Essay

Anna Heringer is honorary professor of the UNESCO Chair of Earth and Architecture Building Cultures and Sustainable Development. She’s been actively involved in development cooperation projects in Bangladesh since 1997, and has realised further projects in Asia, Africa and Europe. She teaches at various universities, including ETH Zurich, UP Madrid, TU Munich and Harvard GSD.

Anna Heringer: Investing in people

This article is excerpted from a lecture in the LSA’s November Talks series of 2020. These were supported by the Sto Foundation, which has been promoting student education world-wide for 15 years.

Architecture is a tool to improve lives, a very powerful tool that confers on architects a lot of responsibility to use it carefully. Unfortunately, architecture is also a tool to destroy lives and the environment so we must use it sensitively and wisely.

I once led my students on a study trip at end of October. It was pretty cold in the Austrian mountains. At three o’clock in the afternoon, I surprised them with the news that there was no hotel or other accommodation booked for the night. The challenge was to build your own shelter with whatever you could find. It was really damp and cold, but a wonderful learning experience — that there are a lot of resources given to us by nature for free. All we need is the sensitivity to notice those resources and the creativity to use them.

At 19, I found myself in a similar situation. I went to a remote Bangladeshi village called Rudrapur to learn about development work. I had a wonderful teacher, the Deepshikha NGO. From them I learnt that the most resilient and effective strategy for development is always to study closely the available resources and make the best of them without depending on external factors.

Seven years later, I am bringing this philosophy into architecture. For materials, I didn’t have to look far, they were right under my feet: the mud, dirt, clay, and bamboo that was growing around. For me, local materials are essential to every project.

I also look for local energy sources. Human energy is a major one. As alternative energies, we always think of solar, wind and so on. But human energy is a growing source. There are more than seven billion people on the planet; if we don’t use this resource, we create a social problem because people need employment. So, for the METI school project in Bangladesh, local workers all came from the village and the neighbouring communities.

And we had water buffaloes as fantastic mixing machines. They mixed straw, water and mud for the building’s walls, a very basic and traditional building method the locals are familiar and skilled with. We just introduced straw as a reinforcement in the wall mix and foundations.

The school used load-bearing earth walls for the ground floor. Above was bamboo that filters in daylight, so the school becomes a beautiful symbol of education as enlightenment empowering the young.

The ground floor classrooms retain the tradition of students sitting directly on the ground. Then, entered through a hole in the back wall are ‘cave rooms’ for more solitary and sensual pursuits. The client’s brief was for a building where with the children feel well and joyful. In response I tried to remember the places I loved as a kid. In them, most of especially, I felt protected, which is what tried to instil here. Yet they still have a good connection to the classroom. Whenever children feel angry or sad they can grab a book and sit in the cave and escape.

The top floor is more like a tree house, it gives an overview of the whole area. For many children, it’s the only building encountered in the in the village — or all their lives —  with such a commanding overview.

The children all signed their names in Bengali around the doors, and rightfully so because they built school. Every afternoon they came to site and worked with us, with the mud. Of course, you cannot do this with every material, but mud is an extremely inclusive material. We put everyone to work: young, old, people with disabilities.

For me mud is socially very sustainable. Everyone wants to feel useful and needed. For the kids, it was a fantastic experience to be part of the construction. You can imagine how it feels for a small girl or boy at the end standing in front of that school building. They can say ‘I made this using just my hands and the dirt beneath my feet’. That just gives an enormous and important boost to their confidence in themselves – and in the team and local building materials and resources available.

Mud has a bad image and is thought not to be durable. This isn’t true. If you follow certain rules, it can last hundreds of years. The first rule is a good foundation and the second rule is a good roof so to protect the walls from water. The third rule is erosion control. Rocks and trees slow the speed of water running down a hill slope. It’s the same with facades, you make ‘speed breakers’, which can be lines of bricks or mortar, or in this case, bamboo shingles, which all slow the pace of water running down the facade. Then, at a micro level, in the mix of the mud itself, you must have some rough ingredients, such as stones or straw, to slow down the water. That’s all that is needed to keep the wall strong. Built in 2005, the walls have seen many rainy seasons and are doing well.

Throughout the whole project, no cement was used except in the foundations. For me, it’s very important not to change the earth. Mud is a fantastic because it’s the only material you can take from the ground and use pretty much straight away. Then you can recycle as much as you want without any loss of quality. You can return it to the ground and plant your garden on top. Why would you harm to this natural cycle? I would never add something in the walls to change the material. What we need to change are the tools and techniques to scale up the processes and ensure economic sustainability.

Wonderful for me was living in the village. Often in the evening I would go by bicycle with the workers to the local markets, and I could see how they spent the money just earned in daily wages for building. The building budget was immediately invested in vegetables produced by their neighbours. Or in a new haircut in the local market. So, the project was  not only a school building, but also a catalyst for local development. For me that was the most important thing; if the school had used steel and concrete and so on, this money would have been exported and lost for those families.

At the end of my architectural career, I want to be able to tell myself that I invested in people. If you add the sums from all the building budgets you have handled as an architect, you come up with tens of millions of euros (or pounds). We have this power in our hands and I want to be able to tell myself that I invested in people and not in materials — and certainly not in carbon emissions.

Crazily there’s severe land scarcity in Bangladesh, yet still millions of rural Bangladeshis live in single-story houses. It would be a comparatively small step to move to two storeys, but it would free up a lot of land to feed people. Another thing we wanted to do in Bangladesh was to use more craftsmanship, more refined craftsmanship, because a lot of traditions and know-how are getting lost. For example, basket weaving: plastic buckets from other parts of Asia are getting cheaper and people are using them rather than baskets. We used basket weaving skills at a larger scale to make parts of the building.

Importantly, no waste is left behind. I endorse my buildings’ degradation and will one day return to and compost the earth. But I want to ensure a lot of knowledge is created and passed on through taking care of these buildings. Coming generations can then use local materials and rebuild in a better ways to what came before because we can never foresee the needs of coming generations.

Starting on this site, I had only a feeling in my belly of how this building might look. I just did simple sketches [SEE IMAGE FROM 00:14:26], the only initial drawings and no elevations as yet. It was the most beautiful process. I was there on site all the time, along with my team, and it was wonderful to test as we went along. I felt more like a conductor, I knew or felt when I could step back and give space to the craftsmen. And I knew when I had to step in again and say what the proportions should be or how I want the structure. It was a very organic and intuitive process.

This building is very much rooted in the Bangladeshi context and culture. Yet I was also determined to have women on the site. I talked to them in the village and invited them to join the team — crucially, I asked them, not their husbands. They said, ‘ of course we would like to join, but we don’t know what to do.’ It turns out plastering is often done by women there so that’s what they did. At seven o’clock in the morning, on their first day on site, the wives arrived and five minutes later the husbands. Initially the women had long faces which indicated that the fun was over. But after about a week, couples started flirting with each other because the team spirit was so good on site!

We must really reconsider using raw materials with all our creative ingenuity and stop displacing that creativity into carbon.

[more to come]