AL AIN // When the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre was just a sketch, Amna Al Otaiba would go to the foothills of Jebel Hafeet and imagine its rise at the base of the mountain.
"I used to come here every day. I used to sit here and say, 'am I really going to see all of this?'," said Ms Al Otaiba, who now works as the project's environment, health and safety manager.
The Dh280 million natural history museum is built on land designated for conservation by Sheikh Zayed, the country's founding President, at the centre of Al Ain Wildlife Park.
The facility is the first to have Estidama's five-pearl design rating, the highest given by Abu Dhabi's green building guidelines.
When it opens in the second quarter of next year, organisers hope it can also earn five-pearl ratings for construction and operation.
The building is nearly camouflaged against its stony backdrop by a cladding of polished white and soft brown stone quarried from the mountains of Oman.
"See, it's submerged in the ground," said Firas Al Maleh, the project manager, as he neared the site. "When people enter the boundary of this building, they start to feel the nature of the UAE."
Visitors will enter the learning centre through a spacious, caved entrance. The museum opens into a gallery about Sheikh Zayed and moves on to a display about Jebel Hafeet and the flora and fauna of the desert.
Visitors will climb a gradual incline to reach exhibitions about life in the past, contemporary Abu Dhabi and future sustainability.
The open gallery spirals up 7.5 metres to expose a view of the mountain ridge and the wildlife park.
The path then funnels into a courtyard that holds a pool of water at its centre, a tribute to the city of Al Ain called The Spring.
The centre is an "accessible sculpture" that "challenges the public to explore the connection between themselves and the desert", said Mr Al Maleh. "The centre represents Sheikh Zayed's relationship with the UAE and his role in caring for its environment."
The design was inspired by the mountain ridge and has the sloped surfaces, large spaces and continuous hallways that are typical of its Austrian designers, Chalabi Architects and Partners.
"We have basically taken this mountain ridge and these geological layers for the building's elevation," said Talik Chalabi, who runs the firm with his brother, Jaafar. "You want to design a building that is going to blend with nature.
"The vertical and the horizontal are too static."
A diamond motif is repeated throughout the building - shafts of light stream from the rhombus windows, diamond-shaped ribbing adorns the hall ceiling and jutting diamond panels glow in the darkness of the 260-seat theatre.
"When you see this place [with] these two characteristics, the mountains and the spring, you're inspired," said Mr Chalabi, who is originally from Iraq. "There's a love-hate relationship to the desert. It can be a very beautiful, serene place, but it's also a hostile environment. Taming the desert is quite a challenge."
The solution, he said, was to work with it. Thick walls, small windows and a gap of air between the 4,200-square-metres of cladding and the building creates thermal insulation. Its light stone reflects the heat and forms a "textile" effect.
In a subterranean floor, pipes carry air from outside eight metres underground to cool it by 7°C. Air then travels to a 2.5m in diameter heat wheel, where it circulates in a chamber against outgoing cold air, separated by a metal barrier. Air travels more than 100 metres before it is streamed into the building at floor level.
Water features, such as the shallow pool on the ground floor, give a sense of humidity, but the air is kept dry to make the interior temperature of 25°C feel cooler.
Visitors enter six metres below ground level. A third of the building is underground.
"Going below the surface is this metaphor for the cave, but also the geology you have when you drill for water or oil," Mr Chalabi said. "The surface below the desert is as intriguing as the surface below the water."
Such sustainability is a legacy of the past.
"From my point of view, the whole story of Estimada comes from Sheikh Zayed," said Ms Al Otaiba. "In Al Ain when a baby is born and you name him Zayed, you wish that he will be exactly similar to Sheikh Zayed in behaviour, with a big heart.
"The more I see of this building the more I remember Sheikh Zayed."