EU shipping is temporarily suspended

Going Native - A Vision of Sustainable Architecture

Posted on 24 Nov 2017

Dr Sandra Piesik believes that we urgently need to start embracing local building traditions to help protect the environment.

Housing in the Loess Plateau, China. The area encourages architectural adaptations, such as narrow, windproof courtyards with an economical footprint in densely populated areas. [Credit: Arvinshen/]

From turf-covered houses in Iceland to mud-dwellings in Burkina Faso, Dr Sandra Piesik’s illustrated encyclopaedia of traditional architecture looks at the efficiency and sustainability of buildings all over the world. So where does Piesik’s enthusiasm for her subject come from?

How did you first become interested in indigenous building-methods?

Piesik: My interest dates from my time working as an architect in Dubai. I was curious to know more about where I was living. But more than that, I wanted to find the original identity of this place. I knew that the skyscraper I was living in wasn’t it.

I wondered how people survived in this heat for centuries: in the sun the temperature can go up to about 88°C. I joined various history groups and at weekends I’d go exploring. That’s how I found out that in the past Dubai’s buildings were made from date-palm leaves.

This led to my first traditional or, more correctly, vernacular architecture project. I was eager to know more about date-palm leaf building methods and to figure out how to use them today. So I approached various government entities for funding. The result was the ‘Sabla’ palm-leaf shelters. We made a food shelter out of date-palm leaf-arches with a canvas roof. The idea was that similar shelters could be used in social development programs in other, poorer countries with date-palm trees.

A Zulu 'beehive'. They are woven in a dome shape from up to ten different types of grass. [Credit: Photononstop/Superstock]

Can you explain what exactly the term ‘vernacular architecture’ means?

The term ‘vernacular’ simply means native and refers to buildings that have come about from generations observing the surrounding conditions. They are linked to an area’s climate, economic activities and to the available materials. The Bolivian Chipaya people, for instance, use salt mud from the plains to protect from the extreme temperatures of the Altiplano. They also build dykes made out of grass to re-direct the local river.

The real challenge now is to learn how to mix old and new, and to come up with hybrid solutions that work for everybody. For example, figuring out from the older generations how traditional architecture works and then finding a way to adapt it to meet the aspirations of teenagers who have mobile phones and use social media.

So what is wrong with current approaches to world architecture?

There are three inter-linked problems: climate change, globalization and uncontrolled urbanization. When people design buildings in temperate climates and then copy and paste these designs to vastly different areas, you tend to end up with a large carbon footprint and buildings that don’t perform as well as they should.

High CO2 levels lead to climate change and food shortage. This, in turn, can force people out of the country and into the cities. By contrast, when you use local materials and renewable energy you reduce carbon emissions and provide jobs.

That’s not to say there’s no place for western architecture, but just not everywhere.

Miyako City, Japan, following the devastating effects of a tsunami caused by earthquakes. [Credit: KeystoneUSA-ZUM/REX/ShutterStock]

How did Habitat come about?

I was doing a talk at the Royal Geographical Society on my palm-leaf architecture project. Lucas Dietrich, editorial director of Thames & Hudson was there and he asked if I would like to consider doing a similar book covering the entire planet. I happily agreed but also said the book had to be organised in a specific way.

I knew from my time in the Emirates how hard it was explaining a desert climate to architects from Europe. But climate is fundamental to how you build. So I was determined we structure the book according to the world’s climate zones.

I divided the planet into various regions and then started to look for experts for each one. In the end we had 143 contributors from 51 countries with 60 universities affiliated. How we selected the pictures was also critical. We wanted to show people using computers and solar power. This isn’t an historical book – people live in these buildings today. For instance, we have a Mongolian yurt with television and the internet.

Finally, how do think we can go from simply knowing more to changing people’s behaviour?

I think the most important thing is education.  Universities need to teach cross-culture architecture, cross-culture in general. But we all need to work together. Architects need to get out of their disciplinary area and connect to people in other sectors – like industry, city planning and agriculture. If we want to avoid more of this [Piesik holds up a UN leaflet on the effects of climate change] our approach needs to be holistic.

Russ Coffey @


Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet Sandra Piesik