Sustainable Living (Sustainable Architecture in Syria)

While far from widespread, eco-friendly architecture is beginning to pop up around Syria. It can play an important role in covering the country’s skyrocketing demand for energy.

As Syria runs out of oil and faces ever-mounting pressure on its water and electricity supplies, its growing interest in energy-efficient architecture comes as no surprise. Indeed, experts argue that pursuing eco-friendly buildings that consume less energy and water and reduce pollution is no longer a luxury for Syria. Rather, it is a must.

“Efforts to promote sustainable architecture are very important on a global scale, but they are particularly significant in Syria where natural resources are scarce, energy is expensive to produce and consume and pollution is a major health hazard,” Manaf Hammami, a Syrian architect based in Dubai, said.

While today’s ubiquitous concrete apartment block – along with the country’s building code – pays little attention to energy efficiency or the natural environment, this was not always the case. Syria’s Islamic architectural heritage is a green one, with traditional construction methods and materials carefully selected to work with the natural environment instead of against it, producing houses which were naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

“Islamic architecture in Syria used to be green, paying close attention to the orientation of the house, insulation and natural ventilation, among other things,” Firas Shuman, director of the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility, said.

Individual endeavours

For Syria’s architecture to be green again, large-scale investment in sustainable architecture is needed. Apart from a few large projects, however, eco-friendly buildings in Syria are mostly individual endeavours that depend on expensive renewable-energy sources such as solar power for heating water and generating electricity and grey water recycling systems. Fully incorporating green-building standards into the design of a building is still rare.

At present, the high costs associated with sustainable architecture scares investors away, Houssam Hamwi, head of the project management unit at Massar, an eco-friendly Children’s Discovery Center under construction in the centre of Damascus, said.

“While sustainable buildings are more expensive than concrete-block buildings currently used in Syria, in the long run they pay off,” Hamwi said. “Investors, however, want a quick profit. They aren’t interested in the long-term financial benefits of sustainable buildings or their effect on the environment.”

The lack of local experience and professionals in the field of eco-design is yet another cause of concern among those trying to promote eco-friendly architecture in the country.

“Syrian expertise in sustainable architecture is based on individual initiatives,” Hamwi said. “We need governmental support to develop and encourage eco-design and push investors to finance eco-friendly projects.”

Furthermore, subsidised energy prices and the lack of public environmental awareness mean few people feel the need to save energy, making public demand for sustainable housing in Syria low. Individual efforts are, however, taking shape.

“While visiting Syria I’ve been commissioned to design two houses on a large plot of land outside the city of Aleppo,” Hammami said. “My client is very interested in building a home that not only satisfies his comforts and needs, but is also based on the principles of sustainable design. He wants his house to serve as a prototype for future developments in the area.”

Sustainable architecture

In an attempt to promote sustainable architecture in Syria, the General Company for Engineering Studies and Consulting (GCEC), the General Institute for Housing (GIH) and the National Energy Research Centre (NERC) partnered with the EU to build 18 eco-friendly apartment blocks in the Damascus suburb of Qudssia. The five-storey blocks are part of the New Youth Residential Complex, consisting of some 12,600 flats in total. The complex is due to be finished by 2013.

To make the residential complex eco-friendly, architects used double glazing, thermal insulation, glazed stairwells to enhance natural cross ventilation, solar water and space heating and energy-efficient lighting technology. As a result, residents are expected to reduce their energy bills by 80 percent for hot-water heating and 50 percent for heating and cooling their apartments. No wonder then that up to 1,200 young, low-income Syrians have already applied for apartments.

“Reducing energy consumption is a significant economic benefit to our country, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heating or cooling devices,” Safwan al-Assaf, general director of the GCEC, said.

Assaf said the project was first presented to the EU after studies were carried out comparing comfort levels in traditional Arabic houses in the Old City of Damascus with modern houses.

“The results persuaded the team to promote the advantages of traditional building methods in old Damascus and to rediscover design measures from the past,” Assaf said. “The overall energy concept is based on passive building design measures combined with new energy-efficient technologies and the use of renewable energies.”

Other initiatives being undertaken include the opening of an eco-friendly park in Damascus complete with exhibition space and a conference room by the local NGO Friends of Damascus, together with the Fije Water Directorate and the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility. The park incorporates a grey water recycling system for watering its spaces. Erfan el-Bezreh, head of the park’s executive committee, said similar projects are planned for other spaces throughout the capital.

Change is also being mandated from the top. Last month the government held the country’s first national conference on green architecture. It is also reviewing the country’s national building codes to regulate and enforce stricter standards on design and the use of insulation. While still a work in progress, the aim is to introduce and enforce codes which help reduce the consumption of energy by keeping houses and buildings warmer during the winter and cooler in the summer.

“Syria is heading in the right direction, but it’s not fast enough,” Hamwi said. “With the international economic crisis at our heads, sustainable architecture in no longer a need, it’s a must.”

BUILDING IT GREEN
Sustainable architecture focuses on using environmentally-conscious design techniques in the field of architecture. Broadly speaking, sustainable architecture seeks to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings by enhancing efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy and development space.From a design point of view, sustainable architecture takes into account the climate a building is being constructed in and its orientation, seeking to produce a naturally cool space in the warmer months and a naturally warm space in the cooler months. From a materials point of view, an energy-efficient building needs to be well constructed, sealed and insulated, with energy-efficient doors and windows. Solar hot water heating systems and energy-efficient lightbulbs and appliances can also greatly reduce a building’s energy consumption.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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