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Pre-Carbon Copy

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I can’t look at exuberant structure without thinking of the amount of steel that went into its various contortions so I’m not unaware of embodied carbon. I learned from Log magazine’s issue #47: Overcoming Carbon Form how there’s much more to it than that.

Carbon form includes roads and all buildings such as shopping malls and apartment buildings and detached houses designed to be accessed by vehicles. Shopping malls are central to an entire economy of carbon filling them with goods. Everyday I drive to work [from Dubai, of all places], I pass a LEED Silver shopping mall. No building rating system I know of offers points for whether a building is necessary. The question of whether a building’s use of resources is justified in planetary terms is never asked. Carbon form includes airports.

Regarding Phase I of Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, Rem Koolhaas commented in 2013, “We are delighted and honored to participate in the exciting growth of Doha, in a project that is perhaps the first serious effort anywhere in the world to interface between an international airport and the city it serves.” Next time I want to build an airport I’ll begin by creating a site next to my city.

This report notes that the development of the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) in Qatar required the reclamation of a large area that was previously utilised for the deposition of waste. Between the 1950’s and 1990, approximately 6.5 million cubic meters* of waste (= the volume of 6.5 Empire State Buildings) was dumped on the NDIA site. This waste was relocated to a controlled landfill approximately 40 km away, close to the town of Mesaieed.

Noises are already being made about Phase II being LEED Silver. It will have a 10,000mindoor tropical garden, 268mwater feature, 11,720mof landscaped retail and dining space, other leisure attractions and facilities … [ref.]

Text description provided by the architects. KAPSARC (King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre) is a non-profit institution for independent research into policies that contribute to the most effective use of energy to provide social wellbeing across the globe. KAPSARC develops policies and economic frameworks that reduce the environmental impact and overall costs of energy supply and enable practical technology-based solutions to use energy more efficiently.Collaborating with international research centres, public policy organisations, worldwide government institutions and global industry, KAPSARC brings together leading experts from around the world to tackle energy challenges; freely sharing its knowledge, insights and analytical frameworks. … KAPSARC’s design has solid technical and environmental considerations at its heart, drawing the five elements of the campus into a unified whole. ZHA’s first project to be awarded LEED Platinum certification by the US Green Building Council, the centre is designed in response to the environmental conditions of the Riyadh Plateau to minimise energy and resource consumption.

Starchitects evolved to validate the carbon economy sometimes called the neoliberal economy and are a symbiotic part of it whether they design its airports or not. Architects less stellar are also implicated because carbon form includes all buildings that can’t exist or function without the significant input of energy from fossil fuels. If a building depends on steel, concrete, air conditioning, artificial illumination, mechanical ventilation and elevators, then it’s carbon form.

A revisionist history of architecture could begin by tracking what happened circa 1965 with Postmodernism and then work back to post-WWI with The International Style and then back to the 1920s and Modernism and post-WWI before finally tracking down the origins of carbon form with the development of the combustion engine and the Industrial Revolution. However, to propose solving our current problems by “raising awareness” through history lessons isn’t going to achieve anything fast. We may as well wait for the Mars shuttle. There’s also the danger that any talk not focussed on actioning definite proposals will simply be assimilated back into the carbon economy as academic churn or media churn, much like what happened with sustainability. The true function of Mars-talk is to suppress enthusiasm for low-tech solutions.

an informatiecentrum ecofactorij

Meanwhile, the carbon economy and the information economy are co-dependent and solutions promoted most are those that sustain the status-quo. The premise is that more technology is the solution to the problems caused by technology. But what if it’s not? How did people ever build and live in pre-industrial societies where beams and window frames were the only hard carbon and construction depended on a workforce skilled in simple techniques?

Contemporary domestic construction still does wth its teams of contractors tightly project managed to move in sequence between multiple sites in an inversion of the factory conveyor belt as the product is stationary and it’s the workers that travel. This is easier than making buildings in a factory and transporting them to where they’re needed. Most building components however, are mass produced and transported to sites for assembly.

So then, what to do? Rather than ponder what post-carbon form will be like, I thought I’d see if some pre-carbon form could be brought back into service. I’d always admired the Yemeni town of Shibham, a town about 1,700 years old. Many of its buildings date from the 17th century and parts have been rebuilt several times since. This is fair enough considering they’re made from mud-brick.

The town is economical with land, space and building resources because its compactness and enclosing wall made it easier to defend. Buildings are mostly one per family and have simple plans such as this one typical of the Yemeni vernacular. [c.f. The Buildings of YEMEN]

There’s much to be learned from a vernacular featuring the simple use of non-carbon resources.

The thick walls and efficient staircase reminded me of a recent project [c.f. The Factory] but a building doesn’t need to be a superslender for it to have a critical structure. I set myself the task of re-designing the Yemeni house as a low-carbon alternative for Western lifestyles, aware that this is probably a contradiction. High-tech solutions usually involve sustaining the status quo come what may, but this simply isn’t possible with low-tech ones. Something’s going to have to give. [c.f. Architecture Reductions, Final Reductions!] This time I’m coming at the same problem from a different angle.

One thing we know about the Western lifestyle is that it’s generally not conducted in single buildings for extended multi-generational families as was the Yemeni norm that gave rise to this architecture. With the one staircase serving both as sole access and internal corridor, it would be like a large family living on a hotel typical floor with the doors ajar. Everyone would always know where everyone else was. Still, being able to reallocate rooms to accommodate changes in the composition and or activities of the household did not involve any architectural trauma. This was one of the inspirations behind The Universal Apartment series of proposals. So here’s my first proposal for a mud-brick apartment building for no-carbon times.

  • There’s an open access stairwell at the front, with entries into principal rooms. Internal doors lead to serviced space for kithens and bathrooms, and from there a door leads to the stairs and two or more bedrooms upstairs (and/or downstairs).
  • External walls are 80 cm thick mud-brick, as are the primary cross walls.
  • The floor is 40 cm for now as I’m unsure how to construct it. I’ve made the minimum stair thickness 35 cm for the same reason.

The building has no shafts. I’m liking the Geberit Sovent waste/soil stack system for multi-storey buildings. It’s made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) rather than polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or cast iron. Two will run down the rear wall parallel to the water and electricity conduits.

But what’s been lost in this anti-carbon architecture? What bits of the status-quo weren’t able to be retained?

  • Space. The largest room is 4.9 x 3.2 m. Together with the connected room they form a 31.2 sq.m studio apartment. Using the stairwell to connect to two upstairs bedrooms makes a 72.7 sq.m two-bedroom apartment.
  • Large windows. This is a consequence of the mud brick construction.
  • Spaciousness. Internal openings exist to connect spaces and not to make them “flow into one another”.
  • Flexibility. It’s not possible to change the layout of an apartment beyond the configuration of the kitchens and bathrooms. Walls will not be knocked-through. If using lightweight partition walls is “cheating”, then we’ll need to rethink kitchens and bathrooms without reverting to pre-industrial levels of sanitation.
  • Accessibility. Stairs are machines that allow the human body to lift its own weight without (immediate) external energy input. Stairs have been making buildings of more than one storey possible for millennia. It won’t hurt us to get in some more exercise organically but what of universal access?

In millennia past, those who couldn’t afford to be carried around stayed either bedridden and/or housebound. The lost mechanical functionality of limbs came to be replaced by the external mechanical functionality of wheelchairs and mobility scooters but this required additional external mechanical functionality in the form of ramps and elevators. In a perfect world, bionic limbs would restore the lost functionality at source and everyone could take the stairs.

  • Unconventional. The layout doesn’t affirm the traditional place of the kitchen and nor is there a dining room for entertaining or impressing acquaintances. The age of roasting might be coming to an end. Stir-frying and its bursts of intense heat might not be the answer. We might be approaching the end of the era of carbon cooking.

And for what has all this been done? What’s been gained?

  • It takes about 1,340 cubic metres of mud brick to make this seven-story building. I don’t know how much time or labour it takes to create that volume of mud brick but I do know we won’t need 3D printers to make them or robots to lay them.
  • There’s a company in Australia that will handmake you 375x250x130 mud bricks for AUS$5 each or for $5.40 in winter. This works out at AUS$500,000 (US$350,000) for the building enclosure (or AUS$590,000 in winter). This is probably the high end.
  • There’s the added advantage of being able to block or unblock certain openings to create apartments of.varying sizes and configurations for various types of household and/or ownership and/or tenancy. Giving each apartment independent access is important for allowing multiple ways of using the building at any one time and into the future.
  • Floor efficiency is 84.5% after taking into account the reduced thickness of the upper storey internal walls.
first floor internal areas

All spaces are naturally lit and ventilated but this building is not off-grid. Energy is still required for appliances, hot water, cooking and lighting. Disregarding the soil vent pipes, the building’s sole ornament is two extra windows on the uppermost level.



  • Super-interesting!

    It would be interesting to know more about the building science of the wall systems, although presumably this is no different from the 17th century examples. Maybe some adjustment necessary for increased moisture/water vapour produced by contemporary sanitation habits.

    • Thanks JW! Good point. Plans don’t indicate much in the way of bathrooms. There was a traditional culture of bath houses but I don’t know if this was a luxury or the norm. Possibly the norm as I don’t imagine too much water being hauled up those buildings. I do know that the Yemeni had many different types of renders and collected very fine alluvial silt deposited after flooding to make one that was reasonably waterproof. If supply was irregular and limited, then it was probably used more like grout in conjunction with some sort of tile, than as a coating.

      This reminds me. Back in 2015 I was wondering the same thing. It’s Not Rocket Science: Keeping The Water Out