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Earth: A building material of the future

If we had to select a year to connect tradition with innovation, 2020 would be an ideal candidate. 2020 is a year of significance in Oman. This year we celebrate 50 years since the beginning of Oman’s Blessed Renaissance. Obviously, it is also a very somber period as the individual who initiated this progress, the late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, passed away earlier this year – May He Rest in Peace. Given both of these events, Oman finds itself at a midway point - looking backwards and forwards, into the past and towards the future.

Fifty years ago, Oman began a path towards modernization, which led to unprecedented changes in lifestyle, mobility, health and the economy. Looking ahead, most of us would agree that in 50 years the country will also look drastically different; especially with the challenges in energy facing us. This includes of course the substance of our building culture which half a century ago was made from mud, stones, palms – resources which were readily available to us. Low-tech materials applied with low-tech means. At that point, the choices in Oman were limited. 

Today, through industrialization and globalization, the availability and convenience of building materials is unprecedented. The influx of goods and services has undoubtedly improved our quality of life. However, the effect of these imports on energy, local craftsmanship, climate-appropriate buildings have many of us realizing that such dependencies cannot be sustained. The need for a local, renewable source of building substance is greater than ever before.

How interesting is it then that we find ourselves returning to the materials of the past, in order to address the challenges of the future. Earth, the material which most defines the architecture of Oman, is being reconsidered as a superior choice for construction. The benefits of this material are numerous and well-documented: including improved indoor air quality, low carbon footprint and 100% recyclability. A closer look at the potential for energy savings is even more significant. Even a 50% substitution of earthen material in residential housing would annually save: 253 million kilowatt hours. At current rates of consumption, that’s enough to sponsor over 5,500 families with free electricity for an entire year.

Oman’s sustainability in construction can be understood in terms of its dependencies. By focusing on both the materials (construction substance) and the makers (construction workers and methods) we can quickly identify multiple areas to improve resilience. Industrializing earth construction presents the opportunity to reduce Oman’s dependencies on:

1. Non-renewable, energy intensive materials: such as cement and concrete 

2. Low-skill, low-wage construction: which impairs craftsmanship and innovation

The possibility of a “parallel industry”, in which highly efficient production and tools are applied to an abundant low-energy material, makes this feasible. 

This new sector also has the potential to attract native Omani employees, by developing wages and skills which encourage their re-integration into the construction industry. This concept forms the foundation of the Earthen Building Initiative (EBI) which aims to create a platform for discussion and exchange between academia, the government and the industry. 

As a first step, the EBI organized an international Symposium on Contemporary Earthen Building, which was held at GUtech recently. The two-day forum brought together international experts in the field of Earthen Building, Inaugurating thesymposium, Prof. Dr. Michael Modigell,Rector of GUtech, stressed importance of the forum in enhancing awareness about the production and the use of more environmental-friendly construction materials as a substitute to cement, the production of which is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions.

Guest presenters included Mr. Nicolas Coeckelberghs, architect and co-founder of BC Materials in Brussels, Belgium. The construction sector, according to Mr. Coeckelberghs, is responsible for one quarter of the total CO2 emissions worldwide, as well as around 30% of the total waste globally. 

He explained the circular aspects of reusing construction excavation as a source for new building products, a concept known as “urban mining”. 

Nicolas’ firm, BC Materials, is a pioneer in Belgium in the production of blocks and plasters from reclaimed soil in the city of Brussels. An estimated 37 million tonnes of earth are excavated every year in Belgium – much of which can be converted to construction material. BC Materials has been organizing workshops in Belgium as well as overseas, notably in communities in Nigeria and Morocco, where local architects and contractors are given insights in the use of reclaimed natural materials for construction activities.

There was also an insightful presentation by Mr. Stephan Jörchel of Dachverband Lehm e.V., (The German Association for Building with Earth). He detailed German regulations 

“ Earth, the material which most defines the architecture of Oman, is being reconsidered as a superior choice for construction.

In place to certify and test earthen products so that they meet construction standards of safety and durability. Commonly known as DIN norms, these can be easily applied to guide such a process of certification in Oman.

In his presentation, Mr. Jörchel showed examples of earthen plaster finish on a wall heating system.


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