An initiative that promotes earth construction techniques, BENAA Habitat hopes to spread awareness of alternative construction methods that could aid in the development of rural areas across Egypt.
Q&A with BENAA Habitat
Egyptian architecture enterprise BENAA Habitat strives to promote the advantages of earth construction techniques to serve the needs of communities across Egypt in ways that respond to current challenges, such as climate change and fluctuating economies. Here, the team speaks on its hope to spread awareness of sustainable and alternative building methods.
How did BENAA Habitat start?
In 2015, heavy rainfall occurred across Egypt and damaged a lot of buildings, which left many wounded or dead. By European standards it wasn’t much, but our local media called it a flood due to the damage it caused in underdeveloped rural areas and the number of casualties. In response, a group of young, talented architects and engineers came together through Facebook.
We have different backgrounds – some of us are architects, others are civil or mechanical engineers, and the rest are urban planners, but we have one thing in common: we want to help people. Our initial scope was emergency housing for people whose homes were damaged by the flooding. We volunteered to study the situation together. However, our research showed that the problem wasn’t the natural disaster, rather it was the poor housing conditions that couldn’t withstand the rain, so we shifted our focus to sustainable rural development and we started our initiative BENAA Habitat in March 2016 as a part of BENAA Foundation.
We are constantly learning and evolving our thoughts and methodologies about sustainable architecture as a whole. A pivotal moment has been meeting our mentor, architect Adel Fahmy, an expert of earth construction with over 40 years of experience both locally and internationally. He taught us a lot and continues to guide and support us as a member of our advisory board. After two years of extensive research and development, as well as prototyping, we officially launched BENAA Habitat as a social enterprise in November 2018.
Today, the team has 20 members, 15 of which are architects, and includes Ahmed Abdel Kareem, Ahmed Sayed Galal, Amira Motawea, Aya Tarek, Huda Younis, Kareem Khaled, Kareem Raafat, Mayson Sawan, Mohamed Ameer, Mostafa Gouda, Omneya Ahmed, Omneya Mostafa, Osama Rashad and Rasha Emad.
What do you hope to achieve through Benaa Habitat?
Using earth construction techniques creates cheaper, pollutant-free and energy-efficient buildings. Our ultimate goal is to make sustainable architecture and earth construction mainstream; to educate society about the possibility of a greener, more cost-efficient construction industry and provide a feasible alternative that is suitable for all levels of society.
We also hope that by training young professionals, we will create a foundation for the next generation of architects that allows them to recognise and implement earth construction techniques, materials and solutions more readily.
With Egypt now investing a lot into development, rapid urbanisation is happening across the country. How does BENAA Habitat hope to contribute to that process?
Being at the heart of the government’s economic agenda as a growth driver, the construction sector is booming; however, economic reform by removal of fuel subsidies has led to soaring costs of production of energy-intensive industries such as construction. Construction firms are simultaneously faced with a massive pipeline of work and the prospect of bankruptcy due to increased costs.
Common construction materials and techniques are also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the USGBC, the construction sector contributes 23 percent of air pollution,50 percent of climatic change and 40 percent of worldwide energy use. We hope to contribute by providing a cheaper, more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient alternative of construction.
Another problem is the underdevelopment of 70 percent of rural communities in Egypt, which lie below the poverty line despite the increased funding going towards their upgrade. We provide, in partnership with BENAA Foundation, integrated solutions for rural areas within BENAA Rural Development Program (BRD). Through BRD, we work on infrastructure, housing upgrade, public space interventions and constructing needed service buildings, such as schools, mosques and community centres. We also build water stations, post harvesting facilities and SWM centres that cater to BRD’s other activities.
Our mission is to create sustainable human settlements through environmentally responsible, low-cost architecture. We are committed to finding innovative sustainable design and construction solutions using natural materials.
What are some of BENAA’s biggest accomplishments to date?
We have designed and built mosques in Giza and Fayoum, housing for labours and storage at El Dabaa Corridor Farm, and residential units in Helwan. These have incorporated the use of rammed earth walls, natural limestone foundations, and domed and vaulted ceilings, as well as stone work and earth plastering. We have also designed projects for international competitions, such as a school in Tanzania and a school in Iraq’s marshlands.
At the moment, we are working on innovative design and construction solutions for upgrading rural houses and improving the living conditions of their inhabitants. We have upgraded 33 houses to date.
What have been some of BENAA’s biggest challenges?
One of the major challenges we face is the lack of awareness across most sectors of the market regarding the importance of sustainable development. We address this issue through online and offline awareness campaigns as well as theoretical and hands-on training that’s available to the public. Also, every building we create becomes a model for alternative construction techniques, which helps increase social acceptance.
We also face the challenge of currency inflation. Even though we use raw materials from beneath our feet for production, currency inflation still affects us indirectly through the cost of labour. The cost of skilled labour becomes increasingly expensive and to mitigate this risk we constantly train new labour. In doing so we are providing new job opportunities for some of our beneficiaries in the rural upgrade project. Also, having the community members participate in the construction of their houses as a form of training gives them a sense of pride and ownership over their homes.
Why do you find techniques of earth construction so relevant and important?
We use natural materials, environmental design and neo-vernacular construction techniques to reduce emissions both during construction and throughout the building’s lifecycle. Compared to mainstream buildings, we save up to 40 percent on initial construction cost and 60 percent on the cost of operations (energy). Instead of using fired red bricks and cement, we use stabilised compressed earth blocks (SCEB), made primarily from inorganic subsoil, non-expansive clay and aggregate, and we use a natural chemical binder such as lime to stabilise it. It is then compressed using a mechanical press. The mortar used to bind them is made of the same stabilised soil and clay mix instead of cement.
After two years of research and development, the compression strength of our SCEB meets or exceeds that of typical bricks, as well as local and international building codes for earth construction. We have used them in constructing several buildings and are looking to scale both material production and construction.
Tell us about your workshops and training programmes.
We offer workshops and training programmes about earth construction and natural finishing techniques. The topics of the workshops include compressed earth blocks (CEB) building technique, rammed earth building technique, domes and vaults building technique, and natural finishing techniques.
Our workshops are 30 percent theoretical and 70 percent hands-on (on site) in a real, ongoing project. This format helps workshop participants understand the effectiveness of eco-environmental materials used in architecture and their impact on the community and environment.
We train architecture, civil engineering and construction students, graduates and young professionals, as well as anyone who is enthusiastic and passionate about earth construction and vernacular architecture. We also train interns from different nationalities in an agreement we have with AIESEC and GUC.
We also currently provide training and workshops to educate students in partnership with several universities such as Mansoura University, Tanta University, MSA University, the American University in Cairo, and TU-Berlin in Germany.
Are you working on anything now that you can share with us?
We are working on a community school and mosque in a village in Fayoum; BENAA rural housing development, which aims to create an integrated model for the typical rural village; and a farm residence at Wadi El Natroun.
A brief description on our ongoing projects can be found here:
A community school in Fayoum: This project is being done in partnership with Azmi Foundation and BENAA Foundation. It’s part of a school and foster homes programme that aims to create educational environments with high impact on the communities in rural areas of Egypt, especially for children who don’t have access to elementary education.
BENAA rural housing development: Another programme in partnership with BENAA Foundation, this programme aims to create an integrated model for the typical rural village, and to maximise the potential use of the resources available in the targeted villages. Some of its activities are the rehabilitation and improvement of housing construction and architectural finishes, as well as the development of public spaces, like children’s play areas. We have upgraded 33 houses in Fayoum and we have constructed two playgrounds for children in Ayat, Guiza.
Mosque in a village in Fayoum: We are about to start the construction phase of a mosque in a village in Fayoum, which we have designed. There is only one mosque in this village, and it is 70m2 and has cracks all over the walls due to settlement in its foundations. We are going to construct a new, bigger mosque to replace the old one, which will have a place for women (which the old one lacked). The new mosque will also reuse the stone of the old mosque in some areas.
Farm residence at Wadi el Natroun: We started the construction phase of a residential project that we have designed. Instead of concrete, we are using compressed earth blocks (CEB) for the building’s walls and ceilings and natural stone for its foundation.