Experimenting with Tradition
“As an environmentalist, I didn’t want to do architecture anymore,” explains Danna Masad, one of the founders of ShamsArd Studio, an eco-architecture firm. ShamsArd is Arabic and translates into Sun and Earth, a very suitable name for a group of architects who have developed their practice using locally found resources. Conventional architecture produces a great deal of waste and relies on imported building material. Danna and her colleagues wanted to develop an alternative. Danna explains that ShamsArd was born when the four founding architects met to discuss alternatives to conventional architectural practice. They then identified a space within one week and immediately established ShamsArd Studio. Two women and two men, most of the founders have received their education at Birzeit University. Danna had continued specialization in sustainable and earth construction.
Construction waste into art
ShamsArd studio started by focusing on recycling construction site waste into valuable pieces of furniture. The group’s first exhibition featured 42 pieces and titled their display The First Trial. It was a call to architects to recognize their responsibility regarding the environmental damage caused by construction waste and to take responsibility for their design decisions. Mahatta Art Gallery, next door to ShamsArd’s studio, offered free exhibit space. Looking back, Danna shares that she and her colleagues – Lina Saleh, Ghaith Nassar and Rami Kasbari – were not sure if anyone besides their friends and family would show up to the exhibition. But demand was overwhelming, and the exhibit was even extended several days beyond the original time frame. People waited in line to witness the functional pieces of art made with Ramallah’s construction waste found in piles on street corners and in wadis (valleys) on the outskirts of the city. Palestine was evidently ready for an eco-design firm.
The ShamsArd team proceeded to focus on designing and building earth structures that used local resources and ensured natural heating and cooling systems. The studio was commissioned by a local school to design and supervise an eco-building in a botanical garden in Ramallah. ShamsArd used earth from the area to produce the compressed bricks used to construct their only earth building in Ramallah. Soon after, ShamsArd was contracted to design and supervise the construction of five earth buildings made of pressed bricks in the Jordan Valley. The team furthermore designed and constructed a restaurant using compressed earth and a private home in Jericho using earthbags, a method where bags filled with a mix of earth are stacked without formwork, a technique developed by the late Iranian architect Nader Khalili. ShamsArd have designed and are currently working on several other buildings to be built using traditional adobe bricks.
Traditional building methods
Adobe building is a traditional building method that has been used in Palestine for thousands of years. Danna explains that much of the traditional indigenous knowledge has been lost with the introduction of concrete. And even though much of coastal Palestine and the Jordan Valley were built with earth, the building knowledge was dispersed along with the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their home territories in 1948. A few earthen construction master builders remain in refugee camps in the West Bank and in the Jordan Valley. ShamsArd has conducted interviews with these seniors to ensure that the indigenous knowledge is retained and utilized for the generations to come.
Danna continues to explain that stone is a traditional building material in the mountainous regions of Palestine. And in villages, rather than quarried stones, the traditional stone builders used surface-found stones that were gathered when farmers cleared their land for cultivation. Such buildings can be found in Palestine’s countryside as they were used to shelter the seasonal harvest. The knowledge for constructing these stone buildings, too, is at great risk of disappearing.
Great demand for alternatives
While ShamsArd studio is the only eco-design studio in Palestine that uses natural building materials, there is a growing appreciation and demand for construction that protects the environment while serving the community. Danna is confident that alternatives that are affordable as well as physically and culturally acceptable will soon be in great demand in Palestine. Already, architecture students are seeking such alternatives and using their projects to experiment with natural building techniques. ShamsArd is often called on to mentor students and oversee their work. The system is slowly changing towards a local and sustainable industry, Danna is very happy to report.
This article first appeared on the Future Perfect platform, a project by FUTURZWEI Foundation and Goethe-Institut. You can find the original article here.