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Monday, 28 June 2021

Building better

By building sustainably we can help mitigate the worst of climate change while driving down energy costs. Sustainable architecture boils down to using better materials and more efficient design to keep greenhouse gas emissions in check. This can be as simple as shifting a building’s spatial orientation to capture the right amount of sunlight exposure or using easily accessible materials like adobe and white clay brick, in places like Egypt, to create naturally temperature-controlled spaces. Other, more high-tech sustainable building strategies might look like contorted skyscrapers with large glass windows, roofs covered with photovoltaic solar panels with water recycling systems. The ultimate goal remains the same, using less harmful building materials and reducing energy consumption.

In Egypt, construction is responsible for at least 23% of our GHG emissions, making the industry one of our most significant environmental polluters. Manufacturing glass, red brick, paint and concrete are the main culprits behind construction pollution, of which Egypt is a major producer of—being one of the world’s top 12 cement producers over the past decade. Globally, the construction industry is confronted with a tremendous ecological dilemma as its activities account for some 40% of the world’s GHG emissions. We have more detail on this in our four part Going Green series, which you can check out here, here, here and here.

On a global scale, the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification has been the most widely used standard in building sustainability: It measures energy use, water use, indoor environmental quality, material selection and the impact of buildings on the surrounding environment. Some studies have shown that LEED-certified buildings have been able to produce 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally constructed buildings through improved water consumption and 48% fewer emissions from solid waste reduction. Domestically, we have the Egypt Green Building Council which has its own Tarsheed guidelines for sustainable residential, commercial and community buildings.

While major construction companies haven’t adopted sustainably on a large scale, there are still some promising domestic initiatives underway: Suez Cement, LaFarge Egypt and CEMEX Egypt are among the big players offering their own versions of less carbon intensive blended cement alternatives, but the extra cost of these marginally less polluting materials have kept wider adoption limited. Bastoob, a small-scale building materials project selling interlocking blended cement blocks is another domestic initiative taking the first steps towards low-cost construction efficiency. And local Biotech startup Mycelium is using fungi to convert rice or wheat straw into insulation material. Companies like 365 Ecology provide more high-tec solutions through smart sensors that are able to track movement inside buildings and automatically limit central AC and electricity usage.

Further up the supply-chain you have initiatives like Hand Over Projects who focus on sustainable building through nature driven design. The group’s work on public and residential projects in places like Luxor, Dahab and Al Ayat has mostly relied on low-cost materials like sand, mud and gravel available in the surrounding environment and low tech-solutions to air flow and temperature control. Still experimental but worth keeping an eye out for is 3D printed houses and enhanced salt bricks being developed by British University in Egypt lecturer Deena El Mahdy.

If this kind of thing interests you, Taimor El Hadidi’s personal home in Sheikh Zayed is a recent example of sustainability put to the test. The Nedal Badr-designed six building residence was made with over 3k used water bottles, recycled cement and discarded tires, and does not in any way look like a Mad Max-style garage. Built over the course of six years with the help of a 7 team member crew, they focused on locally sourcing all their construction materials to reduce fossil fuel emissions from transportation. This Mariam El Korachy-designed Fayoum House in Tunis village is another spectacular example of low-tech sustainability. Built mostly out of adobe and limestone, the building’s high ceiling, mezzanine and courtyard naturally regulate its temperature year round.

Want more on sustainable building in Egypt? Take a look at Hassan Fathy's oeuvre. Arguably the godfather of sustainable architecture, architect Hassan Fathy revived low cost earth building in the 1940s to meet the housing needs of rural communities in Egypt. Fathy’s approach to architecture was one that utilized naturally occuring materials in the surrounding environment—namely sun dried mud brick—to build sustainable housing at an affordable price, which he detailed in his pioneering work Architecture for the Poor. Drawing on pre-industrial building techniques from across the country to construct arches, vaults, domes and mashrabiyas, Fathy was determined to provide homes with improved air circulation and temperature control at minimal ecological cost. Some of his work includes the 1940s-designed New Gourna Village near Luxor, where Nubian residents of Old Gourna were meant to be relocated, and the New Baris village in the Western Desert.

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