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Face to Face: Dr Sandra Piesik

by Kim Kemp on Jul 1, 2015

Dr Sandra Piesik uses plant material for building sustainable structures.
Dr Sandra Piesik uses plant material for building sustainable structures.

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Designer, architect Dr Sandra Piesik, presented her ideas to a summit conference held in Mexico during which the world body officially endorsed her approach to building, using date palm material. Specific attention was given to a project in the oasis city of Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, which is known as The Sabla, or Food Shelter.

The building provides storage and facilities for traders to sell perishable fruit, animal produce and vegetables, even in the hottest climate. It has been designed by Piesik and her company, 3 ideas, with assistance from structural engineers at the London office of BuroHappold.

The method utilises palm leaves, which up to recent times were used extensively in the region “but now, sadly, is put into landfill”, says Piesik.

Each shelter comprises a palm leaf arch structure with fabric covering. It is the result of a six-year research and development program which was set up to demonstrate that using traditional materials and modern techniques can deliver cost effective, quick, environmentally sustainable solutions to social development projects in economically challenged regions.

The designers carried out extensive research in the structural use of palm leaves and constructed trial structures, prior to designing the arched gridshell frame.

As well as using traditional materials, the design has been modified by developing a technique to bundle the palm leaves together. They are then lapped to form long circular-shaped sections which can be curved into arched profiles to form the arched structure.

UK-based Piesik said "There are a number of benefits to local communities using these simple structures. They use free, readily available, date palm leaves, usually a wasted agricultural by-product.

“For 7,000 years this material was used in the region and is now landfilled, so the material is no longer in economic circulation. The goal is to bring it back to economic circulation through diverse applications such as housing, in combination with other technology and materials, ideally hybrid solutions,” she adds. The material can even be a product as it is fibrous, utilised in much the same manner as the multiple uses that bamboo is put to today.

“The structures are simple to erect by hand without the need for machinery on site, they leave no lasting residue as the tensile fabric can be reused and the leaves are of course biodegradable, while the skill-set to create the shelters are widely available locally.

“In addition, the potential for adaption of the design and its uses is wide. As well as storage these gridshell forms can also be used for education, healthcare, communal and other buildings wherever an abundance of the natural building material grows.”

The end result is a modular grid shell construction of nine 8m x 8m modules which provides a total shaded area of over 600m². In order to modernise traditional aesthetics and foster continued use of date palm leaf (known in some regions of the GCC as Arish), a tensile roof fabric covering was added.

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