Chinese Museum of Art
While modern construction technologies have propelled us to build impressive structures at unprecedented heights and speeds, ancient monuments stand as a testament to the remarkable construction techniques employed centuries ago. In fact, many of these ancient innovations continue to shape modern construction practices, with the Roman invention of concrete being a prime example. Other notable ancient techniques, such as arches and vaulting, have transcended mere functionality and are now celebrated as stylistic elements, seen in contemporary designs like the Opera House. However, the true value of ancient construction methods lies in their sustainability, offering an alternative to energy-intensive modern techniques.
Sustainable Reinventions of Ancient Materials and Techniques
The Great Wall of China
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the use of ancient materials and construction techniques, driven by the need for sustainable solutions. One such example is Cement Stable Rammed Earth (CSRE), a new type of rammed earth construction that enhances the sustainability of traditional ceramics. By mixing soil, water, and cement, CSRE significantly increases the strength of the material on large scales. The use of local soil in CSRE substantially reduces the environmental impact caused by transporting other construction materials. Moreover, CSRE is cost-effective, making it an ideal option for affordable housing. Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology has explored the application of CSRE in rural communities, while the Western Australia Department of Housing has investigated its use in remote indigenous communities.
Modern Great Wall in Western Australia using clay technique
Similarly, Ancient Egyptian Nubian vaulting is experiencing a revival in Sahelian Africa, particularly during the region’s housing crisis. Rapid population growth and deforestation have made it challenging to continue using traditional brushwood and thatch roofs. Importing corrugated iron sheets has proven to be costly and unsustainable. Nubian vaults, a construction technique that involves building domes from dried mud blocks, offer a sustainable solution using local materials and eliminating the need for wood. The Association of Nubian Vaulting (AVN) has trained locals in this technique, recognized in the 2016 World Habitat Awards.
The Nubian tunneling technique was used in the ruins of Ayn Asil
CobBauge, a sustainable building material, has also garnered attention in recent years. The cob mixture of soil and fiber, such as straw, has been used for centuries in English and French house construction. However, due to its weaker thermal and structural properties, it has struggled to meet modern building standards. The University of Plymouth has been studying new cob mixes that comply with building regulations, enabling contemporary architects to embrace this material. These new cob mixes, made from local soils, have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions and construction waste.
The dougong technique used in the Japanese temple of Todai-ji
However, the value of ancient construction materials and techniques extends beyond sustainability. For instance, the dougong system, a timber framing technique that supported cantilevered eaves without the use of nails, continues to be reinvented for various structural and aesthetic purposes. Contemporary architects like Kengo Kuma and He Jingtang have embraced the dougong system, creating unique designs that blend tradition and innovation. The Café Kureon and the China Museum of Art stand as testaments to the enduring possibilities offered by the ancient dougong technique.
Kureon Cafe – Kengo Kuma
Reinventing the Past for a Sustainable Future
As the field of architecture grapples with the challenges posed by the current climate crisis, innovators are turning to the past for successful and sustainable alternatives to contemporary construction methods. While most of these techniques have been applied on a small scale using local materials, there is potential for their application in larger structures. Embracing ancient techniques is not a step backward, but rather a forward-looking approach towards a more environmentally conscious future.
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