Megaprojects have become a symbol of human ambition, pushing the boundaries of engineering and design to new heights. These colossal endeavours have the potential to transform landscapes, economies, and societies. However, as the world embraces sustainability as a necessary way of life, it is imperative to examine the environmental, social, and economic implications of such projects. In this article we discuss the topic of mega projects with the Director of ARCO2, Ian Armstrong, and explore the challenges that projects like Neom and the Burj Khalifa have and will face.NEOM: Made to Change

Neom: The Futuristic Oasis

Neom, a groundbreaking megaproject in Saudi Arabia, aims to create a sustainable city-state from scratch. Spanning across 26,500 square kilometres, it promises to integrate cutting-edge technologies, renewable energy sources, and advanced urban planning to achieve a sustainable and vibrant community. By leveraging robotics, artificial intelligence, and renewable energy, Neom seeks to reduce the environmental impacts of daily life and improve resource efficiency.

Environmental Sustainability

When it comes to Neom’s ambitious plans, they include a focus on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, aiming for a carbon-neutral city. Additionally, sustainable transportation systems and the conservation of biodiversity are central aspects of its design. However, the development’s scale and potential ecological disruptions, including habitat loss and water scarcity, raise concerns about its true sustainability.

Social Sustainability

Neom envisions a society built on inclusivity, innovation, and social progress. The project aims to provide high-quality healthcare, education, and housing for residents, fostering a sense of community and well-being. Nevertheless, ensuring the involvement and well-being of local communities, respecting human rights, and addressing potential social inequalities remain critical challenges for Neom’s sustainability ambitions.

Oxagon: a reimagined industrial city

Economic Sustainability

Neom aspires to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy by attracting foreign investments and stimulating innovation-driven industries. By fostering job creation and economic growth, it aims to achieve long-term economic sustainability. However, the financial viability of such a massive undertaking and the potential displacement of local economic activities warrant careful consideration.

Director of ARCO2 in conversation

Ian Armstrong is co-founder and Director here at ARCO2 Architecture Ltd. His extensive knowledge in architectural conservation, with emphasis on sustainable design, development and growth, leads him to be a great conversationalist on this subject matter. So we asked him a few questions.

What are your thoughts and perceptions of the world’s megaprojects, much like the Burj Khalifa?“Generally speaking I would class these as a feat of engineering, more so than Architecture. Mostly seem hard to comprehend, or to even associate them with what we do here at ARCO2, given the difference in goals. Structures, like the Burj, feel almost alien, and yet they can still be admired. I question who will want to live in these and what happens to them once they start to degrade. Can these structures be recycled, or will they simply be left to ruin. What are the carbon, ecological and biodiversity consequences? Are they needed? They are however intriguing and I do find it difficult to believe they are actually being built!”

Within Neom, are there any aspects of any of the projects it involves (The Line, Oxagon, Trojena) that you believe are unrealistic or unachievable?
“It does feel like a sci-fi film, and I pinch myself and realise it’s actually happening. There is huge investment in R&D, transport, infrastructure, energy, water, architecture, engineering, rewilding and technology. This will pave the way for new opportunities around the world. Innovation on this scale requires risk, and often big investment. We are seeing progressive development on a scale never seen before. The rewilding and sustainability objectives are, I hope, fundamental and not just a token gesture.”

Inside NEOM: Saudi's $500bn smart megacity | AGBI

Or do you believe the megaprojects such as these will ‘blaze the trail’ for a more sustainable future? If so, will this be a new reality for everybody, or an unaffordable reality for most?
“It certainly should create new opportunities in many industries and lead the way to a more progressive future. However, how this is likely to translate to other developed parts of the world will be interesting to see. Turning a desert into such a thriving city with ecology, rewilding, agriculture, business, transportation and living is certainly an interesting experiment, which has been successful on a smaller scale.”

In terms of sustainability, what considerations need to be made in the development process of such large-scale projects, like Neom?
“Is it sustainable to build on this scale and in an area which is currently fairly uninhabitable. It almost feels that this is a test for habitation on Mars! In order to create the fundamentals to sustain life, and everything that is contained within a city, this certainly feels like it cannot be deemed a sustainable development in its truest sense. I would be interested to see embodied carbon and lifecycle analysis to better understand the impacts of such an ‘excessive’ (perhaps ambitious) development. On the flip side, I am sure that another argument would be, is it sustainable to build hundreds of thousands of individual dwellings…always an argument either way!”

NEOM: The Line
Just how sustainable are megaprojects like that of Neom, or the Burj Khalifa?
Without fully studying the full technical sustainability objectives and analysis it is difficult to be certain, however my initial reaction is that such schemes cannot be deemed truly sustainable.

They appear to serve as a display of wealth and power, demonstrating what countries can achieve with $500 billion to spare.
They have certainly caught the attention of the world with such ambitious projects. The concept of The Line is intriguing, but at 170km long it appears to travel through mountainous land. The sheer scale of groundworks and engineering to facilitate such a project is fairly mind blowing. I must admit I thought it was an interesting idea/concept, but would never become reality…then realised work has already started! Whilst I really want The Line to be a truly sustainable project, I do struggle with how it can possibly be!

A long road ahead

Whilst Neom is at the start of its engineering journey, structures like the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, have long since finished, marking itself as the world’s tallest building that does in fact showcase some remarkable sustainable design features.

Energy Efficiency

Burj Khalifa incorporates innovative technologies to minimise energy consumption. Its design optimises natural lighting, reducing the need for artificial illumination. High-performance glass panels and efficient cooling systems contribute to substantial energy savings.

Water Conservation

Given the scarcity of water resources in the region, Burj Khalifa employs various water-saving measures. These include a condensate recovery system, which collects and reuses water from air conditioning units, and efficient irrigation techniques in the surrounding landscaping.

Waste Management

The skyscraper implements effective waste management strategies, including recycling initiatives and waste segregation programs, to minimise its environmental footprint.

Saudi Arabia's NEOM to 'revolutionize' cities

What lessons can firms like ours learn from megaprojects like Neom and the Burj Khalifa?

Architectural firms like us at ARCO2 can draw essential lessons from megaprojects like the above, to enhance our practices and as well as our approach towards sustainability.

Integrated Design Approach

Megaprojects emphasise the significance of adopting an integrated design approach that considers sustainability from the project’s inception. Architectural firms should strive to collaborate closely with engineers, urban planners, and environmental consultants from the early stages to integrate sustainability principles seamlessly into the project’s design and development.

Holistic Sustainability Assessment

Megaprojects underscore the importance of conducting comprehensive sustainability assessments that evaluate the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project. Architectural firms should embrace life cycle assessments, energy modelling, and other tools to evaluate the project’s sustainability performance and identify areas for improvement.

Stakeholder Engagement

Megaprojects often face challenges related to community acceptance and social impact. Architectural firms should prioritise stakeholder engagement throughout the project lifecycle, involving local communities, residents, and other relevant stakeholders in decision-making processes. This helps ensure that their concerns and aspirations are addressed and that the project aligns with the needs of the people it serves.

Saudi Arabia is building The Vault, a folded village at NEOM's Trojena

Innovation and Technology

Megaprojects leverage cutting-edge technologies and innovative solutions to enhance sustainability. Architectural firms can learn from these projects by staying abreast of emerging technologies, materials, and construction techniques that can contribute to energy efficiency, waste reduction, and improved environmental performance.

Monitoring and Performance Evaluation

Megaprojects emphasise the importance of continuous monitoring and performance evaluation to ensure that sustainability goals are being met. Architectural firms should implement robust monitoring systems and regularly assess the project’s performance against sustainability metrics, making adjustments and improvements as necessary.

By incorporating these lessons, architectural firms can enhance their sustainability practices, contribute to the development of more sustainable built environments, and create a positive impact on the communities they serve.