Sustainable Beauty

architect Anna Heringer
interviewed by ARCHIsquad

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Interviewed in Laufen, 17 July 2010


The hand-made world of Anna Heringer’s earthy architecture rests on the use of natural materials, human labour as a sustainable source of energy and local knowledge, as well as construction techniques. The young Austrian architect’s experience in Bangladesh taught her from early on that architecture is a simple instrument to improve human lives. Her avant-garde projects raise interest in earth constructions in architectural communities around the world, and not only as expected, in developing countries. The main goal of her projects is to build self-confidence in people, in builders, craftsmen, the local community or students, as well as to support their faith in authentic potentials. Anna Heringer says that sustainability for her is a synonym for beauty. She has directed her work to realizing ecological balance, supporting local economies and strengthening cultural identity – and the essence of beauty.


ORIS: Your work first gained recognition in 2007 when you won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the design of a primary school in rural Bangladesh. The following year ARCHIsquad invited you to give a lecture in the cycle ‘Out of Focus: Architecture of Giving’ at the Faculty of Architecture in Zagreb. Unfortunately, you were unable to attend, but in your place, your project partner Eike Roswag gave a lecture that left the students in awe, showing videos of the construction of METI Handmade School. Now we would like to hear your personal story about your involvement in the projects in Bangladesh.


Heringer: I first came to Bangladesh 1997 when I was 19 years old. It was right after school, and I wanted to see a different life from that I had known. It was a very fascinating year for me as a development learner at the NGO Dipshikha and a great chance to learn what development is about and what sustainability is about. Looking back it was an advantage to come to Bangladesh not as an architect, but just as a curious girl interested in discovering a new culture. After my year as a volunteer I visited Bangladesh every year and kept close contact. I also worked for the German NGO Shanti e.V. that supports Dipshikha’s projects in Bangladesh. Being involved in a holistic approach to rural development at grass roots level was essential for me to understand what the real needs of the people are over there. Eight years later I tried to reach many aspects of development through architecture, like for example fostering the small local economy. Architecture can definitely be more than just giving shelter or being beautiful. The biggest investment of every person is in one’s own home, even if it is with very limited money. And this money should be distributed fairly and reasonably. With every building material or technique used the decision is taken who is getting the profit. For me the choice of a material can never be only aesthetic, there is always an economic aspect and an ecological aspect, and in seeing all these levels of architecture it was suddenly very easy to combine development and architecture.


ORIS: As a development learner what awareness did you acquire in Bangladesh?


Heringer: I learnt that the most sustainable development approach is to use what exists locally, not to depend on external resources. To value the things you have and to bring out the best of them.


ORIS: In creating buildings that are undeniably from their place, built with existing local materials, we understand you also involved the local community in the building process, local craftsmen, thus supporting the local economy.


Heringer: That was very clear to me. There were only Bangladeshis working in this NGO, so for me it was normal to work with local people. The construction process was always meant as training for Bangladeshi craftsmen. We also had a small team of foreign experts involved, since it is sometimes easier when you have a more remote perspective, to see value in the most ordinary things more and to find new solutions. And also to demonstrate that those resources are precious.


ORIS: With fresh eyes you were able to re-teach the locals their own traditional building techniques that were forgotten or forsaken. Like for instance, the technique of building with mud. Is it the same technique of building as used in the past or is it enhanced in a way due to contemporary technological development?


Heringer: The technique that we used – a mix of straw and clay (cob) – is new in that area, but close to the traditional technique. The straw acts as reinforcement in the walls and makes them stronger. But the most important technical improvement was to use a strong foundation of bricks and a damp-proof course that keeps the walls dry. But much more than the technical improvements is the benefit in facilitating people. In the beginning I thought it was our responsibility to teach the people how to really apply the perfect technology and in the meanwhile I learned that we foreigners are not in a position to say what the appropriate technology is. They have worked with mud since childhood, and I am very confident in the creativity too, it’s more important to re-teach them the love for this material again, to open the eyes that there is a real beauty in their old materials. There is a saying from Saint-Exupéry that became really important for me: ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’ That’s the thing I am focusing on.


ORIS: To give people confidence in the use of traditional materials and building methods and to prepare them for the future is a profound task. How did you manage to evoke such a longing and desire for ‘the endless sea’?


Heringer: I tried to do it with beauty. That is the strongest tool of architecture. Everybody is longing for beauty and dreams of a beautiful space, something that also reflects their personality. With realisations of good, encouraging pilot projects it can really change the image of the materials, and that I think is enough. You start developing something, if you see value in something. If you see bad longevity in earth buildings, if this is the mindset, then you won’t invest your time, energy, love and your passion in developing the material. But if you see beauty, value in these buildings, and understand the economic aspects, and you’re proud of your culture and traditional resources, I think you’ll start to invest your time and passion again in really developing the technology. That’s the basic strategy.


ORIS: To what extent did your projects change awareness of the beauty of traditional materials and architecture in Bangladesh?


Heringer: It was different with each project. For example, with the school, all of them found it very fascinating, and thousands of visitors came to see it. But still in scale it was too big, they could not make the mental link to their own housing situations. So I knew I had to realize some housing models, that people could directly, or in parts copy them. And that was the second phase which was locally even more successful than the school.


ORIS: Housing models always have the most immediate impact on people, as basic tools of architecture to improve everyday life.


Heringer: Yes, both, the housing model, HOMEmade and also the DESI School with residences for teachers show direct solutions for improving living standards. HOMEmade are three houses for low-income families of farmers. We did the traditional setting, meaning different houses that are grouped around a courtyard. We just took one of the houses and changed it into a new structure. The biggest impact was in increasing the density through changing the structures from the traditional single storey to two storeys. In Bangladesh, with a population density of approximately 1000 inhabitants per square kilometre, land is the most needed resource. But around 70% of Bangladeshis who live in rural areas live in single-storey structures. It would really make a big change if they start building two-storey structures which is possible with their own resources. Of course, in towns you can build multi-storey buildings, but then you need a lot of concrete, steel, much more energy to lift the materials. Also there you don’t have a garden in front of your home, or the fields, so they are much more dependent on others, not self-sufficient any more. Another focus on further improvement of the houses was climate comfort. In this area people are dying in winter because of the cold. The winter temperatures are around +5 degrees, but if you don’t have hot water, hardly a hot meal per day, then people can catch a cold and die. You can reach a comfortable indoor climate with passive means only – just with the right measures and positioning of single glass windows, the thermal mass of the earth walls, and with coconut fibre insulation. It also works in summer against the heat along with cross ventilation. The houses were designed by students, since it’s not only important to train workers, but also to train architects. That was another thing that I had realized after building METI. I had students from Dhaka with me for three months, and students from Austria, and they were in charge of designing the three family houses for farmers, and also of managing the building site.


ORIS: The DESI building, a vocational school for electricians, attempts to incorporate the functions of working and living. Furthermore, it is an extension of the METI School, a project in continuum, so to say. Were the skills of local craftsmen and students learnt in the first project put to use again in the second one?


Heringer: Sure, the knowledge of the craftsmen helped a lot and based on that we could enhance their skills bringing them to new levels. The DESI building is an electrical school, but it’s more of a new interpretation of a traditional homestead. To address the middle class and to show a good model was important, because it is the middle class who sets new trends. When you are poor you live in quite sustainable conditions, because you cannot afford industrialized materials like cement or brick. All too often an economic development comes along with the exploitation of resources. Also, often there is no good model how to improve living standards while keeping the level of sustainability of the traditional houses. So often the dream is to copy the West or the Middle East.


ORIS: In what way was the middle class addressed in this school, the Bangladeshis’ dreams met without the traps of copying the West?


Heringer: For DESI the challenge was to meet the dreams and needs of a middle class while respecting the cultural and climatic context. For example the veranda is an important element in that climate. It is the extended living room. This spacious veranda functions as kind of a new interpretation of the traditional courtyard on the top floor. In Bangladesh when you’re outside, you’re never alone because of the population density. But the desire for more privacy is increasing, especially among the more educated. So in this room you feel like being a part of the nature, but you’re in a kind of intimate space. When the villagers are coming up you see their sparkling eyes. They say that they have never seen such a space before and this is something that really touches them. They feel at home.


ORIS: The DESI building is the first mud-built structure in Bangladesh to have indoor plumbing, a certain novelty to be mentioned in the field of engineering.


Heringer: Yes, we have a bathroom there, and there was a big fight about it, because they didn’t believe it works in earth and bamboo structure. So it was very important to show the techniques that earth is actually able to do anything with the technology if you trust the material. Mud is not waterproof, but you can to protect it from water. In our case we did it with a very thin layer (0.4cm) of ferrocement.


ORIS: Continuing with the engineering achievements of your projects, the METI Handmade School introduced bamboo structural improvements. As a result, it was possible to add a second storey to the building. In Bangladesh, where land is the most valuable resource; are you going to build three-storey houses?


Heringer: Technically it is possible to build up to 6 storeys with load-bearing earth walls. Old buildings in Yemen show this, but we also have examples in Germany. But in this case it would not have been appropriate. A two-storey structure is something they still have to get used to. But it works well. Development doesn’t happen from one day to the next, you need to find the right scale in order not to overwhelm the participants.


ORIS: What was the reception of such earthen structures among the local architects? Did they open up to new approaches to sustainable architecture?


Heringer: The architects within the country have been aware of these projects; some were really open, even though they have never regarded mud as a modern material equal to brick or concrete. It was commonly seen as a material for social, low-cost projects, a kind of an in-between the development process, a temporary stage, only when you cannot afford anything else. It was new that this is not only a safe, healthy, environmentally friendly material, but that it also transports identity and culture. In 2009 the Chamber of Architects asked Martin Rauch, a well-known earth constructor in Europe and me to do a workshop for architects, to train them in modern earth construction. They wanted to learn techniques they could also use in urban areas. I was seriously really happy. It was all very quickly organised, we wanted to have a hands-on workshop, the participating architects had to be present for 10 days, and really physical working, which isn’t really the custom in Bangladeshi culture.


ORIS: Who participated in this workshop?


Heringer: That was a great experience. We wanted 25 participants, and then the Bangladesh Institute of Architects had doubts we could find so many for ten days, but then on the first day there were already 50 applicants, in the end we had 70 participants and a long waiting list. Usually when you have a workshop on earthen structures, you mainly have eco-freaks, and in Dhaka we had an amazing mix of people – government officers, university professors, students, the avant-garde, well established offices and social workers. It was nice to see that earth wasn’t a material just for the rich, or the poor, and also the contradiction between the modern and traditional style was just vanishing.


ORIS: The following educational project you started developing in another part of the world, is the Training Centre for Sustainability in Marrakech, Morocco. We understand that the project and its construction is envisioned as a showcase of preservation and advanced development of cultural know-how in local craftsmanship. What were the specifics, together with the influences, of working in Morocco? Has this project the potential to become a model for other parts of the world, too? In what stage is it now?


Heringer: It is such a privilege to be able to design for Morocco. This country is a treasury of craftsmanship. Yet if you look closely at the current trends of construction the craftsmanship is often just a decoration and has no structural logic. And when it comes to earthen structures you find them only in remote rural areas or as walls in agricultural fields. But in cities the new built concrete structures are only painted in clay colours. In Marrakech there is even a rule that every house must be in an earth tone. The project’s aim is to bring back the authenticity. The project that I’m doing in cooperation with Martin Rauch, Nägele Waibel architects and Salima Naji will be built from the excavation material of the site. The rammed earth walls will form an architectural landscape that can go back to the ground in many years without any harm to the environment. Technically we show a variety of technological solutions, from low-tech hand-ramming to prefabricated rammed earth elements with hollow cores for air circulation. We want it to be an appropriate model for any kind of purpose and setting. The client, the Fondation Alliances is linked with a large construction company that has the potential to spread this building technique significantly in the country. Moreover the purpose of the building is a teaching centre for sustainable construction techniques where the students will be taught in these techniques during the construction.


ORIS: Education plays a significant part, if not the lead role, in the strategies of sustainable development. Until now, you have been educating locals and students in Bangladesh, lecturing widely at conferences and teaching at BASEhabitat – architecture for development at the University of Arts in Linz.


Heringer: I’m trying to focus on practical experiences for students through design-build projects or workshops. We aim to realize one design-build project a year so that students really get the chance to be in the field and get the full experience. It is easy to erect multi-storey houses with a few mouse clicks, but if you’ve never physically built a wall and never felt the sweat and the aching muscles afterwards you don’t really have a personal relation towards energy. I think you need this for an actual relation towards energy, to feel it physically once in a while. I believe this is important and that is why I really don’t see myself as a teacher in the classroom but more in the field.


At the moment we are planning an international summer school here in Austria on modern earthen structures and sustainable architecture. We had an open call, 86 participants applied from 36 countries and we only had 15 open spots, so this shows there is really a high demand. In general architectural education of alternativebuilding techniques is just not present and I think there is a desire especially among young architects to do this beautiful architecture.


ORIS: In Croatia these alternative building techniques and methods are not validated or recognised by the law, so if one builds a rammed-earth house one cannot get the building permits for it.


Heringer: It is the same thing here. But we had some pilot projects that, luckily, worked out, I mean; you need to go through a lot of testing, trial and error. So, in Germany there was this Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin that was really the first load-bearing earth building after the war realized by my teacher Martin Rauch who also did the workshop in Dhaka with me. He was the only one who was willing to make this building and to take the risk. So he had to make these material tests, and the University would monitor continuously throughout the process whether the strength and other properties were sufficient. For pilot projects like this it means you have to challenge rules and regulations and someone has to start.


ORIS: In regard to the European context, we have a practical question about rammed-earth houses – what thermal insulation can be used in their design?


Heringer: It depends on the thickness of the rammed earth and the local conditions if you need additional insulation. Martin Rauch built his own rammed-earth house on the Austrian-Swiss border, where it is really cold in winter and he plastered the wall on the inside with reed, he applied some earth plastering and in turn pressed in some reed again, he added a second layer of reed and has very good results in terms of comfort. Of course you also can use different insulation material such as cork or sheep wool.


ORIS: If we understood it well, in your work you are using strictly natural materials. Your designs have a strong low-tech appeal and logic, as you are striving to avoid the harmful effects of contemporary architectural methods of production. What basic principles for maintaining ecological balance do you apply in your work?


Heringer: It is more a matter of common sense to try to use a minimum of grey energy and I think that we can really still improve so much. We can build aluminium façades for shading, but is that sustainable? The system that we have is out of balance, the human labour is incredibly costly in comparison to a sack of cement for example, it is insane that the costs of materials with high embodied energy and carbon emissions are so cheap. It simply doesn’t seem reasonable to have so many unemployed people on the one hand and to use materials with such a high input of grey energy based on fossil fuels mostly on the other. Why don’t we build more with the most sustainable and creative energy source that we have – human labour? It just complicates matters. What I’m trying to do, in my projects in Bangladesh as well as in my own apartment, is to invest in human labour and in human energy – in craftsmanship. At my home all the materials are from our surroundings, like timber that has come from a forest in Austria close by from very sustainable forestry. The rammed-earth wall, and clay plastering in all the rooms is of course with a high input of human labour. In the bathroom instead of industrial tiles we used lime plastering, done by a fantastic craftsman, Gerold Ulrich. With all these materials it is possible to know exactly how much energy there is in each material and where this energy comes from. That gives a good feeling. Another principle is to combine high tech and low tech in a reasonable way. We mainly focus on the energy efficiency in the use of the building, but hardly in the decay and in the process. The ultimate aim should be to be independent and sometimes the technology makes us dependent. If we don’t want to change our way of living or consuming and believe that technology will be able to fix our environmental and social problems then one gets a type of sustainability only part of the world’s population can afford. I think we should focus on a global strategy of sustainable architecture. Again, that is not only for industrialised countries but we really have a need for a fair global strategy that combines high tech and low tech.


Also, we have sustainable materials that have proven of excellent use for thousands of years, so we do not have to create so many new materials. I think we should invest in trying to develop and train people to use existing natural materials properly, combine the techniques with great aesthetics and try to seek solutions for our climate problem in finding new material and technical solutions, not just in seeking new materials all the time not knowing how they’ll respond in a couple of years.


ORIS: As a social design pioneer, to what extent would you say personal engagement is essential in making changes?


Heringer: I think I could never design for a country or a place I do not know. These star architects who are never there, doing sketches at a remote desk... Personally, I don’t want to have many projects, I want to work small and enjoy the projects that I’m doing, but this also means I don’t have many, just one project at a time that I can really get into. I don’t see the quality in work if you have 10 or 50 projects at a time that you don’t have a personal relationship to any more, if you don’t have time to listen to the users, the genii loci. I think this mass production of architecture is a problem, maybe it is better to concentrate on a few rather than many, but I guess I will find that out some day.


ORIS: In the end, what draws most attention from our conversation is the mention of beauty as a basic strategy in achieving sustainable development of our society and architecture.


Heringer: Yes, it is necessary to combine sustainability with high comfort and high aesthetics, especially since I work with very poor people who you think are only interested in getting a safe and cheap structure. In fact they want to have a beautiful house they can be proud of. It is about dignity, if they do not feel proud of something, they do not have the power to go on and develop a way to get out of poverty. They need beauty, they taught me to understand that beauty is essential. To focus only on function and on rational aspects of sustainability is not enough; I think one has to combine these with aesthetics. When the building is in harmony with the urban context, with the functions, the materials, with the environment and with the social context, then I think it is really beautiful. We can’t just blend out these layers. It is these layers, the urban setting, these social and ethic layers, the environmental layers you can just feel in the building. Then it is really beautiful, and that is why I think beauty is a synonym of sustainability.