The modular design of the campus buildings will permit rapid construction and ensure high quality. The rounded window design is replicated throughout the campus. Atkins
Work has begun on a technology park in a remote region of China that will use prefabricated elements to construct buildings with shapes that allude to the digital world.
July 15, 2014—Before oil became the precious global commodity that it is today, there was no reason for a city to exist in the expansive, remote desert in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in northwestern China. That has changed over the past 60 years, however. In that time, the city of Karamay in that region has grown—and grown rich—as a result of the oil fields that lie beneath the sand. Now the city is developing a 50,000 m2 technology campus that will be known as the Cloud Computing Industry Park. With buildings shapes inspired by binary code and a Chinese board game known as xiangqi, the campus is meant to promote innovation.
Designing the campus needed to be about more than just bringing together a set of building blocks to create the requisite amount of work space, says Steven Smit, RAIA, LEED Green Associate, an architecture design director in the Shanghai office of the global design, engineering, and project management firm Atkins. Smit served as Atkins’s director for the project. “There was a bit of cloud computing poetry behind [the appearance],” Smit says. “At the same time, we wanted something fairly futuristic because it’s in the middle of nowhere, and you want to surprise people. Occasionally in China you can do wonderful things when you least expect it, and that’s a little [of] what happened here.”
Karamay offers the highest income per person in China, Smit says, primarily because of its oil industry. In contrast to such other oil-rich cities as Dubayy (Dubai), in the United Arab Emirates, however, Karamay is “very, very isolated,” he says, the nearest city—Ürümqi—being approximately 300 km away.
“When you fly in there, you fly over hundreds of kilometers of desert, and it’s a bit like flying over the Sahara,” Smit says. Although the city can be accessed by road, rail, and air, the location is within a province that has long been considered the frontier of China, being bordered by Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, Smit explains.
Temperatures in the region range from a high of 40°C in the summer to a low of –30°C in the winter, according to material provided by Atkins. “It’s a typical inland desert, dry climate—very hot in summer, very cold in winter,” Smit says. Indeed, the area is so arid that water is imported from Kazakhstan and stored in large lakes that are connected by a man-made river, according to Smit.
In plan the campus has been designed to resemble a cloud of
data points, the bean shapes of the buildings alluding to a
computer operating system. Atkins
Building a city in such a remote location takes foresight and planning. “Atkins got involved several years ago at the large-scale urban planning level to help the city government create a vision for the city in the future,” Smit says. “And that master plan basically led to this vision of the international center for the oil industry in central Asia.”
To create the master plan for the technology park, which will offer both employment and housing space, Atkins has laid out a campus that is aesthetically pleasing but also addresses the distinct challenges posed by the site. Construction materials must be transported hundreds of kilometers, and because of the extreme winters the construction season lasts just five to six months. “That led us to the more modular solution that we designed—something that was really based on prefabrication,” Smit says. Prefabricated building modules could be produced in Ürümqi, transported by truck to Karamay, and assembled in relatively little time, according to Smit.
To further increase the speed of construction, the Atkins team decided to focus on one building shape that could be easily replicated, with the modules linked to one another as needed. And because the designers wanted the shapes in some way to suggest the activity that would be going on inside, the result is a set of rounded, modular buildings affectionately nicknamed beans in reference to Google’s Android operating system, Jelly Bean. “We sort of envisaged these beans—especially if you’re looking at it in plan—as almost a data cloud,” Smit says. “The windows are the same bean shape, and they are all staggered, so it looks like they are sort of moving through space, and that is our data cloud.”
The speed of construction that a modular approach would allow, however, had to be considered. “Now in China, often they build very, very fast once they get going, which is a little concerning, because we are not there to control the quality,” Smit says. “So we rely on our relationship with the local design institute [Shanghai Xian Dai Architectural Design Co. Ltd.] to follow through on certain details.” To maintain some level of quality control, even at a distance, the design team “kept the design quite simple,” Smit says. “That’s why we basically only have one window that gets repeated. If we can check a mock-up of a single window, and we are OK with that, then we know that a large part is under control.”
The technology campus has been designed with indoor and
outdoor gathering spaces. Enclosed walkways will protect people
from the extreme winter temperatures. Atkins
At the governmental level, Smit says, China is shifting its focus from one of quantity to one of quality in construction. The desire of the government is for design to improve as industries develop, to “have more innovative environments for people to come up with new ideas like we do in the West,” he says.
As a result, the computing campus in Karamay is being built to include spaces for socializing, as seen in the headquarters of such U.S. companies as Apple and Google, he says. To do this, the design team enclosed walkways linking the bean buildings to one another so that people would be able to make their way to the different spaces on campus without being exposed to the piercing winter winds. “The link becomes the space where people meet and can discuss ideas and at the same time get from the car into the link from the link into the building,” Smit says.
In addition to working and living quarters, the campus will contain multiple gyms, a cafeteria, a library, and exhibition spaces. Offices will be available for graduate students seeking space as well as for start-up companies, and entire buildings will be available to established software companies looking for inexpensive offices, Smit says.
Despite the fact that the campus will be located in the heart of the oil industry, it has been planned in accordance with the principles of sustainable design and is expected to be favorable rated by the China Building Science Research Institute’s sustainable construction rating program, called Chinese Green Building Label-3. The campus will include high-performance building envelopes, photovoltaic installations, vegetated vertical elements, and systems for recycling gray water. An initial concept calling for modified “green” roofs that would carry the desert landscape through the campus is currently being discussed, Smit says.
Atkins is partnering with the Karamay-based China Petroleum Engineering Institute on the design of the campus. In addition to Smit, the Atkins team includes Philip Clarke, an architecture senior associate, and Guo Yunxi, Yang Shen, and Tian Meng, all architects. Lin Hao and Francois Leroy, both with Atkins Shanghai Landscape, are also members.
Site work at the Karamay campus began last month, and the first buildings are expected to be complete within a year.