Shaded by Earth; The earthbag house in Jericho – Palestine

Shaded by Earth
By Danna Masad

Ahmad walked into ShamsArd’s office not knowing what he was walking into. He came to us wanting a sofa. A friend of his gave him our phone number, describing us as “people who custom-make furniture.” My colleagues Lina and Rami and I spoke to Ahmad for a few minutes before our fears were confirmed; he knows nothing about our practice or our particular approach in design.How do we explain to our potential client why his much-sought-after piece of furniture would be made from trash, without driving him out the door?

ShamsArd Studio was born a year before Ahmad walked into our office, when four architects, Lina, Rami, Ghaith, and myself came together to create a space for exploring local alternatives to construction methods and materials that are imported, depleting natural resources, and disadvantaging the local economy. We started by experimenting with available resources, traditional and other natural building materials, and wasted resources. To keep from straying from our goals we made a pledge to ourselves: We were only to take on work that would further this search for alternatives. This meant that oftentimes we would have to decline work, even when it promised to pay well, even at dire times when we desperately needed the money to pay for rent. It also meant that we would decline working with potential clients who didn’t understand the principles behind our approach and as a result were sometimes offended.

“This is suicidal,” some have warned us, and sure enough, it felt that way at times. However, it ensured that all our efforts were focused on working towards our goal. So by the time Ahmad came to our office for the first time we had already created and sold over a hundred pieces of furniture that were designed to utilise waste material, and we had had several earthen buildings designed and built.

A dream project
By his second visit to our office, Ahmad was intrigued and interested in commissioning us to work on an earthen building using earthbag construction. Up until that point we had designed four buildings that would be built using an earthen technique called “compressed earth blocks” or CEBs; these are blocks of earth mixture that are compressed with a manually operated machine. CEBs are the most promising alternative to conventional building methods since they utilise brickwork, a building skill that is still alive today. Earthbags, on the other hand, offer a promising, affordable solution to housing, often promoted as the quickest and cheapest of all earthen techniques. Briefly, earthbag construction utilises polypropylene bags as formwork to hold a damp mixture of soil and sand that is formed into dome-shaped walls and roofs. The technique was developed and popularised by Iranian architect Nader Khalili and has since been tried and tested around the world. There are even some examples of earthbag buildings in Gaza.

We were beyond thrilled that Ahmad’s project would allow us to experiment with using earthbags as an earth architecture technique. This gave us a chance to build using a technique that utilises locally available material from the site itself, thus tackling the issue of affordability.

We were also exceptionally thrilled that Ahmad was not an NGO. Thus, his interest in earth architecture is not an attempt to meet grant or donor requirements, nor does this project account for ridiculous budgets for foreign experts. Ahmad was someone who saved up his entire life, as most Palestinians do, to be able to build this house. The fact that he chose earth building and trusted us to design and build his house is both an honour and a huge responsibility.

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Accidental competition
The next few months were an intense learning experience for ShamsArd’s team, Ahmad, and the contractor who was brave enough to take on the project with us. Our extensive research into the technique found us studying all kinds of existing literature and online materials on the subject. But as wisdom would have it, dealing with issues on the ground is a completely different experience. The Jordan Valley sun was merciless and our learning curve was steep, yet we had to remain determined even as we ignored Ahmad’s new sceptical neighbours. One of the sceptics had made a bet that his house structure would be complete before Ahmad’s building would rise from the foundations. But in a twist of fate – or was it the Israeli occupation? – the Israeli government imposed a collective punishment that put a halt on all cement imports to the West Bank, temporarily raising the price of cement and freezing construction projects throughout the West Bank. Ahmad’s neighbour was no exception! It was a painful reminder of how the Palestinian building industry is entirely dependent on resources that it neither produces nor controls. Meanwhile Ahmad’s house, unaffected by the siege, was progressing according to plan.

Ahmad’s building was designed to have thick walls for an increased high thermal mass to allow for comfortable interior temperatures. A wind chimney is integrated for additional natural cooling and ventilation, while openings in the domes allowed the release of hot air and the movement of ventilation throughout the building. These are all passive solar techniques that I had studied and researched extensively, but I had never really experienced their effects first hand. The stark difference between the outside temperatures of Jordan Valley summers and the cool interiors of Ahmad’s house is the first thing visitors of the building notice as they walk in. As soon as the structure was complete the building had become a landmark in its area, visited by neighbours, curious passers-by and soon after, journalists.

Sitting on the freshly finished tile floor watching Ahmad speak to TV journalists with pride about his house and the experience of making it was the one of the greatest gratifications we could have wished for.

Danna Masad is an architect and co-founder of ShamsArd Design Studio in Ramallah. The studio can be reached at Shamsard@gmail.com
. You can find more photos of their work on Facebook.
Article photos By Danna Masad.

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