Chatting with Andrew Tyson, Executive Director – Project and Construction Management, The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC)
Infrastructure, a term used by architects, engineers, and urban planners to describe essential facilities and services for communal use, is at the heart of any major development. But The Red Sea Project is taking infrastructure to a new level, driven by a commitment to utilize solely renewable energy, a feat that has never before been achieved on this scale anywhere in the world. We speak to Andrew Tyson to find out more about the objectives and challenges of developing infrastructure for this most ambitious of giga-projects.
Saudi Projects (SP): What is the brief for the design of the infrastructure on The Red Sea Project, what elements are involved, and in how many phases?
Andrew Tyson (AT): The Master Plan for the project has been developed in partnership with the architectural firm WATG and integrated engineers and consultants Buro Happold. It includes unique infrastructure elements designed to protect and enhance the environment surrounding the destination.
Before development started on site, the plan was informed by an extensive Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) exercise, which helped us to decide which areas of the 28,000km2 site would be developed. We were able to model the environmental impact of the development and operation of the destination. Based on this, our Master Plan for the project predicts a 30% net conservation benefit by 2040 based on the design, approach to construction and future operations of the destination.
Specific initiatives are in place to not only protect but also to further enhance the environment, including a 100% reliance on renewable energy, a total ban on single-use plastics, once operational, zero-waste-to-landfill and an aspiration to achieve 100% carbon neutrality across the entire project.
“Our Master Plan for the project predicts a 30% net conservation benefit by 2040”
We are currently working on phase one of the project which is targeted for completion in 2023 and offers 16 hotels and 3,000 rooms across five islands and two inland resorts, as well as commercial, retail and leisure facilities and other infrastructure. The first few hotels will be completed by the end of 2022, along with our dedicated international airport, with the remainder of phase one completing by the end of 2023.
SP: At what stage is the project now in terms of infrastructure, and what is the timeline?
AT: Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding the pandemic, we have continued to make significant progress on the ground, and there are 500 contracts worth over SAR 15 billion now awarded to local and international partners.
The 100-hectare Landscape Nursery, the largest in Saudi Arabia, which will provide more than 15 million plants for the destination, has been operational since early 2020. There are more than 6,000 workers currently on-site, and the first 80km of new roads are near complete. The Construction Village, which is set to house 10,000 workers, is already open, and development is also progressing well at the Coastal Village, which will be home to around 14,000 people who will eventually operate the destination. This includes a 3-star management hotel, the first accommodation and our new offices.
Last year, we marked a significant milestone in the construction of our eco-friendly Red Sea International Airport. We awarded a substantial contract to an all-Saudi JV between Nesma & Partners and Almabani for airside infrastructure works ahead of the airport opening in 2022. This includes the design and building of a Code F Runway 3,700 meters long, Code B Seaplane Runway, Parallel & Link taxiways and pavement works, Aeronautical Navigational Aids, Aerodrome Ground Lighting, Airside utilities, helipads, roads and associated buildings.
We have an exciting year ahead at TRSDC. As we move into a post-Covid world, we are creating more partnerships, breaking new ground on-site and continuing to move forward with our plans to welcome the first guests by the end of 2022. Upon completion in 2030, there will be 50 hotels, offering up to 8,000 hotel rooms and more than 1,000 residences across 22 islands and six inland sites.
SP: How are you ensuring sustainability and environmental awareness?
AT: Nature is the world’s most important asset, and we all have a part to play in protecting it, which is why we have been deliberately ambitious in aiming for TRSDC to become the world’s first regenerative tourism destination. Regenerative tourism means going beyond sustainability to not only protect but enhance the environment, the habitats, and the surrounding communities for years to come.
As mentioned above, our Master Plan predicts a 30% net conservation benefit by 2040, which will be achieved by enhancing biologically diverse habitats, including mangroves, seagrass, corals and land vegetation. Careful selection of areas for development is another way in which we will achieve this; we’re leaving 75% of our island archipelago untouched and designating nine islands as special conversation zones. We are also developing less than 1% of the destination’s total 28,000km2.
Environmental considerations inform every decision we make, and technology has the potential to not only support our ambitions but help us to track our goals. Part of our environmental enhancement aim will be achieved by exploring new technologies, such as 3D coral printing and coral farming processes to boost coral populations. We are also investigating suitable carbon sequestration techniques to help us reduce our overall carbon footprint, such as marine algae farms and mechanical trees, as well as sustainable drinking water production technology.
Partnering with others is also helping us to deliver on our ambitious sustainability commitments. In 2019, we partnered with King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) to launch The Red Sea Project’s turtle tagging program through which we have tracked the endangered Green and Hawksbill Turtles species native to the area. So that we can continue to measure and track our progress, we are deploying around 2,500 Internet of Things (IoT) sensors throughout the coral reefs, lagoons, and turtle nesting locations to constantly monitor these sites.
We are working on extremely sensitive areas, which means planning and construction work needs to be carefully considered in order to avoid harm to the environment and protect the flora around the destination. For instance, the access roads at our Desert Rock location are designed to wind in-between trees, shrubs and other protected areas to avoid destroying any natural habitat.
We also route boats around the lagoon as opposed to directly through it. These routes are not selected for their speed but to minimize impact on the environment. To save time elsewhere, we must be extremely efficient with the loading, sailing full, offloading, and sailing empty cycle with little room for errors or breakdowns. We also have special lookouts on board each boat to maintain vigilant visual inspection in the water for turtles and other mega-fauna to avoid potential collisions.
SP: What are some of the unique aspects with regards to infrastructure on The Red Sea Project?
AT: The location of the project is particularly unique, and we have a variety of landscapes and topographies to consider. From the mountain resort we are building, to the overwater villas, no two parts of the site are the same, which is why the infrastructure must adapt. For instance, in order to create our Desert Rock Mountain Resort, we’re having to physically build the rooms and hotels into the mountainside around huge rocks and valleys.
Last year, we also had to complete significant land raising and ground improvement works for the 1.5 million square meter Coastal Village area, which will house the workers, staff and management of The Red Sea Project. This required raising the ground 3.5 meters above sea level and transporting 2.6 million cubic meters of fill by extracting soil and other material from a nearby hill.
In addition, we’re using innovative ‘green concrete’ across the destination to dramatically reduce our environmental impact. Switching from standard concrete cement to specially designed green concrete (made from recycled materials) is allowing us to significantly reduce our overall carbon footprint. This work is already underway, and we are now able to produce around 1,200 cubic meters of green concrete per day on site.
A large proportion of what we are trying to do at The Red Sea Project has never been done before in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world – our approach to infrastructure is very new. This not only challenges us but also challenges the contractors we work with to come up with new solutions.
SP: What does the marine infrastructure entail? I understand that sustainability is being approached in quite a unique way?
AT: The enabling works for marine infrastructure was one of the first major construction contracts we awarded at The Red Sea Project to our partner Archirodon. We have strict sustainability commitments in place, which means that in any infrastructure works we carry out, we must ensure that no coral and marine life are harmed in the process.
Archirodon assisted us in constructing two causeways as part of the 3.3km crossing to Shurayrah, the main hub island for the first phase of The Red Sea Project, which will eventually be connected by a bridge span. The crossing will connect the hub island, which will feature 11 hotels as well as retail, leisure and entertainment amenities, to the mainland.
The crossing route was modeled to ensure water flows and marine life were not impacted. Rather than taking the shortest route to the island, it makes use of existing landmasses and was carefully located to avoid corals and to protect the surrounding ecosystems. The initial structure will later be built upon to provide the permanent crossing to the hub island when the destination opens, further limiting the environmental impact of construction.
SP: With regards to hotel infrastructure work, I understand you are doing this at the same time as off-site manufacturing to be efficient and meet tight deadlines – can you talk about this and what benefits and challenges it presents?
AT: Off-site manufacturing has been a real game-changer for us in terms of driving efficiencies and ensuring the project timeline remains on target. However, the key reason why we decided to undertake this process was to minimize the environmental impact of construction – something which is our utmost priority. Off-site manufacturing methods are helping us to reduce waste, as well as lessen the human impact of construction activities on-site, such as noise, ground disturbance and vehicle movements.
Additionally, our construction sites will produce much less pollution, making them considerably less diSARuptive. With substantial elements of the hotel construction taking place off-site, it means we can focus attention on the infrastructure network we want to put in place at the same time.
However, as unique as the locations of the hotel projects are, they present a challenge. Some hotel suites are in the mountains, while others are in the desert or on islands 30km out to sea. When it comes to implementing infrastructure plans, we need to think differently. For instance, often the provision of water is hard to come by as not every hotel is connected to a main supply, and we’ve also had to run a substantial length of subsea cable to provide utilities to the most remote hotels.
Protecting the coral is also something we have considered extremely carefully. There have been months of planning to ensure that our methods don’t damage the reefs, which was a huge challenge.
SP: It seems to be time to say goodbye to the traditional car on The Red Sea Project; tell us more about the road and transport infrastructure, including the 80km road network that is replacing the single highway you inherited?
AT: Working on such a huge site, road and transport infrastructure had to be one of the first components we put in place to allow our workforce to travel from A to B. Currently, 79km out of the total 80km of our road network is completed, and we are on course to finish this by the end of April.
We are working with Binyah to develop the construction of the coastal and inland connecting road links at the destination. This includes a 10km highway, a 13km airport access road, interconnecting roads within the destination and an access road to the crossing connecting the main hub island.
Last year, we awarded a contract to global engineering firm Mott MacDonald to provide consultancy services to determine the optimal sustainable vehicle and fleet configuration at the destination. The company is set to deliver a comprehensive and robust analysis of the total land, sea and air transport needs for the development and operation. This will involve a strategy for destination-wide clean mobility using electric and hydrogen vehicles, boats and aircraft.
SP: How are the utilities being handled, including aspects such as PPP being utilized for renewable energy, centralized district cooling etc.?
AT: At the end of 2020, we announced a public-private partnership (PPP) with a consortium led by ACWA Power – our highest value contract to date. ACWA Power will deliver environmentally responsible renewable energy, water generation and transmission, wastewater treatment and centralized district cooling for the 16 hotels, international airport and infrastructure that will be developed in phase one.
Under the PPP, we will power assets, infrastructure and utility systems that make up phase one of the project with 100% renewable energy. We will use solar panels and wind farms to do this, with no connection to the national grid. We expect that 210MW of energy will be generated initially and that this will be expanded in line with development up to 650,000MWh. The resulting saving in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere will equate to around half a million tons per year.
The partnership is a significant step forward for The Red Sea Project, as it will become the region’s first tourism destination powered solely by renewable energy. A tourism project of this size with the ability to operate completely off-grid has never been achieved on this scale anywhere in the world, and we are building the world’s largest battery storage facility as part of the program.
We want to create a tourist destination that limits the environmental impact through the provision of zero-carbon emitting and zero-waste generating utility services, and this partnership promises exactly that.
“We are now able to produce around 1,200 cubic meters of green concrete per day on site.”
SP: Can you talk about the new waste management centre that has recently been opened?
AT: Last year, we awarded a solid waste contract award to a joint-venture between leading waste management company, Averda and the Saudi Naval Support Company (SNS) to help us recycle and re-use waste responsibly.
The partnership involves collecting and recycling waste generated by administration offices, residential facilities, and construction activities, meeting the high environmental standards set for the project and with the goal of ‘zero waste to landfill.
Both companies have supported us in designing, building, and operating Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and Construction and Demolition Waste (CDW) plants. The recyclable material that is recovered from both the MSW and CDW stream is then transferred for further processing or, where possible, re-used as construction material on the project.
We also have a composting unit, which turns organic-rich waste into compost to be used for the project’s landscaped areas and in the site nursery. Finally, incinerators are used for processing any non-recyclable waste, and the ash generated is mixed with cement for the production of bricks.
In addition to the above partnership, we also prioritize the management of our water consumption to achieve a near-zero water discharge target, and in line with our water strategy, we have structured our water management approach around four categories: potable, irrigation, stormwater and wastewater.
SP: How would you describe the entire infrastructure philosophy in 25 words or less?
AP: We’re breaking new ground: setting new standards in sustainable construction, testing the market and raising the bar in terms of quality, delivery and efficiencies.