By: Mamdouh Sakr
Architecture students and architects in Egypt and elsewhere seldom have the opportunity to study and understand the various techniques of Earth Construction. The majority of the architectural educational systems ignores such a topic completely, and restricts it to anthropological studies. This severe neglect of teaching the ancient yet sustainable building techniques is contemporaneous to a ruthless erosion of the Egyptian vernacular architecture, with all its architectural elements, decorative motifs and structural techniques.
Nowadays a number of projects are trying to benefit from the timeless building techniques and local materials to create sustainable, environment friendly and economical buildings.Most of these trials are a direct result of the efforts of Hassan Fathy, the late Egyptian architect who spent his entire career looking for and developing means of rebuilding communities that would allow people to live with self-respect despite their economic status.
The Project… The Idea
I was asked to design a touristic camp on a piece of land north of Nuweiba, which is a coastal town in the eastern part of the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. An area, which is well known for its numerous “Bedouin-Style” camps, where tourists stay in cheap huts made of palm reeds and recycled plywood boards.
The “Bedouin- Style” hut seemed like a nice idea that has been abused by bad taste and limited budgets, and what started as an environment friendly, economical and aesthetically pleasing simple lodge turned to be an ugly ramshackle heap of different materials. After almost two decades of labeling the area as a “Hippie paradise”, things changed for a number of reasons and a camp composed of huts would never generate any income or even sustain the ownership of the plot. Sothe owners of the camps were obliged to build permanent rooms in addition to the simple huts.
The owner who was mesmerized by the beauty of the site wanted to respect the environment and create buildings that enhance the visitors’ experience of the sea, the desert and the mountains. The piece of land had a narrow frontage on the beach (90 meters), and this required a different design approach than the typical spreading of the rooms in rows parallel to the shoreline.Therefore the design gradually developed as a number of rooms clustered around courtyards that varied in size and form. These room clusters were placed organically in the natural desert landscape, ensuring natural lighting and ventilation to every unit.
Building Materials and Techniques
The use of natural materials and traditional building techniques was the main criterion, which influenced and guided the design of the camp. The available building materials in the site and the region were: stone shingles, silt, gravel and sand. Apart from these materials anything else had to be brought from the cities of the Nile Delta (almost 350 km away).
As the local volcanic and granite stones radiate large quantities of heat, they were unsuitable to build living spaces, but were easily used tobuildthe foundations. The presence of good-quality silt and sand encouraged the use of adobe, where only dry straw was needed to strengthen the mixture. So it was decided that adobe will be prepared in site, and used to build the walls, and the question was what will be used for the roofs. Unfortunately using reinforced concrete to create flat roofs became the norm in Egypt that most of the architects and clients do not even think of other options. I was trying to provide other environment friendly alternatives, however using wooden joists would not be that appropriate, as the materials, its preparing to withstand the harsh climate and the skilled labor involved would be extremely expensive. While I wanted to use adobe domes and vaults for environmental and aesthetic reasons, fortunately the owner accepted the idea because of its economical advantages and the overall ambiance, which would appeal and attract tourists visiting the camp. So we were simply using natural building materials and reusing Ancient Egyptian building techniques in the 21st century.
The Architect and the Mason
I can claim that earth building construction and traditional building techniques depend on the experience and ingenuity of the mason more than the creativity of the architect. The masons deliberately made some slight modifications, such as the sizes and location ofsome of the alcoves and a few decorative brick formations, where they felt that their modifications added a distinctive flair to the buildings.
I believe that such flexible relationship between the architect and the masons is peculiar to the earth building construction and is rarely present in the conventional building processes. This remark might raise an important question, whether these buildings are considered examples of “Vernacular” or“Neo-vernacular architecture”?