The Red Sea view of the Milky Way “must be preserved” – Dark Sky certification on The Red Sea Project

    14 Dec 2021

    Let’s get to know what TRSDC’s Ian Williamson and Cundall’s Andrew Bissell talk about working on a never-before-accomplished Dark Sky certification on The Red Sea Project, which is about the size of the country of Belgium. The original articl was published by Mepmiddleeast.

    Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF)-led The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) – which is the developer of the kingdom’s 28,000km2 The Red Sea Project, one of the world’s most ambitious tourism initiatives – plans to become the largest certified Dark Sky Reserve, and the first-of-its-kind for a project of this scale in the world.

    The Dark Sky Programme – which is currently monitored by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) – works to protect the view of the night skies for present and future generations.

    At its current location, The Red Sea Project provides stunning night-time panoramas, with a view of the stars that is so clear that the Milky Way can be seen on-site within the Special Economic Zone that has been dedicated for the project, located along the western coast of Saudi Arabia.

    This view is so rare that according to a Science Advances study, it is estimated that the Milky Way is no longer fully visible to one-third of humanity — including 60% of Europeans and 80% of Americans – because artificial light from cities has created a permanent “sky-glow” at night, obscuring the view of the stars.

    To address these concerns – right from the nascent stages of design, planning, and early implementation – The Red Sea Project has begun to prevent inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light – known as light pollution – which can adversely affect human health and safety, can increase energy consumption, can disrupt the natural ecosystem, and can harm the environment and wildlife such as the critically endangered hawksbill turtle that is often seen in the area.


    Preserving a Clear and Dark Sky

    Therefore, the PIF-backed Saudi giga-project will work to lower glare – excessive brightness that causes visual discomfort; reduce sky-glow – the brightening of the night sky over inhabited areas; eliminate light trespass – the fall of light where it is not intended or needed; as well as remove light clutter – which is the excessive, and often, unnecessary groupings of light sources.

    The Chief Projects Delivery Officer for The Red Sea Development Company, Ian Williamson, who has been involved with Dark Sky-related initiatives since the 1990s, even before the formation of the IDA, commented on the initiative in an exclusive interview with MEP Middle East.

    Williamson explains: “When you go down to the site for the first time, along the Red Sea, it is quite a sight. There is more than 200km of coastline on a site that encompasses an archipelago of more than 90 pristine islands, and continues in land for about 15km into the plateaus and mountains, approximately 15km away from the sea.

    “Now, wherever you go on the site, whether it is on an island, or on top of a plateau, or simply sitting along the coastline, the one thing you cannot miss is the skies, because they are absolutely surreal.

    “There is barely any sky-glow, which means that the moon and the stars light up the night along the Red Sea. You can literally lie on your back and see a skyscape that your eyes have never laid eyes on.”

    He adds: “Hence, it is a bit of a no-brainer that this could be a huge attraction for visitors who have never seen such a sight. It needs to be preserved.”

    The Red Sea Development Company has taken the initiative to ensure that this “Dark Sky” is preserved even through the electromechanical, lighting phases, as well as the overall construction, development, operation, and maintenance phases of the project.

    “We’ve met up with the IDA, and discussed the Dark Sky certification with them, and have understood what kind of measurements we need around the construction phases. We know that The Red Sea Project is going to have residences, hotels, commercial and office spaces, F&B and retail spaces, hospitals, schools, libraries, mosques, police stations, sports and entertainment facilities, and more,” Williamson says.

    “However, we have taken into consideration – right from the early stages of the project – that the artificial lighting will be at a bare minimum. This is an absolute must-have requirement.”

    The Red Sea Project already has more than $2.66bn (SAR10bn) of tenders in the market, of which $720mn (SAR2.7bn) has been awarded through construction contracts.

    For the Dark Sky initiative, specifically, TRSDC has awarded a contract to international multi-disciplinary consultancy, Cundall, to develop a lighting strategy that would provide enough lighting for safe movement around the site, whilst meeting the stringent IDA Dark Sky criteria.

    Cundall is working with the engineering and development teams at The Red Sea Development Company to review the existing project design and advice on possible measures to reduce light pollution.

    The Director of Lighting for Cundall’s lighting design team Light4, Andrew Bissell, who is heading up the Dark Sky project as a sub-consultant to The Red Sea Development Company, shared his insights in conversation with MEP Middle East.

    Andrew Bissell reiterates: “The interesting thing about this Dark Sky project is not just the scale of the project, but also the type of project the Dark Sky initiative is being implemented on. Typically, a Dark Sky project would involve looking at the lighting on a National Park or a Reserve – an area which is inherently dark and wouldn’t necessarily involve much construction work within that Dark Area, but would rather involve working on reducing the lighting of buildings that are already within the Reserve.

    “On the other hand, the Special Economic Zone dedicated for The Red Sea Project not only has current settlements, but will also involve the construction of hotels, roads, airports, the workers’ accommodations and all of the facilities needed to turn this into a world-class tourist destination.”

    The Red Sea Project, therefore, is going to be an inherently dark area into which construction stakeholders are going to add infrastructure and assets that will need lighting at night.

    “Hence, Cundall in partnership with The Red Sea Development Company has the task of taking the existing IDA standards and guides from around the world, and enhance them to a level that are not currently being implemented anywhere else in the world at the moment,” Bissell adds.

    “We’ve given ourselves one of the most complex challenges because we’re introducing so many buildings, and with it, so much lighting, while working in essence, to ensure that none of this light affects the glorious natural view of the stars in the night sky.”

    With this project, TRSDC and Cundall are sailing into uncharted waters to prove that it is possible to add a built environment into inherently Dark Sky areas without having a negative impact on the Dark Sky.

    “People visiting The Red Sea project should not need to drive 15km away from the development in order to view a meteor shower or a passing comet.

    “You should be able to live in the area and still enjoy the health, well-being, and the visual benefits of a Dark Sky,” Bissell explains.


    Reducing Reflected Light

    In order to ensure a Dark Sky, Cundall will not only work with TRSDC and construction stakeholders to limit the level of up-light into the sky, but will also work to certify that the amount of reflected light seeping into the night sky is minimized to levels never done before, without affecting the health and safety of the visitors to the destination.

    Bissell elucidates: “If you have a typical lighting guide, it would tell you how much lumen per square meter – or lux – of light needs to arrive on a surface like a road in order to illuminate it properly. We’ve taken that measurement and ascertained how much of the light will reflect back into the night sky, and we’re finding ways to reduce the reflected light into the night sky without affecting the visibility and safety of those driving on the road.

    “This may be achieved in a multitude of ways. For instance, we have studied the amount of light reflected when a certain lux of light shines onto a tarmac road, in comparison with the same lux of light bouncing back from a light-coloured concrete road, or an off-road surface such as compressed sand, which may reflect huge amounts of the light.”

    Cundall has challenged each of the asset design teams on The Red Sea Project to demonstrate how much of the light will be reflected into the night sky, rather than merely showcasing how much light is being emitted directly into the night sky.

    TRSDC’s Williamson says: “If you look at the photo metrics, you’ll need to look into how to avoid an upward component in the light fittings.

    “We’ll need to detail the angle at which the light fittings are installed, how the louvres and shields are placed, how the reflected light is bouncing off surfaces that they are lighting up, and much more.”

    Cundall’s Bissell says: “Such a detailed analysis has not previously been used in any design guide for Dark Skies, but we’ve introduced it here, setting very high standards for asset designers to meet.”


    Holistic Focus on Internal Lighting and External Lighting

    The Red Sea Project will also go beyond current parameters for Dark Skies – which largely deals with external lighting, including street lighting, the lighting of monuments, parks, trees, and such.

    Bissell adds: “In reality, it is also quite often the internal lighting emitted from buildings, including the retail lighting from malls and storefronts, the office lighting from commercial spaces with large glass facades that adds to the up-light and the sky-glow.”

    While the project does not include many office buildings, it does include numerous apartment buildings, restaurants, hotels, as well as The Red Sea Airport.

    “This is why we are specifying within our design guide – for the first time in any Dark Sky project – that construction stakeholders also need to consider the amount of light being emitted from the inside to the outside,” Bissell says.

    As a result, the focus on lighting within The Red Sea Project is very holistic, as it goes beyond just the engineering to encompass the architecture, the landscape, and even the interior design of the building.

    Williamson explains: “The challenge we’re looking to overcome is the windows of the hotels on the project that have the potential to be light emitters. This problem needs to be tackled through a variety of solutions, which include shielding structures and shading options, which not only control the amount of sunlight entering the room during the day, but also the amount of artificial light being emitted outward during the night.”

    Rather than a view of tiny pinpricks of artificial city lights, The Red Sea Project’s hotel rooms aim to offer a natural view of a clear sky with tiny pinpricks of starlight. This will involve a careful analysis of where artificial light is originating; where the light is directed; whether it is achieving its intended purpose; how much of the light is spilling directly into the night sky; how much of the light is reflecting off the surface; and whether there is scope for improvement.

    Williamson says: “Despite having some incredible architecture, we aren’t looking to show it off at night by floodlighting all our facades. If there’s any floodlighting at all in specific locations, it will be positioned from the top, aiming downwards, in a way that it minimises any light going upward into the sky.

    “Our lighting is going to be highly functional for wayfinding, navigation, and the likes, and will be result in a very subdued, calm, peaceful atmosphere, which is very different from the vibrancy of any other typical resort destination.”

    Cundall’s Bissell adds: “We’re attempting to ensure that there’s minimal lighting emitted from buildings. Look at this way – since there is a backdrop of darkness, any room that has light spilling out into the night will stand out like a beacon, which will affect the view of the Dark Sky.”


    Technology-First Smart Solutions

    One of the most interesting parts of the Dark Sky initiative is how adaptable controls are being planned, designed, and implemented for the environment.

    Bissell explains: “Historically, even if we considered something such as an advertising sign, it would perform at a fixed brightness until it was turned off. We’ve taken into consideration a host of additional parameters in order to find solutions that are energy efficient and reduce sky-glow.

    “For instance, if the advertising sign happens to be on the side of a road, and there’s no other lighting around it, we know that it doesn’t really need to be that bright in order to be seen. We have adaptable controls in place so that the sign can be dimmed down, and as the natural light around it decreases, it can automatically be dimmed even further to have less of a visual impact on the surroundings and the sky – all of which can be ramped up or down based on the sunrise-sunset periods to have different light levels.

    “We’ve also gone so far as to ensure the control of the lighting. We have sensors that ensure that lights come on when they are needed – both externally on the streets and internally within the buildings, based on the density of the occupied spaces and the movement of people.”

    The Red Sea Development Company and Cundall have deployed a smart team not only look at the lighting levels, but also look at every other element of the built environment that might need an Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensor, adaptive controls, and the need to ‘talk to’ another device, and the dedicated setup required to have all these technologies and systems in place.

    “We’re seeing the asset designers sending through all their drawings, their luminaire schedules, their equipment schedules, and the necessary specifications,”

    Bissell explains.

    “We’re ensuring that they also have the hardware required to implement and manage all the controls that we need, and that it can be connected to the overall system and ‘communicate with’ all the site-wide systems in the built environment.”

    Cundall’s role on The Red Sea Project also includes surveying the existing lighting equipment and installation details on all existing assets, including building-mounted general lighting, feature lighting, landscape lighting, and street lighting.

    In addition to recording the lighting condition, sky quality measurements are also being taken across the destination.

    Cundall will be setting up a lot of permanent Dark Sky monitoring stations that will provide a sky-quality reading. These permanent monitoring stations will provide a continuous, real-time feed of Dark Sky data recorded through the nights, which can then be linked back to weather data in order to correlate between humidity, dust due to winds, and the light pollution caused due to other such weather anomalies.

    “If the sky quality readings are still below required standards on a clear night, then we can pinpoint precisely what causes such readings, and deal with that concern accordingly,” he adds.

    “For instance, we’ll be able to immediately tell whether the blinds on a room have failed causing light to leak into the night sky, or whether a louvre needs to be replaced to prevent sky-glow. It could even be a combination of multiple reasons, but we will have data that we can then act upon to fix all the issues individually.”

    The combination of the survey information and sky quality measurements will provide a baseline condition of the quality of the existing Dark Skies that people experience and how existing lighting contributes to sky glow.

    Additionally, the engineering, design and sustainable solutions firm will also undertake outreach programs for the local communities to advise residents on suitable measures they can undertake to support the initiative and encourage more energy-efficient, lower-cost use of external lights.

    Furthermore, because Cundall is reviewing all the designs that are coming in from the asset designers, the firm is able to ensure that all of the stakeholders are adhering to set standards and guidelines.

    What’s truly interesting is that these standards and guidelines are also be constantly upgraded and revised through the construction process, to ensure that all the stakeholders raise their standards to the latest innovative technical and technological capabilities within the market.


    Setting New Industry Standards

    The Red Sea Development Company and Cundall have been working very closely with the International Dark-Sky Association to establish parameters for success within its implementation of the Dark Sky project, especially given that so many of its key initiatives within the implementation of the project are a first-of-its kind.

    “It’s much more than introducing a whole host of buildings in an inherently Dark Sky environment, and saying that we’ve done the best we can in every regard,” Bissell explains.

    “In the case of a Dark Sky Park or a Dark Sky Reserve, there are sky quality criteria that would need to be achieved. Therefore, for the core dark areas on The Red Sea Project, we still need to meet those criteria and go beyond the requirements to set new standards. We also understand that between those core dark areas, there will be an up-lift in the light levels that we record on our sky quality monitors, but we need to very strictly manage and do absolutely everything necessary to ensure that the up-lift is minimised.

    “If this means moving into a territory of planning, design, and implementation that has never been done before, so be it. Throughout this process, the IDA will be monitoring the process carefully. Simply put, even the buffer zones between the core dark areas will need to have such a minimal up-lift of light that they don’t disrupt the extremely stringent sky quality readings required to gain an IDA certification in the dark areas.”

    As a result, Cundall is going into a highly detailed analysis with every single stakeholder and every single asset designer that is contributing to the massive giga-project in order to ensure that the cumulative effect of all the various products installed and commissioned by the numerous stakeholders does not adversely affect the rare view of a clear night sky.

    The Red Sea Project’s sustainability targets include a 100% reliance on renewable energy, a total ban on single-use plastics, and complete carbon neutrality in the destination’s operations. TRSDC’s focus on the Dark Sky initiative is expected to further fuel the move towards energy efficiency, by not only focusing on lighting that is required, but also focusing on the optimal levels of lighting across the project.

    “The beauty of implementing a Dark Sky initiative on a project such as this – taking into consideration the impact of reflected light, internal lighting, technological innovations, sustainability, and the scale of the project – will mean that when we are successful, we can replicate our findings and our work on any city across the world.

    “This could potentially help us lower light pollution even in cities such as Riyadh, Dubai, London, and New York, among others, while still maintaining the high standards of health and safety that people have come to expect, and the light levels that they need to work and live comfortably,” Bissell concludes.

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