As the Middle East developed, energy use driven by air conditioners has, along with carbon emissions, grown hugely.
In 1990, World Bank figures indicate, cooling internal spaces in the Middle East accounted for about 25 terawatt hours of electricity. By 2016, the figure had risen 400 per cent, to 125 TWH.
Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions almost triple, from about 864,000 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide in 1990 to about 2,556,000 kilotonnes in 2019.
As development continues, and the planet and the region continue to heat up, there seems little prospect of anything other than ongoing increases in electricity demand to keep buildings cool.
Indeed, other World Bank statistics indicate that, by the middle of this century, the number of air-conditioning units around the globe will increase threefold, to five billion.
But some architects, such as Karim El Kafrawi and his partners at the architectural practice he co-founded, the Karm Architecture Lab (KAL), based in Egypt, are finding ways to keep buildings cool that do not depend on air-con.
Looking to the past for solutions
Thanks to shading, extra-thick walls, airflow corridors and other features, some of KAL's buildings can be comfortable without air conditioning, even during the height of summer.
What is more, Mr El Kafrawi hopes this approach offers a better experience for those inside the building and makes housing more affordable to the less well off.
“We’ve forgotten the ancient methods or historic methods of how to deal with passive cooling or passive heating,” he says.
“With the adoption of technology through air conditioning, everybody said, ‘We don’t need to worry about that any more.’ That was at a time when we thought energy availability was infinite. Of course now we’ve realised this is not the case.”
Medieval Cairo is one place where the old-style methods, such as wind towers to create airflow, were used. Where wind towers were impractical because of the high density of buildings, designers used other simple ways to create positive or negative air pressure and keep air moving.
“If you walk through the entrance you get this gradual flow that the deeper you go in, the cooler it gets,” Mr El Kafrawi says.
“The way they did that was positioning openings for daylight and for air to come in certain places, so that when the door opens ... suddenly hot air is in one place and cool air comes and moves where hot air is.”
Ceiling height could also be adjusted to promote airflow, while having a large thermal mass ― thick walls ― was another approach.
Methods embraced by five-star hotel
KAL designed much of Wadi Sabarah, a boutique five-star hotel in Marsa Alam on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. At this property, thick walls help to keep temperatures down.
Coral limestone, discarded by developers and available locally (thereby reducing carbon emissions for transport), was tested for its structural properties and used to form 80-centimetre-thick walls in the three-storey, 10-metre-tall building.
These are thick not just to reduce heating, but for structural reasons, because reinforced concrete was not used in the parts of the hotel designed by Mr El Kafrawi’s practice.
Guest rooms are protected from direct sunlight, yet have views of the sea, while a wind tunnel effect is created by the organisation of passageways and guest rooms.
“We’re able to use those rooms, even in the summer ― we’re talking about temperatures that go up to 45ºC, 46ºC ― and I can state for a fact that those rooms in the summer, around July, August, all you need is a ceiling fan. You don’t need air conditioning,” Mr El Kafrawi says.
“That means that the operator will have a dramatic reduction in air-conditioning use, and people are getting to enjoy natural ventilation and natural cooling, passive cooling in the building, which is transformative.
“It’s not just a matter of reducing the electricity and saving the environment and reducing energy consumption … it’s about really trying to have people experience things on a natural level.
“There’s a big difference between a space that is conditioned by mechanical cooling or heating and one that is natural. It feels different. It changes the way you feel about yourself, your experience.”
Committed to sustainability
An architect since 2005 (and the son of an architect, Kamal El Kafrawi, who designed Qatar University), Mr El Kafrawi co-founded a solar power company, KarmSolar, in 2011, before his architectural/construction practice, Karm Architecture Lab (KAL), was founded the following year. Mr El Kafrawi says the company has achieved success through its "collaborative team-oriented approach" to design and construction.
“We came together on this idea: wouldn’t it be interesting to develop a holistic approach where we could combine renewable energy plus using traditional techniques that existed in Egypt, such that communities could be completely self-sufficient or self-reliant on what they have,” he says.
While KAL's focus is on using traditional modes of cooling in a modern context, Mr El Kafrawi says the UAE has buildings with more high-tech approaches, such as shades that close when the sun is overhead. An example is Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi. While such designs use “very interesting, fascinating ways” to prevent heating, his approach is “very different”.
“We’re really focusing on mixing old and new, so solar technology, using new building materials and combining them with old materials. That’s a pretty unique thing in Egypt.” he says.
“There are only a handful of architects that I know that are attempting to do the same thing and who are doing some really nice work as well. They are really on the fringes, but it’s growing.”
Another KAL project is the Grove Residential Complex in Cairo, where a mix of apartments are integrated around one another’s green spaces. A connecting courtyard offers “a natural cooling environment”.
“It helps ventilate all the apartments naturally,” he says. “At the same time, it also created a safe public space, or semi-public space, for the residents to use. So it has this sense of community.
“We hoped it would encourage the idea of community integration, which is not that common in a lot of the new developments here in Egypt.”
As well as being more environmentally friendly, the approach Mr El Kafrawi and his practice have adopted should also, he says, put affordable housing within reach of more people.
Solar panels on the roof of a standard building may provide only 10 per cent or 15 per cent of energy needs. But if the building is much more efficient because it employs natural ways to keep temperatures down, this figure may be as high as 60, 70 or 80 per cent. At Wadi Sabarah, solar power provides 100 per cent.
“Everyday people can re-adopt those traditional solutions in their own housing. If they adopt those traditional solutions it will reduce their impact on the environment while making their living standards better, because they’re living under better conditions,” Mr El Kafrawi says.