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Healing Musandam: Omani Institute of Botanical Medicine

Part 1 Project 2010
Kirsty Williams
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) London UK
Threat:
The ancient sultanate of Oman always maintained a delicate balance between the water drawn from the mountain ‘aflaj’, the desert wells, and its use.

This is no longer the case.

Drawing groundwater using diesel has made the remaining groundwater (now declared a national treasure) saline, sterilising the arid landscape. Water that isn’t supplied by inefficient desalination plants is imported, along with the food the land can no longer produce, widening the food gap and threatening the livelihoods of traditional farmers. This arrangement can only be sustained as long as it is funded by the finite supply of oil.

= Adaptation:
Inspired by Omani mangroves, the labyrinthine roots of which are adapted to procure fresh water from brine, the programme is for a Seawater Greenhouse, combining architecture and natural site conditions to produce cool air and fresh water. This will form part of an apothecary producing the traditional herbal medicines of Oman. The programme however is a conjunction of tradition and modernity, as it sits atop a subterranean concrete world of labs and a seed vault designed to endure 500 years to safeguard of Oman’s plants (it is predicted that by the end of the century more than half of today’s existing plant species will be extinct) and advancement of plant based medicines to feed back into the apothecary.

The building also provides much needed public space, in the form of palm gardens and sunken courtyards, which restores some geometry to the site, a stark plateau of reclaimed land amidst impressive geological formations.

The concrete labs provide the foundations and cooling for the superstructure, a dhow-inspired tapestry of woods, designed to weather the harsh environment of brine, extreme humidity and temperatures exceeding 100F. The strategy accepts weathering and change here is inevitable and therefore to use this to the building’s advantage, for example growing a façade of salt crystals to adapt to Oman’s two distinct seasons, and using the sacrificial corrosion of copper anodes, not only to protect the structure, but to create a temporal shifting architecture that becomes a reflection of the unique conditions on the site.

Kirsty Williams


The town of Khasab is located in a deep valley surrounded by cliffs. Kirsty’s site is located on an area of wasteland reclaimed from the sea, bounded by a main road and a palm tree plantation, with a saltwater creek flowing from the site to the sea.

This year’s unit brief centred around the theme of “threat = adaptation”. The climate in the Musandam Peninsula is very challenging, and the project addresses important environmental issues of fresh water scarcity, extreme temperature, humidity and intense sunlight.

The spatial strategy for the project is driven by its location, taking into account sunlight orientation, prevailing wind direction, location of the water source and public access - providing public spaces that flow in and out of the building.

The programme for the building – greenhouse, apothecary and seed vault – consider in design and materiality different lifecycles of use and material. The project is concerned with longevity, change and transformation. The innovative saltwater greenhouse grows salt on its delicate timber façade, requiring frequent replacement of construction elements once these become ‘clogged’ with salt. The apothecary is lined with materials that absorb humidity and protect the medicines, but these materials will eventually deteriorate and need replacing. The seed vault, which forms the foundations for the other uses, is designed for a life span of 500 years to ensure the survival of native plant species. The seed vault is envisaged to eventually become the foundation for other uses, or become a partially buried fossil to be eventually extracted from the ground.

Kirsty’s strength is in taking on real world problems and inventing imaginative, yet believable, beautiful and technically astute solutions as demonstrated in her exceptional technical study. Her explorations into what it means to create a building with a 500 year life span provides valuable lessons in today’s throwaway culture.

Kirsty has explored the project inside and out through exquisite physical models and experimental trials on both an overall and detail scale. The project demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the materials used and how these come together in the building.

Tutor(s)
Ms Agnieszka Glowacka
Tomas Stokke
2010
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