StrXur talked with Tony Marshallsay, a mechanical engineer who spent most of his career in Saudi Arabia. When Marshallsay arrived in Saudi Arabia, there wasn’t a single skyscraper in the country — there were a few tall buildings in the eastern region where the vast oil deposits are located, but the built environment in the rest of the country was mostly small structures and low rises. The first skyscraper was only completed in 2000. Marshallsay eventually worked for the Saudi architecture and engineering firm Omrania, where he designed engineering solutions, performed design reviews and supervised construction for projects including the Kingdom Tower and the King Abdullah International Gardens, as well as hotels and hospitals. Recently retired, Marshallsay shared insights on building in a brutal climate, communication on the jobsite, and a science fiction trilogy he’s writing.
StrXur: I’m curious how you got to Saudi Arabia.
Tony Marshallsay: Same reason everybody else went to Saudi Arabia: for money. If anybody tells you that they didn’t go to Saudi Arabia for money, they’re a liar.
StrXur: Could you talk a little bit about the cultural environment you were stepping into and what it was like to be building in a place very much different in terms of culture, but also in terms of climate and the level of westernization and modernization?
TM: The climate is more important than the culture on a construction project. It’s not much different, apart from cultural requirements for things like prayer times and such in Saudi Arabia.
Temperature-wise, there is a big difference. You have to remember that Saudi Arabia, like the States, is a big country and the conditions vary a lot. In Riyadh, it’s high. It’s 600 meters above sea level. That’s the best part of 2,000 feet above sea level. It’s very dry. Humidity in summer in the afternoons goes down to 5%. And you’ve got a permanent suspended dust, so dust filtration is a big problem. But if you go on to the coast, if you go down to the eastern region, Khobar and Dhahran, which is where all the oil installations are, there you’re at sea level. You can get up to 45 C and 100% humidity. I was down there for a year on a project. I could go shopping at 7 o’clock in the evening, park the car outside the supermarket, go in, do my shopping, and come out and my windshield would be covered in dew. And the temperature was right about 30 C. That’s 85 F. So that’s how humid it is on the coast.
StrXur: How does that affect the building site and your design or engineering solutions on a building?
TM: It affects the engineering solutions because you have to allow for a very wide range of temperatures. In the areas where you have high humidity, you’re looking for a lot of dehumidification. That means your chilled water systems have to run at a low temperature. But the outside temperature is 40 C, maybe going up to 50 C. And your chilled water is running about between 6 and 8 C. But when you are installing it, you’ve got empty pipes that are up to 50 C and they have to get pulled right down to 6 or 8. So in the design of all the pipework, you have to allow for all that thermal movement during the commissioning periods.
StrXur: And how do you do something like that?
TM: There are design features like expansion loops in pipework and flexible joints, expansion joints and things, and you use a combination of them according to the circumstances to allow for that expansion. Once you’ve got a system up and running, then you really don’t have a problem unless there is a problem with the system. And if you had to shut the system down, then you’ve still got to have all those allowances built in to allow for the fact that the temperature of the system might rise — if, say, you had to shut the chilled water system down. This is why you need systems that are designed for long life and why you need redundant equipment.
StrXur: Were you designing systems to use less water, given that Saudi Arabia is mostly desert?
TM: Back in the 1960s and 1970s when Saudi Arabia was getting developed, a lot of the time they used cooling towers pumping from underground aquifers. And there was a lot of irrigation, so the aquifers gradually got pulled down. In the eastern region the aquifers were originally sweet water that percolated down through the whole peninsula from the snow in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria. They reckon it takes about 5,000 years to get from Syria down to the coast. And what has happened through the years that I’ve been there is that the level of ground water has gone down. That has allowed saline water to creep in, so that a lot of the aquifers in that region, which were originally fresh, are now brackish. That’s affected both irrigation systems and the public water supplies, which is why all along the Gulf Coast now they’re doing a lot more desalination.
StrXur: What other concerns crop up because of the climate?
TM: Look at the basic design of a building: if it’s hot outside and you want to keep it cool inside, you want to minimize the amount of heat that is coming through the walls, because the more heat you have coming through the walls, the more cooling you have to supply. And cooling costs money for power. And generating the power burns more fuel, puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Everything’s connected.
Let me give you an example. When Kingdom Tower first opened, we had doors on the building. And originally they were sliding doors and they were just single glass doors to the outside. The building was pressurized to keep the dust out. But whenever somebody came to the door and you had the microwave sensors, the doors would open, people would walk through, and the doors would stay open, which meant the cold air inside just blew straight outward. So you’re losing all that cooling. And then, to make up for the air that was lost, you’d have to take very hot air from outside and cool it down. So that was using a lot of energy, a lot of cooling power. So the first thing was putting in vestibules, double sets of doors from inside to outside, and adding revolving doors, because those are about the most economical for limiting the amount of air that gets lost. And then, there were doors from the shopping mall to the car park. The car park wasn’t air conditioned, but the shopping mall was. So there were double doors, 2 meters high by a meter wide. And the security staff were allowing the people to keep those doors open so it would be easy for people to get in and out of the car park. The problem was, we were losing something like 4 cubic meters per second of cold air going out to the car park. We said, “You’ve got to keep those doors shut.” These are all factors that have to be considered when doing design in a climate like that. If you’re in a temperate climate where if it’s cool outside you can open the windows and save on cooling, that’s great. But in an extreme climate like Saudi Arabia, you have to think of everything.
StrXur: When you were working in Saudi Arabia, where were your colleagues generally from?
TM: You name it. I worked on one government project that was at a place called Wadi ad-Dawasir. We had a meeting between the people on the military base, the designers and us — I was with a contractor then. And somebody was late, so we decided to work out how many nationalities we had. We reckoned we had about 20.
StrXur: All speaking English?
TM: Yeah, English was the working language. I worked on one project where we had a French contractor and I had a Filipino mechanical engineer in charge of construction supervision. But the contractor’s engineer, he was only French speaking. He came from French West Africa. We had terrible communication problems and it was a case of whenever my guy wanted anything done he had to get ahold of the deputy project manager who could speak reasonable English and could do the translation. This was getting beyond ridiculous. So eventually I, who was stationed at the head office, took a trip up to this site with the contractor’s French head office engineer to see what the problem was. And we walked around the site with this guy and we both agreed that he was a perfectly good engineer. He knew what he was talking about. He just could not communicate on that site. And they had to replace him. They put him somewhere else and sent somebody who could speak English.
StrXur: Now that you’re retired, what are you doing with your time?
TM: I’m keeping up with construction, keeping up with the “internet of things.” I’ve got a number of books I’m working on that really need finishing. I am very good at starting, not much good at finishing.
StrXur: What kind of books?
TM: Well, the ones I’m working on are nonfiction. I do have one book on sale, science fiction, called “Horder.” You can find that on Amazon. It’s about a small isolated community in the back-end Texas.
StrXur: What are the nonfiction books?
TM: One on asteroid impact, one on how to get into space cheaply and another one on cosmology.
StrXur: So thinking small!