Magazine — 10.06.21
The Environmentally Friendly Nature Of Traditional Architecture Methods
Words ASHLEY HAJIMIRSADEGHI
If there’s one thing you need to know about architecture in the contemporary era, it’s that every nook and cranny of a building has been carefully designed and plotted out by many individuals. But, as the world is teetering on the brink of a slow environmental decline, buzz words such as “sustainable design” and “environmentally-friendly materials” keep cropping up again and again. There’s something else to this, a hidden key that seems to be right beneath us: the surviving architecture of civilizations that preceded us.
Here’s a quick fact, one that you might not believe: the concept of concrete wasn’t invented until 1824. If there’s something we can observe about surviving Chinese, Roman, and Persian architecture from millennia ago, it is that it has the ability to survive natural disasters, wars, and the death of empires. Our ancestors didn’t have bulldozers, concrete, and “beware of danger” signs that might be a common sight in modern design. The materials they used were natural, coming from the world around them, and were often built by hand.
This was a practice known as vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture is a design that is intended to adapt to the geopolitical environment around the construction zone; if there is no stone, for example, more wood would be used. Where this concept was being utilized across different cultures, it would then differ region by region. Buildings where the local community practiced Islam would then be vastly different from dwellings for Buddhist communities, to facilitate the practice of their respective faiths. The height of a building might be altered based on climate; a taller building wouldn’t need as much heating, but a building with a shorter height would be easier to heat during colder months.
The perfect example of vernacular architecture is present in Iran, formerly known as Persia. Iran has vastly differing environmental climates throughout the country; the northwest is snowy and windy, the south is dry and hot, and the humid and rainy region among the Caspian Sea highlights this great diversity. In the hot regions, a system called Hozkhaneh was created, where buildings were made to circulate wind and trap water, resulting in a cooling area for people to rest. However, in the cold northwest, buildings were designed to trap the heat inside to ensure there were natural systems for warming the home.
Many cultures refrained from Westernization, which introduced newer models of building and construction, until the prominent era of technology emerged. As skyscrapers become more popular across the world, this increases the demand for imported materials, thus creating a logistics and sourcing cycle that is further damaging the environment. By using locally sourced materials and methods, and resisting this cultural shift of homogenous design – one influenced by the rise of technology – less strain is put on the environment.
As observed throughout the world, the concept of a glass skyscraper is code for inefficient energy usage. The United Nations approximates that buildings alone account for 40% of energy usage and roughly one-third of carbon emissions. While this skyscraper may be a status of wealth and prosperity in the 21st century, it’s also an indicator of environmental degradation and inefficiency. Skyscrapers are not intended to accommodate a single environment, especially when they’re primarily made from steel and glass. These buildings require more heating and air conditioning, and glass is an inefficient insulation method for ensuring temperature regulation.
While we look to traditional methods as inspiration for creating and designing buildings, we can also apply modern knowledge to development plans. For example, we can incorporate north-facing windows which we know can reduce the amount of sunlight, while simultaneously using technological methods to figure out the heating and cooling process of an interior environment perfectly. And there are aspects of modern technology that aren’t completely bad—we can develop homes using concrete that are earthquake resistant, for example, that our ancestors had not quite mastered. By interlinking the lessons passed down from us along with new human and technological innovation, we can continue to strive towards building a more sustainable future.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.
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