The Sahara Forest Project, an arid ecosystem

The birth of architecture

As was emphasized once more during the most recent edition of the COP25, today more than ever we are aware that the relationship between man and nature has radically transformed with the passing of time, in part due to a lack of maturity regarding our place in the world. In primitive times the relationship was one of a species inseparable from its ecosystem, but in recent times this interaction has lost its natural balance, to the point where humans have completely dominated the environment. Nature is the primordial habitat, the home of all living beings, whose evolutions are based on adapting to this very specific environment. However, our notions of “living in nature” have been heavily influenced by each era’s history, ideology, politics and economics, thus moving us away from this ancestral principle of nature. Since the beginning, architecture has been both in perfect harmony with and fully opposed to the sublime within the natural environment.

How did humans begin to “generate architecture”? The Genoese architect Renzo Piano considered this issue and summarised it in plain language:

The architect’s craft is one as ancient as hunting, fishing, farming and exploring. After the search for food … came the search for home. At a certain point, dissatisfied with the refuge provided by nature, man became architect.

The origins of architectural construction came from humans’ need to build refuge, from humble dwellings in the primitive ages to enormously complex structures built in the course of human history. Industrialization and the development of new technologies have become a double-edged sword; we must now reflect on the boundaries that separate home from environment, we must attempt to return to it, while also making good use of technological progress without harming our ecosystems. Biomimetics is a fundamental concept for architecture to rebuild its initial harmonious and sensitive relationship to nature, while also bearing in mind the present time’s needs and concerns.

A sustainable future

Exploration, a company founded by the architect Michael Pawlyn in 2007, is one of the most advanced research groups in these terms. The team makes architecture inspired by natural processes, using to its advantage the most recent technological innovations to create a more sustainable world. Its most ambitious project is the Sahara Forest Project, which sets out to create new architectural spaces in harmony with a seemingly hostile natural environment. Pawlyn and his team prove that it is in fact possible to inhabit areas as bitter as Central Africa’s great deserts, by using nature’s own genius.

Concept of a prototype of the Sahara Forest Project in Tunisia.

The project is presented as a potential model that can be applied to other areas of the world with similar features, and seeks to be a part of a global reforestation and repopulation project as a solution to the world’s overpopulation, creating life, food and water organically in areas with scarce resources.

This architectural complex is perfectly adapted to the desert’s extreme temperatures and may even reach full autonomy by tapping those resources which a marine desert environment does have in excess: sun, wind and saltwater. These are the primary sources to help enhance desert ecosystems, so that they may be more efficient, self-sufficient, and produce no toxic waste.

The architectural complex has various self-sufficient greenhouses, capable of obtaining water by absorbing it from the air through a system of grilles and condensers placed on the roof. This mechanism finds inspiration in the vital process of a type of beetle (the Stenocara gracilipes) that lives in the desert. The Namib beetle condenses the humidity in the air and uses the shape of its exoskeleton to gather tiny drops of air together into larger drops, until it has enough water to survive. This bioinspired innovation allows such areas, initially arid and scarce in resources, to transform into biologically active and productive spaces which are rich in both vegetation and other forms of life.

According to a study by NASA, each square metre in the desert receives on average between 2000 and 3000 KW/h of solar energy every year. This means that the Sahara Desert could potentially produce more than seven times the electricity demand of Europe and Northern Africa combined, with almost zero carbon emissions. Exploration’s team looked into a system of mirrors in order to further increase solar radiation in the area and produce more electricity, so as to establish an even more productive power plant. The kind of demineralized water required by such a power plant can be provided by the complex’s own greenhouses. And, to complete the system, the heat created during the production of electricity is used to increase condensation, thereby producing larger amounts of water.

The shade created by the structure is useful for growing vegetables, while the salt collected inside the greenhouse condensers can be repurposed into the creation of sustainable building materials, such as salt bricks, which are much lighter than other materials.

Returning to nature

This case gives us the opportunity to reflect on the hidden potential of certain spaces and properties, which might initially appear as bitter or hostile. In truth, all life holds within a broad range of elements which contribute to the balance of the ecosystem and the survival of its own species. There is an inexhaustible amount of resources that we humans can harness so as to develop solutions inspired by nature.

But, although the technological potential is vast, can we really restore our relationship with nature through technology? It is in this context that the human factor has destabilized the natural order of things, leading to our current situation; on the other hand, it may still be the key for a sustainable humanity to return to its place within the global ecosystem.

Written by Elena Casalino / edited by Zoe Thomson