On a blazing hot day last September, a group of Fifa officials flew into Doha to meet with Qatar's World Cup bid committee. The delegation had travelled to evaluate the feasibility of staging football's premier event in the desert in June. The temperature outside was 44 degrees Celsius at the time of their arrival.
The Qatar 2022 bid committee knew that the searing heat of the day was the main obstacle they had to overcome to win, recalls Michael Beaven, engineering leader for Arup Associates, one of the designers of the Lusail stadium that will be built in north Doha to host the World Cup final itself 11 years from now.
To persuade the sceptics, the Qatar bid took the unprecedented step of building a scale model of an air-conditioned, carbon-neutral stadium, complete with 500 seats and a working example of a system created to cool the arena in the worst of the summer. "They believed, rightfully, that only by having something real and working could they prove it was possible," Beaven said.
When Fifa officials arrived at the prototype stadium that September afternoon, the pitchside temperature was 23 degrees Celsius. Energy created from a system of photovoltaic panels, solar heat collectors and "absorption chillers" pumped chilled air under the seats, creating cool pockets of air. "This was not just a cartoon or a sketch," Beaven said. "It was irrefutable evidence that [the technology] worked."
Qatar's prototype stadium is considered groundbreaking within the building industry, which is closely monitoring its progress. In many ways, it is going to be a testing ground for sustainable cooling designs, which might eventually find their way into other buildings in hot climates. "Think of it like the car industry," said Dan Meis, senior principal for Populous, a US architectural firm. "There are prototypes that envision new technologies, that push the boundaries of performance. Inevitably those technologies are developed in ways that find [their way] into your everyday car."
The demonstration proved compelling enough to convince a number of Fifa officials that the technology really existed to defeat the extreme conditions. But critics have attacked the choice of Qatar ever since it won the World Cup bid in December last year.
"Qatar is a nice country ... but there is no way football can be played there in June and July," said Peter Velappan, the former general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, told reporters after the announcement. Air conditioning the stadium was "no solution", he said. "No player will ever want to play in these conditions."
One Fifa executive committee member, Chuck Blazer, meanwhile, delivered his own withering assessment to The Wall Street Journal. "You can air condition a stadium," he told the paper, "but I don't see how you can air condition an entire country."
Tijs Tummers, secretary of the technical committee for Fifpro, a worldwide representative organisation for professional football players with members in 41 countries, says: "It's not logical to play in the climate." He believes the environmental issues still need to be addressed. "Changing the temperature [so dramatically] with air conditioning, I think this will set a very bad example."
The stadium designers maintain the critics have it wrong. The new systems will provide comfort and meet claims of carbon neutrality. "In terms of technology, it is achievable," said Alistair Lenczner, a partner with Foster + Partners, who are developing the design with Arup.
The system designed for the stadium uses technologies that are already in use, but connects them in different ways. The challenge was to go beyond simply air conditioning the stadium to build efficiencies into every level of the design. "We had to create new ways of putting technology together," Beaven said. The design starts with a retractable roof designed to open and close like the lens of a camera. Stadium operators will be able to adjust the roof to provide the maximum shade.
On match days the roof would remain completely closed until an hour before the start of the match. The walls of the stadium will also have blinds that will open to allow breezes to circulate on cooler days. These will operate "like vents in different parts of a car", according to Lenczner.
Pumping air under the seats minimises the amount of cool air needed to achieve the desired effect. Instead of trying to cool the entire stadium, the system will create envelopes of chilled air around the fans, reducing the volume of air that needs to be cooled.
"Rather than blowing at high level, it's more of a trickle," Lenczner said. "It's more targeted. We're using less cool air to create the same effect."
Furthermore, cool air will naturally settle on the pitch, reducing the need for blowing air across the playing surface. The mechanics of the cooling system start with a "solar farm" of photovoltaic panels and motorised parabolic mirrors that track the sun. The mirrors focus the sun's energy onto pipes with running water in them.
The water in the tubes is converted to cooling water and ice by absorption chillers, a technology that has been used for more than a century in industrial cooling systems. Air is then blown over the ice to cool the stadium.
Efficiency is the radical step forward, the designers say. The goal is to create a chilled environment with the least amount of energy use. But the claim that it is carbon neutral is sure to continue to spark debate.
The designers make this assertion because the system will generate energy year round, which will be fed into the national grid. But on match days, when the need for power in the stadium peaks, the system will draw power back from that same grid. "The amount of electricity generated in this way from the sun exceeds the amount of electricity imported for events over the year, making the facility zero carbon for electricity," Arup says in its marketing materials.
But that argument may not be enough to convince those who still see air conditioning in the desert as a wasteful use of resources. "One way or another you have to get energy from somewhere," Tummers said.
The designers counter that it's still too early to judge the efficiency of the system. Over the next decade new technologies are bound to emerge, creating better methods for harnessing the sun's power. The current design is only a starting point, they say.
"Technology is moving forward quickly," Lenczner said.
Some football experts believe the debate is still live - that the tournament will eventually be switched to the winter or moved to another country altogether - but the stadium designers refuse to be drawn into such an argument. That would be a "football decision", according to Beaven.
The heat will still pose problems for the tournament, especially for fans travelling to matches. But the atmosphere in the stadium is no longer an issue, they say.
"No doubt it will be easier in the winter," Lenczner said. "But it is possible during the summer. We've shown that."
Kevin Brass is a business reporter at The National.