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Treasures beneath our feet: building with earth

METI Handmade school

“Architecture is a tool to improve lives” is the vision behind and motivation for Anna Heringer’s work. For her experimental approach and outstanding climate resilient and culturally responsive design, the architect received the first Global Award from the Building Sense Now initiative, founded by DGNB CEO Dr. Christine Lemaitre and others. The award ceremony took place in Madrid, alongside the UN Climate Conference. In her talk, Heringer gave insights into her philosophy and work.

“Architecture is a tool to improve lives” – following her lecture, it soon becomes clear that Anna Heringer is the kind of person who really turns words into actions. Her project “METI Handmade School” in Rudrapur in Bangladesh, through which she gained international attention in 2006, supports this. The building is made of natural and locally sourced materials. By involving the residents, the school building was a social community project with sustainable impact.

  • METI Handmade school
    METI Handmade school in Bangladesh ©Benjamin Staehli

Anna Heringer relies on earth

As a real sustainable building advocate, Heringer has a clear message that is primarily aimed at her colleagues in the construction industry: she questions building standards, respects the environment and uses resources that are locally available! She is particularly convinced that one material becomes a symbol of her mission. We are talking about earth.

As a building material, it is 100% recyclable, resistant, causes low CO2 emissions, creates healthy indoor air quality and offers design freedom. This appears to be a real jewel of sustainable architecture. And that’s what it really is when you ask Heringer. She is one of the (still) few architects who have known and used earth as a building material for years. “Mud huts can stand hundreds of years if you follow some simple rules”, says the architect. This includes a good foundation and roof to keep the walls dry. Furthermore, you get erosion control through horizontal speed breakers in the walls which can be made out of bamboo, bricks or straw. After some years the erosion stops.

“Earth is good, but not here.”

Despite all these advantages, earth has a bad image in Europe. “Mud is considered dirty, not very durable and creates the image of small, dark huts.” Heringer wants to break with such thinking patterns. She received awards for her projects outside of Europe. But when she started to use the material in her country, the appreciation stopped. “Earth is good, but not here”, is a sentence she heard very often. Earth is an all-rounder and its usage as a building material dates back in ancient times. According to Heringer, three billion people live in buildings made of mud in every climate zone. The numbers are decreasing however. More and more governments, for example in Africa and Mexico, no longer allow this kind of construction. Architects who have the knowledge and skills are missing, and there is no lobby.

Alnatura campus in Darmstadt: the renaissance of earth?

And yet something is happening! With increasing awareness of the urgency of climate protection, materials such as earth attract attention in Europe. What Heringer does with her bare hands in Bangladesh is perfected with technology here. The facade of the Alnatura Campus, for example, which received the German Sustainability Award for Architecture in 2019, was created using the rammed earth technique. Heringer explains in one sentence: “These are standardized rammed earth elements that already include insulation, all technical fittings, wall heating, cooling, and can simply be stabled on site.”

Alnatura Campus

Earth meets modern technology at the rammed earth facade of the Alnatura Campus. © Lars Gruber

The design for the Alnatura building was developed by the Stuttgart-based architectural firm haascookzemmrich STUDIO 2050. They worked with expert Martin Rauch on the rammed earth construction. The building illustrates that it is possible what Heringer has been saying for a long time. You can build with a traditional material in a modern way in Europe! The architect is convinced that our homes, work spaces and cities would not just become healthier and more sustainable but also more humane and beautiful with this material. She concludes her talk with an optimistic outlook: “I want to build a mud skyscraper in Manhattan or Madrid.”

You can watch the whole talk of Anna Heringer here:

Anna Heringer illustrates her motto “Architecture is a tool to improve lives”

Building Sense Now recognizes role models

Building Sense Now Award ceremony

Award ceremony on December 12, 2019, from left to right: Bruno Sauer (BSN Initiator, Green Building Council España), Anna Heringer, Felix Lupatsch, Dr. Christine Lemaitre (BSN initiator, DGNB)

The initiators of Building Sense Now (BSN) are convinced that cultural design solutions contribute to more sustainable cities and buildings. With the awards they honor role models who contribute to this transformation. In addition to the award for Anna Heringer, they presented another prize in Madrid: The Young Architects Award for young creative people went to “feat.collective”, a collective of architects, designers and political scientists founded in 2013. At the award ceremony, Felix Lupatsch from feat.collective presented the “Lanka Learning Center”, a humanitarian project in Sri Lanka. You can watch the video here.

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