Face to Face: Dr Sandra Piesik

Kim Kemp , July 1st, 2015

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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Piesik said: “We [the design and build team} are absolutely delighted with the completion of The Sabla in Al Ain as it is the first modern date palm leaf building in the Middle East, resurrecting a 7,000 year-old tradition of date palm construction.

“I am also pleased that we managed to provide a hybrid solution in terms of technological innovation and apart from date palm leaf grid structure we are covering our building with a tensile fabric roof.”

This addition comes courtesy of Mehler Texnologies and Ocma Emirates Industries while the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and its local Al Ain Historic Environment Department have also backed the project.

Piesik explained that the development needs to be put into a wider context. She said: “Whether we believe in man-made climate change or are sceptics, global population growth is a fact.

Statistics are telling us that we are overusing this planet’s resources by 1.5 times and some economies such as the USA are overusing finite resources four times over. With the current rate of exploitation of finite natural resources and population growth we need to implement holistic sustainable solutions for the build environment.”

Piesik said: “Desert regions in particular have high temperatures and materials commonly used in a temperate climate – such as concrete, steel and glass – heat up to 50% more than natural materials. This is why where possible, use of natural materials is preferable for thermal comfort and reduction of energy required for cooling.

“I also think that we need to consider economic growth and try to connect construction industry to socio-economic and development issues. Of the global population living in desert regions, 42% is facing poverty. Technologies connected to use of natural materials such as dry palm leaves can create employment.

“The UAE has 1% of arable land. The Middle East has predominately desert eco-systems and through the millennia the use of natural materials, in particular date palm, was also connected to the development of culture in the region.

This lead to technological innovations in passive systems of building cooling, first recorded an estimated 10,000 years ago. Whilst shaping contemporary built environment there is a need to foster cultural continuity of indigenous people of the region.”

She added that although resources are limited by the size of the country, she anticipates that there will be a similar approach to this use of natural resource within Qatar.

“Things are happening there,” she assured and added “we want to initiate projects there as the country is active and open-minded and they are very proactive.”

Currently there are various United Nations agencies addressing issues of climate change. Piesik presented her project in the form of a paper during The UN Convention to Combat Desertification 3rd Scientific Conference held in Cancun, Mexico which was entitled: “Combating Drought, Land Degradation and Desertification for Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development. The Contribution of Science, Technology, Traditional Knowledge and Practices”.

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She also presented a case study titled: “A paradigm of agro-ecosystems of date palm oases understood in the wider context of economic and cultural ecosystems through transfer of knowledge and technology in the desert regions”.

Architects across the world have continued to press for greater sustainability with projects such as Zaha Hadid’s waste plant in Sharjah, Lord Norman Foster’s eco-friendly airport in Mexico and Richard Roger’s recycling plant in New York.

P&T Architects have also been at the forefront of sustainable design – and the firm’s Mahmoud Shahin said the UN adoption of Piesik’s project was a major step forward: “The problem is still that people look at sustainability from an expense point of view and this means recognition of it as an issue by the UN is important, as it becomes an obligation rather than just a design choice.”

But Piesik said still more needs to be done in order to convince local, regional and national authorities that sustainable design is the way forward: “We need long term thinking about the future. Organisations that have a mandate to promote sustainable and cultural development in the region need to offer a framework for implementation of the UN agenda on the ground.

“There are long term economic benefits that can derive from technological innovation and the circular economy model is very much adopted by industries across Europe. I would argue that the Middle East has its own circular economy model developed many thousands of years ago that is worth adopting to modern needs.

“We lack funding for further technology transfer and innovation, despite leading research and development in date palm technologies for the past seven years,” she add a little disconsolately.

“Looking at the picture of Dubai from 1950 with 4,000 palm leaf houses, accommodating 12,000 people, I think that back then recycling of date palm leaves was a grassroots movement, without policies and legislation and it would be great to see the same level of commitment today across all sectors of society on four corners of the world.”

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