that are going to be facing humanity, and the creative solutions that people might deploy to overcome them.”

Rather than gadgets, we are focused on the human story of the future – Lath Carlson

A wide range of technologies including augmented reality and virtual reality will be used to project the visitor forward into the future to create an immersive theatre experience. “This is not the museum where you will see objects in cases with labels next to them,” says Carlson. “In a lot of the main galleries, there will be no labels at all. It will be a completely immersive experience that engages the visitor as a really important contributor to the experience, rather than as a viewer of someone else’s work.”

He hopes to offer an optimistic view of the future as a counterpoint to what he considers as a generally bleak outlook presented by the entertainment industry. “We want to show how people might creatively respond to the challenges, while at the same time being realistic about the challenges that are coming,” he says.

One floor will showcase the expected near-future gadgets, but the focus will still be on technology that will bring a benefit to humanity, whether by helping to feed the world, meet our water needs or make transportation more sustainable.

The Museum of the Future is hoping to attract more than one million visitors a year, with half coming from outside the UAE.

The Museum of the Future isn’t the only large construction project in the city; a sprawling site is currently being built for Expo 2020 (Credit: Getty Images)

Construction still has a long way to go before the focus shifts inside at the end of the year. But the team recognises that the exhibitions need to be as impactful as the building that will house them, if not more so.

Still, Bauly hopes the museum will become an exemplar of how a modern building should perform. Its unconventional shape has meant absolutely everything has been modelled, analysed and optimised in advance, from fire evacuation and smoke extraction strategies to the cleaning of the exterior. Parametric modelling of people movement throughout the building was used to determine how to reduce queuing times and help flow with the width of corridors, number of lifts, design of the bathrooms and layout of the ticketing hall. And all the data from the design and construction phases will go on to inform the operation and maintenance of the museum.

Bauly says he has many lessons to take forward to his next project. “It is all the things we have spoken about for years, like good MEP, sustainability, the structure being clever and integrated, optimised solutions. These are not just about driving down the cost for the client, but how the building performs in terms of safety and people’s health and welfare.

“Everything we have ever known about doing buildings has changed within the space of this one project, because the project demanded it. Otherwise, we couldn’t have solved the challenges that came as a result of the shape. It has changed how we work and that is great for the industry moving forwards.”

Even before opening, it seems, Dubai’s Museum of the Future has become a showcase for future technology building design.

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