Author: Sean O'Sullivan BEng, CEng, MIEI, MICE, associate director, Buro Happold & Partner for Engineering Consultancy Co. Atturaif is the most ambitious heritage project combining restoration, reconstruction and building new facilities currently being undertaken in the world. It will be turned into the major cultural tourist destination in the Middle East and will draw large numbers of visitor to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In 2010, after many years in the making, the Arriyadh Development Authority sought and secured the listing of the ancient Mud Citadel of Atturaif as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on the basis of its “outstanding universal value” and the preservation plans that were developed for the historic area. [login type="readmore"] An international team of experts was assembled to transform this little-known settlement northwest of Riyadh. Today, this team is working with the government agency to redevelop and preserve the 58 acres of historical ruins. The site contains hundreds of adobe structures, in various stages of disrepair, and is bounded on the perimeter with a 1.5km stone defence wall used to protect it from invading forces and enemy tribes. SETTING THE SCENE [caption id="attachment_7688" align="alignright" width="1024"] Aerial photo of the Atturaif site (click to enlarge)[/caption] During the 15th century, the al Saud tribes settled in Dir’iryah, which is an area situated along an eight kilometre stretch of the Wadi Hanifah valley, a chain of oasis northwest of present-day Riyadh. The area was occupied by a number of small settlements built around trade and agriculture. In the 18th century, the ruling clan of the House of Saud made Turayf (the present day Atturaif), with its naturally fortified position on the steep cliffs of the Wadi, their seat of governance. Opposite Turayf was a settlement called Bujayri. Here lived the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abl Wahhab with his disciples and family. In 1744, Muhammad Ibn Saud, the ruler of the Najd, formed an alliance with Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab to reform Islamic practices and unite the Najdi tribes. Over the ensuing years and after gaining local tribal support, the al Saud leaders extended their rule to most of the Arabian Peninsula, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Their success laid the foundations of the first Saudi state and present-day kingdom. Dir’iryah flourished from the mid 1700s, with the Imams extending fortified walls around the whole of the Wadi edge. They built within them magnificent palaces in the distinctive Najd style. In 1818, the Ottomans, who had waged a series of continuous fierce campaigns to control the area, took the city and sacked it. Turayf was finally abandoned soon after. For over a hundred years, the once-thriving city of impressive palaces, mosques and defensive walls of stone and adobe brick lay in ruins. Contemporary occupation in the 1950s and ’60s overlaid and adapted the historic fabric, but eventually these occupants were rehoused to make way, under royal decree, for a planned historic restoration and cultural experience – the Atturaif Living Museum Project. PROJECT SCOPE This is a project that requires the restoration of a significant portion of a small ancient mud city and, while mud structures are universally common, in this instance it is a rare combination of royal buildings and fortresses set both within the citadel walls and, amazingly, within the city limits of a modern metropolis. [caption id="attachment_7691" align="alignright" width="1024"] The Salwa Palace[/caption] The project will entail not only the restoration of Atturaif, but also surrounding buildings and the complex infrastructure to sustain and run on a daily basis, a ‘living museum’ and cultural tourist destination. While the bulk of buildings are in very poor condition, the magnificent soaring towers of the Salwa Palace were an inspirational and a compelling challenge for those who would dare to restore them. The restoration of the fortresses around the Atturaif citadel provides an additional challenge, as they stretch up to 21 metres from the Wadi river bed to the top of the defensive battlements. These structural walls, founded on limestone blocks, are constructed purely from adobe bricks made on site. Every aspect of a world-class cultural experience will be provided here, including universal access, transport, visitors’ facilities, markets and a museum with experience displays. Much of the work will be unseen because the thrust of this project is to provide, through restoration, a ‘best practice’ cultural experience. CURRENT CONSTRUCTION PRACTICES AND TECHNIQUES [caption id="attachment_7682" align="alignright" width="685"] Strength testing of the adobe bricks[/caption] Adobe construction/architecture is one of the most original and powerful expressions of our ability to create a built environment with readily available resources. The Atturaif site includes a great variety of structures, ranging from mosques, palaces and granaries to historic city centres, cultural landscapes and archaeological sites. Its cultural importance of mud buildings throughout the world is evident and has led to its consideration as a common heritage of humankind, therefore deserving protection and conservation by the international community. Over 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in adobe structures, predominately in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. For the restoration at Atturaif, over 2,000,000 handmade adobe bricks have been produced using historical materials and methods under strict UNESCO guidelines. Fermenting of the raw materials (clay, sand, straw and water) takes place over a 30-day period. The fermentation process turns the material colour from light brown to dark black. The adobe bricks are then made by hand, in simple timber moulds and left to naturally bake under the harsh desert sun. After seven days of baking, compressive strengths of 7n/mmare consistently achieved without the additional of any aggregates or cement. Lightweight straw bricks are used in the room construction due to their impressive thermal performance. Compressed earth bricks are used on modern structures to clearly differentiate them from historical structures. Locally farmed athel wood is used for all roof construction and for doors and windows (after treatment against termites). Palm matting and split-palm battens form the upper layer over the athel beams, followed by mud floors and roofs. A variety of waterproofing methods have been used to ensure longevity. The original athel-log waterspouts carry roof water to the streets and into a new drainage system. The adobe surface and walls are treated with termite-control mechanisms and waterproofing, often in the traditional methods. Adobe bricks are used in wall restoration, while at foundation level, the limestone foundations are carefully repaired and replaced often in situ below the original historical walls. The walls are plastered traditionally by hand in mud layers with hand placed pebble substrate. [caption id="attachment_7693" align="alignright" width="1024"] Faizal Defence Tower[/caption] This is the most highly significant and key preservation project ever undertaken in Saudi Arabia, a country that has spent recent decades updating its cities with modern infrastructure and developments and large-scale international standards building projects. The key aspects of the Atturaif design process included compliance with UNESCO design guidelines for world heritage sites. The ICOMOS Charters (International Council on Monuments and Sites) are the UNESCO model used for all restoration. Compliance with these charters includes a focus on using local materials that were historically used in the structures and to ensure that all new structures are reversible (i.e. easily removed). One of the most important basic design principles of the project requires that the new buildings of Atturaif are clearly distinguished new from historic structures. The aim of the team has been to integrate contemporary architecture into the ruins as sensitively as possible, to assist in this; three-dimensional surveys of each adobe ruin have been undertaken. Research and development programmes have determined traditional mud stabilisation and restoration techniques for a wide array of adobe ruins. Twelve palace structures dominate the building skylines and these are being restored as the focal points of the Atturaif Living Museum. Significant efforts are required to co-ordinate the efforts of the ‘global’ spread design team and to bring together all design documentation into a comprehensive tender package. Teams of designers from Ireland, UK, Australia, USA, Europe, Africa, South America and, of course, the Middle East have inputted greatly into this unique project of world stature. THE IRISH ANGLE [caption id="attachment_7695" align="alignright" width="1024"] Adobe brick production on the site[/caption] Buro Happold Consulting Engineers carried out the project master planning and engineering designs and are now supervision the construction works. Sean O’Sullivan from Cork is the project manager, with Newry’s Pat McAteer working as contracts administrator. Steve Manns from Blessington is construction manager on the project, while Dundalk’s John Cheshire is senior structural engineer and Gerry Kelly from Dublin is the senior quantity surveyor. Upon completion of the construction works, a very ambitious programme of museum fit-outs and site multimedia will begin on a phased basis in early 2014. The fit out 14 individual museums simultaneously within a UNESCO World Heritage Site has never been attempted before in the Middle East. The designs of these museums are to specifically explain the history of Saudi Arabia and specifically Atturaif from the creation of the first Saudi State. A vast array of external site multimedia shows will strengthen the appeal of the project as the cultural tourist destination of note in the Middle East. VISITOR EXPERIENCE [caption id="attachment_7680" align="alignright" width="9575"] Fitting out the museums (click to enlarge)[/caption] The visitor is to be welcomed at the new visitor centre and may choose to travel by foot or take an extended visit on a fleet of small electric vehicles, which will ply their way around discreet tour paths. The traditional homes, traditional souk, Arabian Horse and Military Museum and the Salwa Palace, among others, provide stops along the route. Modern inserted structures are placed within ancient sites and provide a fascinating contrast the traditional mud structures around them, with state-of-the-art displays and visitor experiences explaining the historic facts in a way that will excite visitors of all age groups. The night-time experience will be profound, with ‘son et luminaire’ programmes to watch and atmospheric walks through the old streets and laneways The dramatic sound and light show is designed to highlight the most important structures on the site for the crowds of tourists expected to arrive at night when desert temperatures are the coolest. Throughout Atturaif, multi-media installations will expand the understanding of the historic settlement and its distinctive landmarks. They will help visitors engage with the entire site, as they wander through the ruins. Illuminated imagery moving across the mud-brick architecture and voices reciting poetry and telling stories will provide a more poetic interpretation of the settlement’s history than the focused displays inside the museum and other structures. These will also enliven the archaeology with stories related to the political, religious, military and hospitality themes of the site. Calligraphy morphing into palm trees and warriors, camel caravans and other imagery will relate the history of Atturaif through changing graphics, while sounds of animals and people recall various activities within the former Saudi capital. A flexible and adaptable system, the efficient LED projectors and other multi-media equipment can be updated with imagery for special events. They are integrated into the site so as not to disturb the integrity of the archaeology. The culmination every evening will be a spectacular sound and light show projected onto the Salwa ruins, with the roof of the visitor reception centre designated as a spectator gallery.

For a video presentation of the Atturaif UNESCO World Heritage Site to date, please click here
Project Statistics
  • Project area: 58 acres
  • 2,500,000 handmade mud bricks
  • 35,000 athel wood trees will be used for roofs and doors and windows
  • 40,000mof Riyadh limestone have been excavated for foundation repairs and paving
  • 15,000mof adobe materials have been excavation to complete the reconstruction
  • 150,000m2of new adobe plaster will be applied by hand
  • Over 1,000 workers on site from 15 different countries and five different continents
  • Completion date: late 2014
  • Project budget: SR1 billion (Saudi riyals), or €200 million
Sean O'Sullivan is a chartered Member of Engineers Ireland and the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK. He has over 24 years' experience in the construction industry worldwide and spent many years as a team leader in multi-disciplinary teams of architects, engineers (civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and telecoms) and quantity surveyors.
O'Sullivan's experience is across a wide spectrum of projects from inception to handover and everything in between, including roads, bridges, commercial, residential, retail, hotels, educational and historical restoration projects. He has worked extensively in Ireland, the UK, US, South Africa, Libya and Saudi Arabia.