A finalist for the Rising Star Award, Egyptian architect and lecturer at the British University of Egypt Dr Deena El-Mahdy shares insight into 3D printing and why it’s the future of construction.
Q&A with Dr Deena El-Mahdy
Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Rising Star Award, Dr Deena El-Mahdy is a lecturer at the British University in Egypt. Having published more than 10 scientific papers, she discusses the importance of sustainable construction techniques and how she’s innovating alternative building materials.
Tell us about your interest in sustainable building.
In early 2012, I attended a digital fabrication workshop that changed my way of thinking. It exposed me to different rules that can be found in nature, and I began studying the behaviour of organisms. Later, I started exploring material sciences and how to reuse and recycle material in a way that decreases waste.
My interest was furthered when I came across biomimicry, which relies on mimicking nature and the way organisms deal with and adapt to their surrounding environment. Through photography I was able to closely analyse insects and discover how they construct their homes and colonies. I studied ants, termites, bees and wasps, and accordingly, my studies started to focus on the sustainable aspects of their building techniques and the materials they use, which are similar to those of vernacular architecture.
Since then, my research has become more focused on additive manufacturing, especially 3D printing, because it allows you to use the least amount of materials needed and generates less waste. I also worked on creating sustainable materials to design new architectural forms. After two years of experimenting with different materials, such as salt, sand, clay, algae, and so on, I created a building block from salt in 2017, which was used in construction in Siwa, a city that historically works with salt to construct their buildings.
What are the different ways you spread awareness about sustainable construction?
Since receiving the Tatweer Misr Innovation Award, I have felt more responsible towards society to find environmental solutions for construction materials, particularly for our arid region. I try to spread awareness in a variety of ways, including the education of my students, publishing articles, public speaking and social media.
Through my position as a lecturer at the British University in Egypt, I always try to integrate interactive techniques to engage the students in workshops where they can be hands on with sustainable materials. This has pushed them to think differently, and has proven that new education methodologies and processes can fill the gap between academia, industry and practice. I have also published a number of scientific papers in journals and conferences related to sustainable building materials and construction techniques.
I have spoken publicly about my interests, participated in public panel discussions and lectured for different entities including UIC, Fab Conference, Maker Fair, TedXYouth and Fab Lab. I have also worked as a volunteer with Hand Over and Takween Integrated Community on different projects that apply the rammed earth construction technique. I also use photography to document and raise awareness of heritage sites.
And while this is not directly related, we created a group on Facebook titled ‘Workshop Finders’ in 2013 to share information on different competitions, workshops, conferences, summer and winter schools, scholarships and events related to our field locally and globally. During the last six years, more than 6,500 members from different countries have participated in the published vacancies.
Tell us about the different building materials you’ve created.
The various workshops that I have participated in have given me the opportunity to work with new tools and explore different design methodologies and advanced manufacturing techniques. I work with advanced technologies such as the 3D printer, binder jetting, the ink-jet printer, robotic assembly, the kuka arm, and compression soil blocks machines. With these tools, I have been able to experiment with new building materials that use sand, salt, earth, algae and wood.
In 2017, I made a salt-block through 3D printing. That same year, I also created ‘Peanut Tiles’ – a surface material consisting of peanut shell grains and a new composite binder.
In 2018, I worked with algae as a filament for 3D printing and I fabricated hollow nodal joints that can be aggregated into larger structures under the supervision of DDU. The algae project won me a place among the finalists for the Atelier Luma Algae Lab Competition, and it was presented in different exhibitions around the world including the Istanbul Biennial.
Your salt-block gained a lot of recognition. Can you tell us about it?
Salt is a natural mineral that has been used as a traditional building material for centuries, especially in Siwa, where they mix clay with salt rock sourced from the natural salt-lakes found there. I visited Siwa in 2016, and found that this building material, called Karshief, is being replaced by concrete, limestone and other industrial materials.
I spoke with the local residents, and many mentioned that they still prefer Karshief, especially for the winter because of its good thermal insulation; however, they want their buildings constructed with more durable materials such as concrete, fired bricks and limestone. Additionally, only the old, skilled labourers know the art of Karshief.
So, I tried to solve this by reviving this material with 3D printing and enable the local community to use the same material but in a new way. The result met their demands: it has the same thermal qualities as the traditional salt block, but it’s more durable. Salt and sand were both available onsite to generate the blocks, and merging the new additive technique allowed for an alternative prototype with different geometry. The salt-block also recorded very good compression strength and it is two times lighter than the fired brick.
You’ve also created a business model for building a home in 24 hours – can you share more information?
Buildings are responsible for consuming 40 to 50 percent of the global carbon emission all over the world. The main vision behind my project was to use 3D printing in construction for a more sustainable environment.
Considering the increased investment in Egypt, we need to look at resources and materials that are locally available instead of importing materials, which will consume a lot of energy.
I won the Tatweer Misr Innovation Award in 2018 because of my business model: ‘3D printing the construction waste’. Shortly after, I was awarded an internship with Sheraa Incubator in Sharjah, where I developed the full business model for building a home in 24 hours.
The project uses local building material, sourced from the site, and new 3D printing, Delta WASP and binders that allow the printing of walls directly on site. The materials can be recycled without creating any waste much faster and cheaper than traditional construction.
Compared to other available options, the cost of building with a 3D printer is 30 to 55 percent less than traditional construction. The competitive advantages of 3D printing material can be seen in the mechanical and physical properties of the salt-block, which is similar to the fired bricks in compression strength, but lighter. Financially, up-scaling 3D printing is one of the main issues that needs to be tackled in order to print walls directly on site.
Tell us about Cairo Heritage School.
We established Cairo Heritage School (CHS) five years ago to try to bridge the gap between governmental bodies, professionals, students and community members in order to understand the complex processes and patterns of transformation that Cairo faces. The changes that occur on our heritage sites and in our built environment are causing a different typology where some buildings are being replaced with new ones. This is what sparked our initiative.
CHS is a key platform for sustainable interventions that address the preservation of our heritage and the revitalisation of Cairo. CHS aims to participate in developing the culture of urban research and design that enables us to anticipate future urban scenarios so that we can act accordingly through interdisciplinary cooperation to reach practical solutions.
This is done through our research projects and workshops, where two international summer schools were held: the adaptive reuse and urban design of Madrasa of Al-Salhiya in 2019 and the adaptive reuse of Bayt El-Qadi in 2016, which were held in collaboration with ministries, governmental and private sectors, universities, as well as funded agencies.
During the workshops, design proposals are developed that present different methodologies for working on heritage buildings. As the workshops are held in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities, the final proposals are presented to the ministry.
What are you working on now?
I will continue trying to fill the gap between academia and practice, highlighting the important role of new manufacturing tools in our digital age.
I am trying to establish a collaborative design laboratory that can boost the economy and put the MENA region on the map. This laboratory or hub would examine the transfer between material sciences and design strategies in construction and production, where collaboration and digital fabrication are involved in the teaching methodology and research activity. I’m also working on building and up-scaling a 3D printing machine that can build directly on site using locally available materials mixed with binder.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Dr Deena El-Mahdy is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.