Nature’s Architecture | WWF
© Hartmut Jungius / WWF
Saman Samee Khan writes about the need to adopt sustainable building materials and methods in architecture.

Nature’s Architecture

We all know how our planet is on the brink of destruction. Climate change is causing frequent natural disasters and we face a serious energy crisis. These are not just the issues that Pakistan faces but the entire world is batting with them today, and they have put us all in a very critical position of extreme responsibility, individually as well as collectively. We have all watched documentaries such as The Eleventh Hour, An Inconvenient Truth and A Beautiful Planet, to name a few. Along with this new awareness, we have come to hear about sustainability, green buildings, environmentally responsible practices… it's all the rage these days, the buzz words, but sadly, more or less limited to the developed world. Unfortunately, Pakistan is behind the curve in this area. However, our architectural history is filled will examples of how building according to our natural environment helps our lifestyle. We just need to match new developments in the field with lessons history teaches us.

Classic building designs generally concern themselves with economy and utility, putting aside the need for environment friendly methods, practices and building designs. The idea of sustainability, in a purely architectural context, uses natural and renewable materials and practices in building processes in order to minimize the impact on the natural environment. Energy efficiency in the entire life cycle of the building, through better site use, design, construction, operation, and maintenance and lastly the removal of structures, is the single most important goal of sustainable architecture. The environmental, economic and health benefits we stand to reap are immediate, far reaching and global. In simpler words, small is beautiful, heat with the sun, let nature cool your food, be energy efficient, conserve water, use local and natural materials, manage waste, save forests, recycle materials, build to last, grow your food and share the facilities.

Talking about building materials, steel, cement, brick, glass, aluminum and plastics are all energy intensive construction materials, commonly used for building construction all over the world. More sensible and environmentally responsible substitutes are renewable and recycled materials like timber, limestone, straw bales, bamboo, recycled steel and aluminum, structural and vacuum insulated panels and more recently, hempcrete and plant-based polyurethane foam, etcetera.

A popular misconception is that sustainable architecture and living is expensive. A recent research on green building costs and financial benefits titled, Occupant Satisfaction with Indoor Environmental Quality in Green Buildings, showed that green buildings are cheaper in the long run, as they help conserve energy, reduce water loss, reduce emissions and other wastes. Operational and maintenance costs are also cut down, while leading to savings in productivity and health benefits. So when all costs are considered, green buildings are cheaper as compared to conventional buildings.

In Pakistan, roughly 50 per cent of electricity is consumed for domestic purposes. Our country has amazing potential to utilize renewable energy resources. We receive almost 300 days of sunlight, major rivers run across the length of the country, wind energy along the coast can be harnessed, and lastly, being an agricultural country, cow dung can also be used to produce energy.

In Pakistan, we use some sustainable practices, albeit subconsciously, but they are part of our culture. For example, in rural areas, mud structures are very common. In the northern areas, people reuse and recycle construction materials many times, due to the geography and inaccessibility of most areas. Since buildings are made keeping in mind the area’s topography and the materials used are locally available, it helps reduce the building impact on the environment. What we need to work on is proper sewage treatment and water conservation in rural areas. Pakistan lacks proper education, laws and building codes for energy conservation and this issue has been taken up by a non-profit organization, Pakistan Green Building Council (Pakistan GBC) which is the only organization in the country advocating, promoting, and developing Pakistan specific green guidelines and certifying sustainable building practices and products, according to their website. Another noteworthy body working in the environmental sector is Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan (STFP), which has ongoing projects to minimize the carbon footprint all over the country.

Having been a student of architecture in the past and running a construction and interior design company along with my husband, we have come to recognize the problems that we, as a nation face, starting from a severe water and energy crisis to the heartbreaking state of some of the most beautiful and, what used to be, untouched and undamaged regions of our country. We have planned residential and commercial buildings and communities in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, specifically aimed at tourism in the province. Researching the new sustainable materials and building methods, we have developed ideas that suit the topography of the area and lifestyle of locals. These include eco-domes (made and distributed in Pakistan), cob houses and straw bale construction. Aiming to work with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Development Corporation, we plan and hope to play our part in the huge task that is before all of us: protecting the environment for future generations.

After all, this one planet is all we have. "A hundred years after we are gone and forgotten, those who never heard of us will be living with the results of our actions.”  - Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Saman Samee Khan is co-founder at Bowerbirds CCID, a design and construction company based in Lahore