Project Management Institute

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia and LJA Engineering Inc., Houston, Texas, USA


Stakeholder disagreements and changing scope threaten to derail a megaproject with high sustainability goals.



from left, Mark Janzer, Gregory Patch, Mehdi Nezami

Getting stakeholders aligned on any project is difficult, particularly when there's a difference of opinion on the right way to proceed. But when the project you are involved in is a fast-tracked national landmark with a budget reported to be US$10 billion, and the key stakeholder is the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, standing up for what you believe takes formidable leadership skills.

Yet that's exactly what the project team from LJA Engineering did when it encountered push-back on the design for a key aspect of the campus of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), based 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and adjacent to King Abdullah Economic City.

The project completed its first phase of construction in September 2009 on schedule, and is currently in the second phase to expand the science and technology research park around the campus.

The project team had a strict schedule to adhere to: approximately three years to complete the design, development and construction of the 124-hectare (306-acre) main academic campus, which includes 16 multiple-story buildings. LJA created the civil engineering design for the main academic campus, phase one of the Research Park, and the Marine and Oceanic Research Center, and provided assistance with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accreditation.

“Emphasis on the schedule was paramount on this project,” says Mark Janzer, project manager at LJA, Houston, Texas, USA. “It was the goal of the king to have the university up and running by September 2009 in time for classes to begin.”

The water-retention ponds after a rainfall


We had to backtrack to make sure the designs would meet LEED certification criteria, which added time to the design process.   —Mark Janzer

Due to the phenomenal push to build the massive project in such a short time frame, designers, engineers and construction crews worked simultaneously, with elements of the construction launched before designs were even complete. “We looked at it as a build-design project,” jokes Gregory Patch, vice president of LJA.

In some cases, the rushed schedule meant that earthwork projects had to begin before all the buildings were even designed. That meant some of the structures had to be designed to fit the landscaping instead of the other way around.

Unlike most publicly funded initiatives, the megaproject's emphasis was not on budget or scope but schedule, with close monitoring of manpower efforts, according to Mr. Janzer. “We always had to make time our primary focus,” Mr. Patch adds.

Adding to the challenge was the stakeholders’ decision to pursue LEED Platinum certification—the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council—at the end of the concept design phase.

“We had to backtrack to make sure the designs would meet LEED certification criteria, which added time to the design process,” Mr. Janzer says.

Sustainability goals had been factored into the designs from the beginning, though, so the changes to the civil engineering design weren't significant, he adds. Modifications included adding solar panels and other renewable energy systems, protecting natural habitats and recycling waste materials.

The KAUST megaproject team accomplished its goal in September 2009, achieving 52 of the 53 possible points. The university became the first LEED-certified project in Saudi history and the largest LEED Platinum project in the world.

Despite all the constraints and alterations, the megaproject moved along swiftly—until a project to construct water-retention ponds required some serious stakeholder management. KAUST is perched on the shore of the Red Sea, close to a coral formation and influenced by tides. LJA designed retention ponds upstream from the sea to minimize the impact on the reefs from increased freshwater runoff.

But Saudi Aramco, the national oil company that acted as KAUST’s lead project management team, thought the plan wasn't aesthetically pleasing, Mr. Janzer claims. “Aramco was unfamiliar with the basis of our design, and they were reluctant to have these retention ponds sitting between the university's landmark buildings and the sea.”

The company preferred instead to place the ponds at the back of the campus to create an unobstructed path from the buildings to the Red Sea. While this might be a pleasing visual design choice, it was not a good water management one, says Mehdi Nezami, project manager at LJA. “Water will flow downhill, no matter what,” he says. “Our design was based on that premise.”

Aramco proposed an alternate plan: Use large stormwater pump systems to feed the retention ponds.

But that concept had a critical issue, Mr. Nezami says. When Saudi Arabia experiences high rainfall—which happens about once a year—the power usually goes out, which means the pumps would fail to operate, and the site would flood.

The design team came up with a compromise: It agreed to create a gardenlike design around the ponds to make them more visually appealing.

That might have been the end of the story. However, in a curious timing of events, just three months after the first phase of construction on the megaproject was complete, it rained nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters) in four hours. That's something that happens in the desert climate of Saudi Arabia about once every decade.

The deluge was catastrophic. Scores of people died, streets flooded, power went out and the business community south of KAUST became paralyzed. The residential part of the university, which wasn't designed by LJA, did experience flooding. But the retention ponds worked—despite the rainstorm being more intense than the design planned for. Water collected in the ponds, flowed into the channel and traveled out to the sea.

In fact, the ponds worked so well that Aramco asked LJA to autopsy the event to review the stormwater collection and management facilities on other areas of the project and make recommendations to prevent future flooding.


When you're managing such immense initiatives, everyone involved must be educated about and able to communicate the risks faced—as well as the benefits, Mr. Patch says.

Megaprojects are not a place for trial and error. “It's paramount that you have experience on your team, because no one is going to teach you as you go,” he adds.

Leaders on megaprojects also have to have the confidence and guts to stand up for what they believe is the best solution. The project team vigilantly championed its idea, and relentlessly educated stakeholders about why it was the best choice.

“We were consistent, and we clearly articulated the validity of our concept,” Mr. Janzer says. “Without clear communication, the final design may not have been implemented in its current form.”
—Sarah Fister Gale


The mega-project team achieved 52 of the 53 possible points, becoming the first LEED-certified project in Saudi history and the largest LEED Platinum project in the world

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