Since the beginning of civilization, buildings have served as humanity’s stamp on time. From Neanderthal caves and exquisite hammams, to the boundary-pushing buildings in the Middle East, architectural innovations capture the zeitgeist; embodying the hopes and ambitions of the moment as well as the underlying technological prowess that points to the future of our built environment.
Backed by a searing ambition to fashion a new image for the region (and in many cases, funded by the deep pockets of sovereign funds), buildings in the Middle East have, in the past 15 years, achieved the impossible: They have quite simply raised the bar for architectural and structural innovation around the world. The journey hasn’t been without criticism: design purists have nicknamed region an architect’s Disneyland and eyebrows have been raised about the Middle East ‘buying’ design cred. And whilst that is true to a certain extent, it is also offering designers from around the world the infrastructure – and the funding – to imagine future icons.
In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, the idea of building a green home using traditional techniques might sound like you’d be taking a step backward. However, it’s important that we re-evaluate our approach to sustainability and consider the wisdom that the past has to offer. While modern construction methods offer many conveniences, they can often come at the cost of the environment. Traditional techniques, on the other hand, can help us build truly sustainable green homes that stand the test of time.
A shining example of sustainable building, meticulously designed with a keen emphasis on the utilization of reusable materials and ancient techniques, can be found in the Italian Pavilion from the most recent World Expo. Remarkably, this pavilion stood out as the lone carbon-neutral structure among the 192 pavilions present. The project team used reusable materials like upturned boats for the roof, walls adorned with rope made from recycled bottles, and flooring with recycled orange peel to reduce landfill waste. Notably, the Italian Pavilion didn’t have air conditioning despite the desert heat. Instead, it relied on its cleverly designed rope walls for natural ventilation, showcasing an eco-friendly alternative to traditional building practices that contribute to climate change, and demonstrating how sustainability and innovative design can coexist effectively.
Traditional construction techniques often emphasise the use of natural materials like cob, timber, and straw bales. These materials are chosen for their eco-friendliness and sustainability. Cob, for instance, is a mixture of earth, sand, and straw that can often be locally sourced; timber, when harvested responsibly, is a renewable resource; and straw bales are a byproduct of grain production.
Selecting such materials reduces reliance on resource-intensive manufacturing processes, such as those required for steel or concrete production. Moreover, these materials are biodegradable, meaning they break down naturally, reducing waste and pollution.
Passive Solar Design and Energy Efficiency
Before the advent of modern heating and cooling systems, people relied on intelligent architectural designs to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures. Passive solar design, an ancient technique, uses the orientation of a building and the placement of windows to maximise natural heating and cooling. By embracing this approach, we can significantly reduce our reliance on energy-intensive HVAC systems, resulting in lower energy bills and a reduced environmental impact.
The materials used in traditional construction often provide excellent thermal performance. Thick walls, natural insulation materials like straw, clay, or wood, and thoughtful design create a building envelope that naturally regulates temperature. Therefore, these homes stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Finally, these construction methods can work together with modern energy-efficient technologies, such as solar panels or wind turbines, making them even more sustainable and energy-efficient.
Local and Sustainable Sourcing
Traditional construction techniques rely on locally available materials. This supports local economies and reduces the environmental impact of long-distance transportation of construction materials. Using materials from nearby sources minimises carbon emissions associated with transportation, making the construction process more environmentally friendly.
Rainwater Harvesting and Greywater Systems
Traditional techniques often include rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling systems. Rainwater harvesting involves collecting and storing rainwater for non-potable uses like irrigation or toilet flushing. Greywater systems treat and reuse water from sinks, showers, and laundry for similar purposes. These practices reduce the strain on municipal water resources, lower water bills, and minimise the environmental impact of water consumption.
Older construction methods were rooted in craftsmanship, a dedication to detail, and a commitment to creating structures meant to stand the test of time. The contrast with modern mass production is stark, as the focus on quantity can, on occasion, come at the expense of quality.
By embracing traditional techniques, we can reintroduce the concept of handmade homes. These structures are built to last for generations, reducing the need for frequent replacements and the waste associated with disposable consumer culture.
Preservation of Cultural Heritage
Reviving old-fashioned building techniques offers benefits beyond environmental considerations; it also plays a vital role in preserving our cultural heritage and traditional knowledge. These techniques are integral to our shared history, and by employing them, we establish a connection with the past while paying homage to the craftsmanship and wisdom of our forebears.
This preservation of cultural heritage can help foster a sense of continuity and identity within communities, strengthening their ties to local history.
Traditional construction techniques offer environmental and cultural advantages but come with challenges. They demand skilled labour, potentially increasing time, and cost. Finding artisans skilled in these methods can be difficult, slowing construction. Traditional materials may have lower structural strength and insulation, impacting energy efficiency. Reliance on local materials may not be feasible in resource-scarce areas. Rainwater and greywater systems reduce water consumption, but effectiveness varies with local factors.
Despite these considerations, the overall advantages of using traditional techniques for building sustainable green homes remain compelling. They promote the use of natural materials, reduce carbon footprints, foster a connection with cultural heritage, and prioritise long-lasting quality and authenticity. By carefully addressing their challenges and limitations, we can harness the best of both traditional and modern approaches to create homes that are not only environmentally friendly but also practical for modern living.
Building a sustainable green home using traditional techniques is not about rejecting progress but rather embracing the best of both worlds. We can combine the wisdom of the past with modern innovations, such as energy-efficient appliances and renewable energy sources like solar panels, to create homes that are both environmentally friendly and equipped for modern living. At a time when climate change and environmental degradation are pressing concerns, it’s essential to explore all avenues for sustainable living.
Overall, traditional construction techniques offer valuable lessons in resourcefulness, craftsmanship, and ecological mindfulness. By rediscovering and adapting these methods, we can build green homes that not only reduce our environmental footprint but also provide lasting comfort, durability, and a link to our architectural heritage. It’s time to look to the past so that we can build a greener future.
Angelica Krystle Donati: I am a real estate entrepreneur and a proptech founder, investor, and thought leader. I hold a BSc from the LSE and an MBA from Oxford University’s SBS.
Housing is a key component for achieving social and economic development. As such, adequate, safe, and affordable housing is at the core of Goal 11 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (i.e., attaining Sustainable Cities and Communities). Moreover, housing related activities and investment are major economic drivers, serving as an important contributor to economic activity and job creation.
The role of the housing and built environment in attending to the challenges of climate change
At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that climate change will affect the socioeconomic development trajectory of Africa, threatening the region’s attainment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives of the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063.
However, a less acknowledged fact is that climate change cannot be solved without delivering climate resilient housing and tackling building emissions, as buildings account for 19 percent of the world’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report, by 2030, all new buildings must be zero net carbon, and existing buildings must be zero net carbon by 2050.
Climate change cannot be solved without delivering climate resilient housing and tackling building emissions, as buildings account for 19 percent of the world’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.
What is climate-resilient housing?
Resilient housing can be described as housing that can resist, recover, and adapt to adverse effects of climate change or natural disasters. It is the capacity of human settlements to cope with shocks (environmental, economic, and social) and respond to these shocks over time. Thereby, resilient houses are required to be planned, designed, built, operated, and maintained to reduce vulnerability to these indicated threats.
Recent developments in climate change initiatives in the construction industry in select African countries
Fortunately, progress is being made by city managers and other related stakeholders to tackle the challenge of climate change in the housing industry in Africa.
Kenya considers climate change a cross-cutting theme that is being mainstreamed in the medium-term plans of the County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs), which in turn inform the country’s development blueprint—Vision 2030. Under these plans, the Government has mandated that all affordable housing projects be aligned with Global Green Certification requirements. Elsewhere, Nigeria recently promulgated the 2021 Climate Change Act, which is the first standalone climate change legislation in West Africa. The act encapsulates critical components of the country’s climate change policies, most of which were adopted in 2021. These include the revised National Climate Change Policy; National Climate Change Programmes; the 2050 Long-Term Low Emission Vision; and the first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).
Additionally, it is worth noting that over the past few years, there have been notable cases of resilient housing initiatives in Africa. An example of these is the climate resilient housing initiative at Mozambique, which was delivered through the Coastal City Adaption Project (CCAP).
Mozambique has been severely impacted by the effects of climate change, where an estimated 60 percent of the country’s 28 million people live in low-lying coastal areas, where sea-level rise and frequent intense storms cause flooding, erosion, and landslides, threatening communities, homes, and economic activities.
The CCAP programme was aimed at supporting local governments and communities in the cities of Pemba and Quelimane to develop affordable and resilient solutions and techniques for building.
The key design, construction elements, and techniques adopted in this initiative include low vulnerability site selection, which reduces potential impact of hazards (i.e., avoiding areas with high exposure to flooding and strong winds); raised foundation (i.e., elevated platform above the maximum level of flooding); reinforced wall (i.e., construction done with durable materials, such as coconut or bamboo wood) and secure roof with rainwater harvesting capacity (i.e., roofing design with an adequate slope to withstand strong winds and also facilitate rain harvesting system).
Another example of resilient housing technology is in Malawi, where Durabric is increasingly being used as a more sustainable alternative to traditional burnt clay bricks for housing construction. The compressed earth stabilised block is made using a combination of locally sourced materials, comprising of earth, sand, cement, and water. Durabric has proved to be an affordable alternative for resilient housing delivery, with resultant impacts in terms of curbing deforestation and carbon emissions, in addition to building local capacity in the industry.
Way forward and conclusion
While there have been moderate achievements in developing legislation, tools, and policies to enhance climate-resilient housing and urban development in select African countries, these initiatives have relied on global templates and standards, which may be difficult and expensive to replicate at scale in the African context.
Moreover, advocacy and awareness among stakeholders on climate change acts and standards are required. Public and private entities need to be proactively engaged, to understand the implication of these standards and laws on their activities, as well as their respective obligations.
Most importantly, housing delivery and built environment stakeholders should take advantage of the recently introduced climate-change policies and their incentives, to introduce technological innovations that can mitigate the impact of climate change in the industry.
In conclusion, as Africa continues to experience unprecedented rates of urbanization coupled with increasing climate related incidences, it is pertinent for stakeholders to put in more effort in making housing safe and resilient to climate change related impacts. This in turn can help protect lives and livelihoods from disasters and build sustainable communities.
A circular economic model can help solve the environmental challenges created by our built environment – water, waste and power systems, transport infrastructure and the buildings we live and work in. A circular economy involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials and products for as long as possible.
Circular economy principles have gained recognition from all levels of government in Australia. But there’s a big gap between acknowledgement and action. Progress towards systemic change has been very limited.
A new report by university and industry experts lays out a roadmap to a circular economy. Those working in the sector reported the top three barriers as: a lack of incentives, a lack of specific regulations, and a lack of knowledge. The top three enablers were: research and development of enabling technologies, education of stakeholders, and evidence of the circular economy’s added value.
So what are the world leaders doing?
Extensive research for the report drew on real-world experiences, including a survey and interviews with stakeholders. The report offers practical recommendations to drive the transformation to a circular economy, with examples from global front-runners.
The first recommendation is to learn from these nations. Most are in Europe.
A leading example is the Netherlands’ “Cirkelstad”. This national platform connects key players in the transition to a circular economy in major cities. It provides a database of exemplary projects, research and policies, as well as training and advice.
Cirkelstad highlights the importance of broad collaboration, including research organisations. One outcome is the City Deal initiative. It has brought together more than 100 stakeholders with the shared goal of making circular construction the norm. They include government bodies, contractors, housing associations, clients, networks, interest groups and knowledge institutions.
We rarely see such collaboration in Australia. Connections between government, research and industry practices have been weak. Our universities compete fiercely.
In Denmark and Sweden, rigorous regulations have been effective in promoting circular practices. Denmark has incentives for the use of secondary materials such as recycled brick. It also promotes designs that make buildings easy to disassemble.
In Canada, Toronto is notable for its proactive approach. Measures include a cap on upfront carbon emissions for all new city-owned buildings.
Test beds and pilot projects have proven effective, too. A good example is the UK’s Waste House.
Waste House was built using more than 85% waste material from households and construction sites. Yet it’s a top-rated low-energy building. The project is an inspiration for architects and builders to challenge conventional construction methods and embrace circular practices.
Much of the focus of Finland’s circular economy initiatives is on construction and urban planning. Various policy tools and incentives encourage the use of recycled or renewable materials in construction. The renovation of Laakso hospital in Helsinki is a notable example.
Strategic zoning of public spaces can also be used to bolster circular economy activities. An example is the repurposing of urban land for activities such as waste sorting.
How can Australia create a circular economy?
Australia has been slow to adopt such measures. There are voluntary schemes, such as Green Star, that include emission caps for buildings. However, Australia lacks specific, well-defined requirements to adopt circular economy practices across the built environment sector.
Our report’s recommendations include:
develop metrics and targets to promote resource efficiency
adopt measurable circular procurement practices for public projects
provide incentives for circular practices
establish technical codes and standards that foster the use of secondary products.
The report finds funding for collaborative projects is badly needed too. Regrettably, the Australian built environment is not seen as a research funding priority. But more funding is essential to foster the innovation needed to make the transition to a circular economy.
Innovation can help us reconcile the public demand for spacious homes with sustainable construction practices. We can achieve this through a mix of strategies:
moving towards modular construction techniques
creating incentives to adopt circular design principles
making adaptive reuse of existing structures a priority
designing multi-functional spaces that makes the most of resources.
Integrating circular economy principles into education and training at universities and schools can embed a culture of innovation. Equipping students with this knowledge and skills will enable the next generation to drive change in our built environment.
Currently, there are few Australian-based training programs that focus on the circular economy. And available courses and programs overseas are costly.
There is also a need to promote inclusivity in the built environment sector. Circular solutions must incorporate cultural considerations.
By embracing the above strategies, Australia can foster a harmonious balance between cultural values, environmental sustainability and efficient resource use.
Collectively, these initiatives will lay the foundation for a circular economy in the built environment sector. The growing need for housing and infrastructure underscores the urgency of achieving this goal in Australia. Ultimately, consumers, industry and the environment will all benefit.
We Expect A Lot From Our Buildings — How Do International Codes Assure Sustainability?
Today, society faces 3 major challenges in the built environment: ensuring building safety, improving sustainability, and addressing our affordable housing crisis.
May is Building Safety Month. Up-to-date international codes can make communities more equipped to endure increasingly frequent and severe weather events, improve sustainability, and address the affordable housing crisis. This year, innovation and collaboration are evolving due to the increasing frequency and severity of global weather events. All communities need building codes to protect their citizens from disasters like fires, weather-related events, and structural collapse.
It seemed to make sense to learn more about how modern and innovative international building codes address these imperatives, how code officials work day in and day out to keep the public safe, and how the International Code Council is enabling the flow of innovative policies and practices around the world to improve the built environment.
Q: Thanks for making yourself available to answer some questions. For those unfamiliar with the International Code Council, why is it in existence, and what effect has it had on cities and towns across the globe?
Dominic Sims, CEO of the International Code Council, Photo provided by International Code Council
The International Code Council was established in 1994 as a non-profit organization dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated model building codes. The mission of the Code Council is to steward the development process for model codes that benefit public safety and support the industry’s need for one set of codes without regional limitations. We are a member-focused association with members from across building industries who come together to participate in our democratic and transparent process to develop the most widely used set of building safety codes and standards in the world – the International Codes® (I-Codes®).
Our technical staff works closely with legislators and code officials to help jurisdictions implement the most appropriate set of codes for their specific regions.
Q: I’m struck by the call for reciprocity toward improving sustainability and addressing the affordable housing crisis. These 2 objectives seem not to be related. Might you offer some insights into their symbiosis?
We expect a lot of our buildings. They are complex systems that have broad ranging impacts on our lives and communities. They protect us from hazards, influence our health, and impact our environment. Finding the balance across all these expectations while maintaining affordability is challenging, but the Code Council and governments must navigate these complexities.
Housing affordability is particularly important for low and moderate income households. These households are often the hardest hit by disasters — many of which are exacerbated by climate change — and lack the resources for post-disaster recovery. At the same time, they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills — in some places 3 times as much as the average household. When we talk about housing affordability, it’s not just whether we can get someone in a house but whether they can afford to stay there.
The International Code Council is currently the only code development organization that actively considers cost as an element of the code development process. Through the code development, process stakeholders from across the building industry come together to identify the best practices for safety and sustainability while ensuring the resulting buildings remain affordable and accessible to broad populations. Naturally, individual communities have their own perspectives on priorities for their building stock. The Code Council provides communities with tools to achieve those priorities from model codes that capture the current consensus to stretch codes that can assist communities in going beyond minimum-level requirements.
Q: May is Building Safety Month. What should our readers know about the need to adopt modern, regularly-updated building codes?
Today, society faces 3 major challenges in the built environment: ensuring building safety, improving sustainability, and addressing our affordable housing crisis. Modern and innovative international codes are society’s first line of defense to address these imperatives. One of the most cost-effective ways to safeguard communities against natural disasters is to build using hazard-resistant building codes.
FEMA studies show that every dollar invested in the adoption of modern building codes provides 11 times more in savings by reducing casualties, lowering the cost of building damage and helping communities get back on their feet faster by minimizing indirect costs such as business interruptions and lost income. We want to emphasize to all communities the importance of adopting modern building codes and stress the critical importance of continued inspection and enforcement to keep buildings and their occupants safe and healthy. We also encourage local governments to fund their building departments to support the needed level of maintenance inspections.
The formula for success in implementing and supporting modern building codes and inspections is simple: staff, train, and finance.
Q: How is the building industry working to increase water efficiency through innovative practices and technologies — not just domestically but worldwide?
Logo provided by ICC
Innovation and collaboration must evolve due to global weather events’ increasing frequency and severity. There are many examples of countries in water-scarce areas that are innovating to increase water efficiency. Those involved in the code development process can draw best practices from the following examples across the globe:
Israel is leading the world through its policies, practices, and technologies for its water resources and conservation, most notably through reclaiming over 80% of its wastewater and stormwater for agricultural operation.
Saudi Arabia boasts the highest production of desalinated water worldwide (the country removes salt out of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf) and is in the process of converting its desalination plants to solar.
Cape Town, South Africa is incorporating automated domestic water metering installations to set a target water usage for each resident per day, leveraging alternative water sources, and updating their supply network infrastructure.
The United Kingdom is cutting water use through water metering, incentives for water-saving technologies, hosepipe bans, and investing in updating the country’s water supply equipment.
The North China Plain has addressed increasing agricultural demands on water through increased monitoring, institutionalized water conservation practices, ground leveling, and more efficient drainage and irrigation sprinklers.
Q: How does Building Safety Month address some of the issues that we face as a global community, including extreme weather events and water scarcity?
Clean water is the world’s most precious commodity, and public health depends on safe and readily available water. The World Health Organization estimates over two billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to worsen in some regions due to a changing climate and population growth. Water conservation and efficiency issues have become crucial conversations amongst building safety professionals in recent years. Building Safety Month raises awareness about these issues by reinforcing the need to adopt modern, regularly-updated building codes, and helps individuals, families, and businesses understand what it takes to create safe and sustainable structures.
Q: What additional details or insights might you provide on how we can institute these best practices in the US?
There is currently no national standard on maintenance and inspection. Individual states follow their own enforcement procedures to seek out, modify, adopt and enforce their own building codes and standards. Currently adopted codes, which local jurisdictions can, and do, modify on a case-by-case basis, may or may not include provisions for building re-inspections and maintenance requirements. The International Property Maintenance Code® (IPMC®) established minimum requirements for the maintenance of existing buildings through model code regulations that contain clear and specific maintenance and property improvement provisions. The latest edition is fully compatible with the International Building Code® (IBC®).
Every jurisdiction needs to understand what their specific regional needs are so that their building, maintenance, and re-inspections codes have appropriately specific provisions for the natural, environmental, and emergency conditions more prevalent in their area (e.g., Florida hurricanes, Kansas tornadoes, California earthquakes and wildfires).
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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