On completion in 2014, the $7-billion King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) in Saudi Arabia will be able to handle 30 million passengers a year. Trevor Cotterell, MD of interior design company Areen Design, reveals how the firm added the inside of one of the world’s biggest airports to its body of work, which includes the award-winning King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah.

How did Areen Design become involved in the KAIA project?

Trevor Cotterell: We were first awarded the interior design and supply management contract by Saudi Bin Laden Group in November 2010. As well as being responsible for the interior design, we’re also dealing with all the procurement management of finishes and furnishings for the whole project. The contract includes the passenger terminal complex, the control tower, the new railway station and the 120-room airport hotel.

It’s not actually our first airport project; we have just designed the new international airport terminal in Senegal. The project started three years ago, and although much smaller than KAIA, the aim is for the airport to become an international hub for Africa.

How does the Areen skill set transfer to the airport sector?

An airport these days has functions that are as much to do with hospitality, retail and commercial use as the dedicated transport ones. Of course, we had to recruit a lot of specialists into our expanded teams, but we found a great deal of synergy with our existing areas of expertise, and having already worked on one of the busiest buildings in the world in the new Makkah endowment tower, the scale did not trouble us.

We have also worked on projects all over the world and, as a result, have spent an awful lot of time in airports. That’s a very important aspect of what we do; you have to stand there and imagine you’re the passenger and figure out how it is going to work.

You also have to remember that an airport in Jeddah has a very specific use – as a gateway to Mecca and Medina. You are going to have a multitude of pilgrims going through, many of whom may have never seen an airport before. This is not Frankfurt, it is really quite different, so that is a challenge.

In terms of design, what was the overall concept behind the interiors at KAIA?

It was important to the client that KAIA looked like a Saudi Arabian airport. They didn’t want it to look like it could be anywhere. A lot of terminal buildings nowadays are like vast sheds, lots of steel and glass, and have nothing unique about them. So the client directed us down a design development route. We needed to give the design context so that when you are at KAIA, you know where you are.

To achieve that, we used symbols of design that are sympathetic to the region. Geometric patterns, as can be seen throughout the terminal building, are an important part of the Middle East aesthetic. We also used the work of local Saudi Arabian artists throughout the building.

We were conscious of the fact that a lot of Western designers working in the region run the risk of falling into pastiche when trying to imitate Middle Eastern design. We tried to be subtle, to develop an intrinsic sense of place that can be appreciated by passengers.

What were the major challenges on the project?

The most challenging was, as is always the case in Saudi Arabia, the timescale. We were awarded the contract in 2010, and the whole project has a completion date of 2014. But, generally, the speed of working in Saudi is phenomenal. They just get on and do it, and you have to stay awake. Luckily, we are used to that – our first project in the kingdom was a 90-building palace that had to be built in 18 months.

The second has been cost, because no project is free of budgetary demands – even in Saudi Arabia – and KAIA is no exception. Saudi Bin Laden won the main contract competitively, and there are tough quality and delivery targets for all elements of the work. They are big-value projects in Saudi Arabia, but what they expect is a lot of bang for their buck. They don’t just throw money at things.

How did you ensure that the relationship between architects, engineers and interior designers functioned on the KAIA project?

Competent interior design is about owning the interior. The essence of airport design is collaboration and each discipline has a perspective, but it is our role as interior designers to focus attention on the customer experience. We bring this chiefly from our hospitality, commercial and residential design expertise.

The interior designer has to care about the whole package; they have to make it their own. They have to live it, and fight to make sure that engineers and architects don’t do things that will undermine the finished result. At the end of the day, it will inevitably be the interior designer who is standing there with the client on handover day when he says: what’s that?

What have you learned from the project so far, and where do you see Areen going after KAIA?

What we have in our minds for expansion is the design and supply management role, which we think works. Most design companies are just designers; they don’t supply the finishes, fittings or furniture like we do. As well as coming up with the design concept, we supply everything from the marble to the teaspoons, which is a completely different mindset. You don’t absolve yourself of responsibility just because you specified it. You’re still responsible until the day it’s installed. We have a commercial consciousness as well as a designer’s mind. So we can deliver more for the money and we also care passionately about the delivery date.

And Areen’s work in Saudi Arabia more generally?

In terms of developing their country, it is just huge what is going on in Saudi Arabia. Consider that for one of the universities designed by Areen, we supplied 90,000 chairs, just to give you a sense of scale. Look at the new financial and medical cities, the transportation network, the stunning scale of the work in Mecca, and the forthcoming tallest building in the world; we’re very busy with our work in Saudi, and we’d like that to continue.