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Ancient Mud Building Techniques Might Become Architecture Of The Future

By: Andrew Zhang

For many millennia, people across the Middle East and Africa have been

building with mud because of the many environmental and technical benefits of

constructing with such a sustainable building material.

According to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate

Change (IPCC), most cities and settlements are currently unprepared for major

natural events and should build more climate-resistant structures.

Mud solves this problem.

How does it do this? Mud buildings are able to withstand natural events like

earthquakes and heavy winds "because of the ability of its structure to distribute

the load that it faces on its surface, unlike concrete or cement," says Salma Samar

Damluji, co-founder of the Daw'an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation in Yemen

and author of The Architecture of Yemen and its Reconstruction.

Waterproofing is also present in these structures. Mud buildings are

"protected from seasonal rains and flash floods due to the dampproof and

protective external rendering used in several layers of refined mud, ash and lime

coating and plaster", says Salma Samar Damluji.

Other than protecting the environment, using mud to build can help you live

a more comfortable and cheaper life. "In comparison to buildings constructed of

concrete or corrugated metal, mud brick buildings keep relatively stable interior

temperatures across a 24-hour period and thus supply inhabitants with far superior

thermal comfort. An added bonus is that the thick mud-brick walls also reduce noise

levels from outside or next door,” says Trevor Marchand, emeritus professor of

social anthropology at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and author

of The Masons of Djenné.

Mud does this by using a capture and release technique. "Mud walls collect

heat during the day from solar radiation and release it at night. The temperature

never fluctuates – it's always at a comfortable level," says Pamela Jerome, a US

architect and president of the Architectural Preservation Studio, which focuses on

restoration projects around the world.

This effect also helps the environment. Due to mud’s ability to trap heat when

it’s hot and release captured heat when it’s cold, air-conditioning

units are less necessary. This reduces the ecological footprint of the building, as ACs

use large amounts of electricity and contain refrigerants that can cause excess

greenhouse gas emissions.

It even helps with humidity. "The earth has the ability to absorb excess

moisture from the air, and to release it, if necessary, which is why we say that these

houses 'breathe'," says Dragana Kojičić Dragana Kojičić, a Serb who specializes in

raw-earth construction.

Even though mud houses are often seen as primitive, they can be made as

comfortable as you want. "Every mud house ... can be totally adapted and easily

retrofitted with electricity and plumbing,” says Pamela Jerome.

Renovations won’t come with excess waste that needs to be carted away to a

landfill. "Mud buildings are extremely adaptable. If you want to pull a wall down or

change the design, you can recycle all the materials,” says Salma Samar Damluji.

"Mud is the champion of future sustainable construction. It is the only

material we can recycle as often as we like, without using any energy. It actually

gets better the more you use it,” says Anna Heringer.

Plus, mud doesn’t discriminate. "Mud is a very inclusive material; poor and

rich can build with it,” says Anna Heringer, an Austrian architect who creates

buildings using natural materials such as mud and bamboo. She has been working

with mud for 20 years and has designed many notable earthen buildings, including

the METI handmade school in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, for which she received the Aga

Khan Award for architecture in 2007. "You don't need any tools to build with it, you

just use your hands."

Some of these mud buildings have even become world famous. The mud

architecture in the ancient walled city of Sana’a is so special that it had been

designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sana’a, while only having mud buildings, attracts people looking to study

both culture and canvas. "As an outstanding example of a homogeneous

architectural ensemble reflecting the spatial characteristics of the early years of

Islam, the city in its landscape has an extraordinary artistic and pictorial quality. The

buildings demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship in the use of local materials and

techniques," UNESCO writes in its description of Sana'a.

Another mud city, Djenné in Mali, houses the largest mud building in the

world. This structure is the Great Mosque, which stands at 66 feet and is built on a

platform that is 300 feet long.

This Great Mosque also acts as a place for community. Djenné’s residents have

an annual tradition of rebuilding the Great Mosque. This yearly operation is

supervised by a group of senior masons.

"Everyone takes part. Boys and girls mix the mud, women bring the water

and masons direct the activity,” says Trevor Marchand.

Unfortunately, like many other building materials, mud has its drawbacks. It

is possible to use it in an unsustainable way, reducing land used to grow crops.

In order to maintain a positive impact, the foundation and the building’s

location are key. In 2008, a severe flood in the Hadhramaut region of Yemen

damaged around 5,000 buildings, most of which were built on a floodplain and had

weak foundations or none at all. Compare this to the desert valley of Wadi Dawan

where only about 25 buildings were damaged, because it had mud buildings with

foundations around 5 feet in the ground and were made of nonporous dry stone,

and had paths within the valley that led floodwater into the irrigation canals for

date palm groves.

But for many, mud is the way forward in the housing industry. "We cannot

live in these concrete jungles anymore. We have to consider the environment and

biodiversity. We cannot construct in isolation,” says Salma Samar Damluji.

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