In the second-largest city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the cutting-edge design of a proposed bio-climatic healthcare facility received a lot of attention internationally.
For a variety of reasons, many American and international patients suffering from an assortment of ailments are seeking treatment overseas. Years ago, the idea of traveling to a foreign city for medical care — with the exception of a few cities in Europe — would have been viewed as a gamble. Lately, however, in light of the high expense and low comfort level that has dogged the U.S. healthcare system, people are opting for treatment in more luxurious environments under the care of top notch doctors at a much lower cost.
One of the newer locales for cutting-edge medical care is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since gaining independence in 1971, the UAE has been steadily building an infrastructure of healthcare services that are as highly regarded as those in the Western world.
Taking the idea of being almost “resort comfortable” after a medical procedure to new heights is the proposed Al Ain Oasis World Class Medical Clinic which would contain a “bungalow residence facility” that includes a chelation clinic, integrated dental domes, a healing clinic, plus individual bungalows that serve as a patient’s private residence while recovering. The most notable element — the project’s innovative and inflatable textile façade — was created to allow for natural control of the building’s inside temperature.
The design work is the result of the acclaimed Philippe Barriere Collective (PB+Co) company, which features collaborations from some of the design world’s most forward-thinking minds. The entire design is eco-sensitive. Overlooking Al Ain Lake and the oasis surroundings, the tower rests on piers in order to minimize its impact on the coastline. Likewise, offshore bungalows protect the shore area from construction.
Planted with a wide variety of reeds and papyrus, the shore attracts all types of aquatic birds, fish, frogs, reptiles, and other insects species. What makes this alternative medicine center especially unique is that it combines wildlife discovery, nature conservancy, and outdoor activities as part of the patients’ healing process.
Until Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004, Al Ain’s municipal code forbade construction over four stories high (except for the Hilton and Rotana hotels). In 2006, the municipality’s goal was to create a flagship image that embodied progress, science (medicine), and high technology at the service of nature preservation and/or recovery.
One of the most widely talked about aspects of the proposed design is the external textile veil that shelters the entire tower like a loose cap. This shielding layer generates a buffer air zone that protects the building façade from the outside heat. This zone — inflated by constant air flow circulation — allows natural cooling control and additional shading protection. The parachute-like veil is layered over a super-pressure balloon which crowns the tower and changes in size according to needs. This permits the buffer air zone to increase in size or retract (the expanded air zone between the veil and the façade grows when more air is insufflated into the super-pressure balloon). Air coming from an underground cool thermal mass allows the air contained by the veil to be refreshed, as well as adjust the building’s temperature to reduce air conditioning consumption and maximize patient comfort. At night — during the absence of the strong Middle Eastern sun — the veil may be lifted and the balloon deflated.
An early version of the project used the concept of a spinnaker functioning as a headsail to protect the building from direct sunlight and rotate around it with the sun’s trajectory. Ascending hot air keeps the spinnaker up in the air (these early renderings are pictured). For practical reasons, a parachute covering an insufflated balloon was easier to control under windstorm conditions and easier to manage since it has a constant position throughout the day.
The project took eight years to develop, starting in 2006, and was put on hold from 2007 until 2014 when it was officially stopped. The design could only be partially published in 2016. One would hope that this innovative — but uncompleted — design will inspire future ground-breaking renditions in building design.