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Discovering a green building oasis in the heart of the desert

Exploring Egypt’s momentum for a more sustainable built environment

A blog by Mohammad Asfour, Head of MENA and Africa Regional Networks, WorldGBC

Back in November, I was invited by the Egypt Green Building Council (EgyptGBC) to speak at the Arab Sustainable Development Week in Cairo. With a population of nearly 100 million people, Egypt has the highest number of inhabitants in the MENA region and the 3rd highest in Africa.

Like others in the region, the country is facing severe water and energy challenges, instigating Egypt’s government to develop its 2030 vision in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. For example, the country aims to increase its share of renewable energy to 42% by 2035, and ensure sustainable water resource management is prioritised.

During the event, I had the opportunity of attending the announcement of the first building to ever be certified by EgyptGBC under their new TARSHEED rating tool. Of course, Egypt’s ancient civilisation is a testament to its successful practice of sustainable methods.

EgyptGBC Vice President and Co-Founder, Karim Farah, explained:

“To achieve our vision, and to drive this market’s transformation, the only way was to develop our own rating system. We took all of the complexities and turned them into a simple rating system that is easy to understand”. 

Later, I got in touch with Sarah El Battouty, lead architect and Chair and Founder of ECOnsult, to learn more about the project. She explained that the owners of Royal Herbs had always valued sustainable practices and implemented them whenever possible. These practices earned them their GAP certificate.

However, when Sarah took the 450 km journey to visit their farm, she realised that workers would arrive at the beginning of the day, receive their dues and leave by the end of the day. It consumed a great deal of fuel to transport them 100 km back and forth every day. This hand to mouth situation in addition to the transportation costs were major issues facing Royal Herbs. Therefore, when ECOnsult was hired they suggested constructing residential buildings for the workers. Not only did this reduce transportation costs and emissions, but also had a positive impact  on the health and wellbeing of the workers.

One of the project’s highlights is its approach to energy – all air conditioning devices were removed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But how did this happen? Well, the sophisticated passive design of the building (i.e. building orientation, wall thickness, exterior colour, and ventilation) increased its ability to remain 8-10 degrees cooler in summer and warmer in the winter.

The eco-village consists of three sustainable buildings which all differ in terms of their savings. The workers’ housing saves up to 58% on energy and 53% on water, while the guest house saves up to 63% on energy and 36% on water, and the engineers’ residence saves up to 61% on energy and 50% on water.

On the community aspect, this was the first project in the area where workers, guests, and engineers lived in close proximity to one another. This creates a stronger sense of community. Because a rating tool doesn’t mean much unless the inhabitants apply the right principles in their daily lives, staff members were trained to implement sustainable practices appropriate for the region’s climate, whilst also strengthening existing local sustainable practices. This shows the importance of having end-users connected to the green buildings they work and live in, which has also proven to increase their levels of satisfaction and productivity.

When I asked Sarah about the challenges she faced, they were significant but not insurmountable. From cultural barriers to lack of internet access on site, to sudden flash floods, extreme wind, heat, dust storms, insects, and snakes, there have been bumps along the way. But despite these obstacles, the experience still turned out to be worthwhile.

I am inspired by Sarah’s green building oasis. She created a sustainable, rural “Green Farm Village” that resulted in a healthier, greener and happier community. She did this by encouraging the use of locally-sourced materials and techniques, employing local people, and deploying local management.

Sarah El Battouty is a fourth-generation, Egyptian architect. She received her degree from the University of Cambridge. In 2013, she founded ECOnsult which was the first company in Egypt to combine environmental and architectural consulting with a vision to: “introduce green building and environmental strategies into the region, challenging the status quo of the housing sector and the construction industry to save energy and water and navigate responsiveness to climate change”.