Earth not concrete: A school near Lahore shows that the radical isn’t necessarily high-tech

Eiki Roswag has been building the Tipu Sultan Merkez with natural materials.

Our Correspondent April 15, 2012


After nearly 40 years of designing and building, architect Shahid Abdulla is beginning to wonder if his approach has been wise.

Now he wants to unlearn, dismantle and deconstruct. “I should have never gone to school,” he remarked on day two of The Institute of Architects Pakistan Exhibition (IAPEX).

The dominant mood at the Institute of Architects of Pakistan’s annual event in Karachi this weekend has been one of questioning design arrogance, preferring organic materials, involving men and women in villages so they bake the bricks for their own homes. Sri Lankan architect C Anjalendran’s tree-heavy houses seemed to have set the mood on Friday.

Abdulla grew even more pensive after presentations by German architect Eike Roswag, who is using earth, not cement, to build a school outside Lahore, and the Aga Khan network’s Hafiz Sher Ali who helped Chitrali people build safer and smarter after the earthquake. “The earth is trying to shake us up, clean the slate,” Abdulla mused during the panel discussion. “We are going back to our roots.” The earthquake and floods are telling us something, he said.

Roswag’s work at the Tipu Sultan Merkez school outside Lahore won the Holcim Award Gold in 2011 for building entirely with bamboo and cob. His team compresses earth to build walls and ties together bamboo shoots for roofs. The wooden structures can be filled with earth and limestone used as an organic finish instead of chemical paint.

The beauty of earth homes and schools is that they absorb three times the moisture from air than concrete does. This helps them stay several degrees cooler. Earthen walls, Roswag’s team discovered from other people’s work in the Middle East, absorb 50 grammes per square metre of water in a day compared to the 15g by concrete, which gets saturated in three hours.

Roswag said that an earth block is more sustainable than certain types of concrete blocks. “And even if the house sinks,” remarked Roswag, “it’s just returning to where it came from.”

Roswag and his team used these techniques to renovate the museum of Jahili Fort in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, which dates to the 19th century. A certain amount of adaptation was needed, however, as Roswag found that Saudi women were fond of high heels that tended to destroy the earthen floors. “I personally preferred to go barefoot when I was there,” he laughed.

The Germans also learned lessons in Bangladesh and Mozambique where people largely used natural materials but did not end up with durable housing. “By the time a man turned 40, he had gone through five houses as their roofs were too thin,” said Roswag. “The poor people were surrounded by the best material but they were still living in bad conditions.”

At the end of the session, the architects discussed how the march of technology and industrialisation had made concrete and steel king. No one disputes the benefits of technology, they acknowledged. Roswag was able to present via Skype because he didn’t apply for a visa in time. But the consensus was to see if now is the time to go back to our roots.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2012.


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