Following the recent launch of the green building council in Rwanda, it is evident that sustainability is currently the most pressing, complex and challenging agenda facing architects and urban designers.
Sustainability is defined by the United Nations, as ‘meeting the needs of today without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The future referenced here is approaching sooner than we imagine, especially with the projection that by 2030 more than 60% of the world population will be urban.
This booming urban population and rapid urbanisation has actually seen a shift of concern at the global level, from focusing merely on global warming, to a much wider concern encompassing issues of the environment and human health.
It is in this perspective that ecology, being the science of the relationship between living organisms and their environment becomes more relevant. Human beings are unique and complex, they are organised in such a way that their constructions have a large impact on the environment and hence themselves.
This dialectical relation is through a process that is so complex that the potential impact however sure is not always immediately obvious.
Ecological architecture therefore seeks to bring a balance to the sustainability and harmony of human beings and their constructions in relation to their natural and artificial environment.
Through this lens, sustainable development has been defined in many ways but all rooted in the spirit of cooperation and commitment to utilize technology in a morally and socially responsible manner so that buildings and cities nurture human spirit and fully respect nature.
Sustainable development could be achieved by humanity; architects, engineers, designers, town planners, and manufacturers of building products working cooperatively to produce green buildings that are designed, built, renovated, operated, or reused in an ecological and resource efficient manner.
For architects and urban planners to create sustainable built environments, they must holistically integrate the knowledge of the new with that the old so as to arrive at an output that respects culture, environment and history of the inhabitants.
But just what is contained in this ‘old’?
African traditional architecture was essentially and undeniably sustainable and had evolved culturally to suit the people. Usually, earth, timber, straw, stone/rock and thatch were constructed together with the simplest of tools and methods to build simple, livable dwellings.
The elephant in the room has been what is also been globalization, also nicknamed as ‘Dubaification’ of cities where the growing introduction of ‘modern materials’ such as concrete, glass, curtain walls, aluminum cladding, have swept the construction by a storm.
However, not all is lost. Although globalization has relegated traditional materials as being ‘primitive’, present interpretations of sustainability has given them a new status as likely technologies for the contemporary world.
Various studies on the Africa city, have offered a lot of information and examples of how our ancestors established and maintained the relation between architecture and the environment, in their indigenous methods of construction and search for solutions of their everyday challenges for different climates across the various landscapes and regions.
Amazing technological resources for example the use of light such as shading using trees, dynamic wall designs and the orientation of doors to receive evening light, the use of mud as a good insulator, tactics to keeping the temperature down inside storage granaries, using wind catchers for comfortable indoor climate, the use of stone stilts to protect against vermin; use of different forms and layouts to achieve tactical or communal ideals; use of a variety of structures including wooden frame supporting mats, mud-brick, molded mud walls and thatch, wide range of materials used including, leaves, mud, grass, stick, stone, animal skin, resin, tree bark and a wide range of techniques including weaving, planning, organisation, understanding seasonal climate change and construction methodology.
In today’s world, we have more or less resulted to electricity to do all the above for us! Yet the educational advancements on the other side have consistently encouraged us to go green and possibly return to traditional materiality and technology for lessons towards proactive steps in managing the earth’s resources towards sustainable architectural and urban development.
We know green buildings emit fewer greenhouse gases, consume less energy, use less water, and offer occupants healthier environments than do typical buildings. We also know that green buildings use salvaged, recycled or low carbon materials; they support rainwater harvesting, bicycle commuting, solar heating, natural ventilation, and/or many other environmentally friendly practices.
It focuses on the practice of increasing energy efficiency, reducing building impact on human health and the environment through better siting, design, construction, operation and maintenance and natural building which tends to focus on the use of natural materials, renewable recourses, and passive solar techniques to highlight just the prominent ones.
We know very well that ecological architecture pursues a sustainable and healthy relationship between humans and their natural and constructed environment but are still hesitant to its application.
True, it would be impossible to completely turn back to the traditional styles and methods of producing the built environment, but sure enough by looking a little bit more keenly on what our ancestors were doing, how and why, we can definitely identify means and methods to greatly improve our present urban and rural built forms.
If we care try and imitate them even for a second, by thinking more holistically, environmentally even more spiritually, that would set us a firm foundation for the recommended action.
The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. An architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.