|Muhammad is the “Partner” in Hoehler & Partner LLC Architects and Engineers, a German-Omani joint venture, founded in 2008 and based in Muscat. Though the company is young, it is already gaining recognition as one of the most innovative architecture firms in Oman. At the 2013 Construction Week Awards Oman they received the award for “Best Commercial Project” for the new GUtech campus in Halban, while Richard Lisker, from the company and project, won the prize for “Best Project Manager.”Muhammad, the owner and chief architect received highest recommendation as Engineer of the Year and Construction Executive of the Year. What set the company apart was their emphasis on going above and beyond usual standards with modern, sustainable designs that bridge traditional Omani architecture with contemporary, functional, architecture, ideas that are very important to Muhammad. “It’s a sustainable building, and it’s the new architecture of Oman,” he says, sitting in his office in Shatti Qurum. Architecture runs in Muhammad’s blood. His father was also an architect, and since he was a child, Muhammad, now in his early 30s, has been fascinated by designing buildings. “I used to go to his office when I was a kid. I loved it. I was already designing before I went to school. When I was in high school I would help my uncles design their houses,” he recalls, a big smile brightening his face. His father actually discouraged him from pursuing a career in architecture, telling him it wasn’t appreciated enough, but Muhammad wasn’t deterred. Without his family’s knowledge, he majored in architecture at the University of Oklahoma in the USA. He loved his studies and continued on to get a Master’s degree.After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, a job opportunity took him to Germany, a country where sustainability and concern for the environment is widespread. While living in Germany from 2004 until 2008, he enrolled in Aachen University, from which he’s now finishing a PhD in Urban Conservation. It was also there that he and some German architects decided to collaborate and submit a design for the new GUtech campus. Part of their proposal included setting up a base in Muscat. When they were awarded the contract, Hoehler & Partner was born.
GUtech is much more than classrooms, Muhammad says. It’s a pioneering design for sustainable architecture. It has an air conditioning system that reuses the cool air, and redirects it to cool the main common area, which is an outdoor courtyard type of space within the main building. The doors and windows are airtight to hold the cool air. There are sensors to turn off lights when no one is there. It reuses its own dirty water to water the green spaces. It was built according to the direction that would maximise wind flow for natural cooling. The campus also reflects the environment around it.
“The whole concept has Omani elements. It has Omani architecture, like the open space in the middle, like you have in Nizwa Fort, for example. That centre has to have life. It’s a place where students can stay in the summer, and we cooled it by five degrees with the sails above to create shade and air flow with their direction, and with the water fountain below,” Muhammad explains.
Since the GUtech project, the company has been growing rapidly. Some of its currently projects include the Museum of History of Islamic Science, the Porsche showroom renovations, and the new University of Buraimi campus. They also have some small projects, including villas for environmentally-conscious Omanis, and they are doing project management for a project in Ghazni, Afghanistan, which is the Cultural City for Islam for 2013.
At the centre of all these projects and others, are the concepts that made GUtech a winner. They feature designs that save energy and are more eco-friendly than most. The Museum of History of Islamic Science, which is about to be built on the GUtech campus, includes designs that combine Islamic art with sustainable architecture. The museum will have a shell around it made of geometric Islamic patterns that will also keep the building cool, for example. The expansion to the Porsche showroom will have more insulation in its façade to make it more energy efficient. Some of their clients even want solar panels added to the buildings so they can use renewable energy. Oman may not use renewable energy yet or have a smart grid for it, but Muhammad says most of their clients don’t care.
They are willing to invest their own money to be sustainable, including solar panels or using material that helps preserve energy. In hopes that one day there will be renewable energy throughout the Sultanate, Muhammad and his team make some of their designs future-ready, so they can be hooked up to a national renewable energy grid at the flip of a switch. He says it would make sense for buildings with renewable energy systems, like solar energy, to be hooked up to the grid already, since they would contribute free energy back to it. Compared to German and other top international standards Hoehler & Partner’s designs aren’t up to par for sustainability, but here in Oman they are leading the way. “We do what we can within the constraints,” Muhammad says. “We push people to go for LED lights which last longer and use less electricity, for example, or to go for double-pane windows which conserve energy. If you think about it in the long-term, the return on investment is less than 10 years.” It’s worth spending a bit more money for better-made products which last longer and save money in the long run, he insists. The government should provide incentives for people who go green. If they use solar-powered water heaters, or reduce their consumption, they should be rewarded, he suggests.
He realises that many people don’t worry about the environment because it doesn’t affect them financially. With huge electricity, water and gas subsidies, people aren’t aware of the true costs. He says he was shocked at the energy prices in Germany, and learned the importance of reducing his consumption to save money, as well as protect the environment. When the subsidies here can no longer be maintained, the prices will rise, so to keep the costs down, Muhammad says renewable energy is the way to go. He says people will go green if it saves them money. But in the meantime, he hopes the government will use its energy profits to invest in renewable energy projects. “Yes, now we have the oil, we have the gas, but what about the future generations? Why don’t we sell the oil and gas and finance the future?” he asks. One of the ways to change people’s mindsets is education and leading by example, Muhammad says.
He and his company are considering introducing a “Habitat for Humanity” type of home-building charity to Oman, in which low-income families, together with volunteers, work together to build homes for themselves. Hoehler & Partner would be able to teach the families and volunteers about sustainable building techniques, and the resulting homes would also be energy-saving, which would in turn save the families much needed money, he explains.
“We want to involve all the public and students. They’ll learn what can be done in their homes,” he says. “Companies have to play a better role in education. We want to do that.” Muhammad says people only need to look as far as at the ancient falaj systems of irrigation or some of the old towns to see that Oman has a history of environmentalism. Water in a falaj was carefully maintained, recycled and went from one farm to another. “People are wasting a huge amount of water in Oman. Why don’t you make a car wash out of recycled water? All of these things have to be implemented,” Muhammad explains.
Villages like Izki and Manah were sustainable because they were built with a lot of consideration to the wind direction, sources of water, and sunshine. The buildings were clustered together to save space, and the mosques and market squares were ideally located. Muhammad and his team at Hoehler & Partner look at these old Omani designs for inspiration and translate them into their modern, state-of-the-art buildings. “They had good urban planning 600, 700 years ago. Why can’t we now? We want to prove that we can go to a green building concept. It really works. It’s for the long-term,” Muhammad concludes.