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Issue 2

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Ancestral Building Techniques:

How Age-Old Wisdom Is Making a Come-Back in Modern Architecture​


Much of the modern architecture we experience, including our homes, has been guided by universal standards that prioritise speed of construction and cost ahead of human-centric elements. This type of architecture is a new phenomenon. Only in the late 19th century did advances in materials and machinery allow for the quickly and cheaply built "new" structures that we are so familiar with. Technology combined with aspiration intensified the rate at which structures were designed and erected, and now, 36 percent of the world's energy is devoted to buildings and construction.

The 20th-century trend of avoiding the "old" in favour of architectural modernism has taken us a long way from our ancestors' approach to construction. Some experts even cite a multi-generational gap in the transfer of architectural knowledge. But today's evolving lifestyles, global environmental and social concerns,

and the knowledge that buildings emit 33 percent of the world's energy-related greenhouse gases compel us to explore the wisdom of ancient architecture and how it can be applied to modern living.

Consequently, modern architecture's form-follows-function approach to building is increasingly influenced by the design language of ancestral builders. Spaces once designed to suit a specific purpose are being reimagined with 21st-century sensibilities that draw on the human-centric principles of ancient building practices. Homogeneous and unimaginative designs built strictly for efficiency are being enhanced with unique facets, creating structures and spaces that reflect the culture of their communities and inspire those who interact with them.


36 percent of the world's
energy is devoted to buildings
and construction.


In this article, we explore modern architecture and discover ancient practices that could have significant positive impacts on urban development, individuals, and the environment, both now and in the future.

The Shortcomings of Modern Architecture

A growing number of drawbacks have steadily offset the benefits of modern architecture. Chief among them is the absence of nature. When natural elements are incorporated into architecture, they provide fundamental design advantages as well as a sense of well-being to the individuals who experience them.

According to a Cornell University study, structures that are inspired by or incorporate nature have a positive psychological effect on communities, even improving cognitive functioning . In most cases, modern architecture abandons uniqueness and beauty in favour of identically constructed buildings that are devoid of landscaping features, impacting the

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look and feel of neighborhoods. Tall buildings and the use of barriers for privacy can completely cut off communal spaces, isolate communities, and negatively affect liveability.

Western building techniques have had a major influence on modern architecture. Still, they are often a poor match for the climate and distinctive cultures in other areas of the world, such as Saudi Arabia. A by-product of this can be seen and felt in designs that rely heavily on climate control equipment that is costly to repair and maintain, is bad for the environment, and can be unpleasant or even unhealthy for inhabitants.

If you have the chance to change any of the shortcomings of modern architecture, what would it be?

Innovations from Ancestral Architecture

Many of our ancestor's building techniques and architectural elements can be adapted for use in modern architecture, offering advantages ranging from cost and energy savings to sustainability, aesthetics, and cultural connectivity.

What ancestral building technique/architectural element is your favorite?

Interview with
Eng. Yazeed AlMutawa

Building On Traditional Wisdom To Innovate Future Communities

Despite its long-held cost-saving uniformity and form-follows-function design principles, modern architecture continues to evolve with the needs and technological advances of the 21st century.

Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, drones, digitized building information modelling (BIM) and mobile applications have transformed present-day design and construction methods. Environmental and sustainability considerations have catalysed green technologies, delivering buildings that use or blend clean energy sources while better managing and reducing their ecological footprints. Open, multi-purpose space makes homes more practical for families, while modern materials and designs let light in but keep heat and sound out.

There is, however, still a lot to learn from ancestral construction practices. From new communities to breath-taking, world-renowned structures in Saudi Arabia and the GCC, modern architects are increasingly taking inspiration from the past to innovate the future.

Environment Water and Agriculture (MEWA) Complex
In Riyadh, the concept design for the new Environment Water and Agriculture (MEWA) complex blends modern technology with traditional Saudi building techniques to create a highly functional yet tranquil multi-use public centre. The 1.2 million-square-foot complex will use a solar system to generate 75 per cent of the energy consumed throughout its seven buildings while also leveraging ancient design features to create comfortable spaces, such as shaded outdoor rooms and elevated gardens. Trees, ornamental planting and cross-ventilation systems will help maintain the complex's climate year-round.
Advocated by King Salman, the “Salmani” style of architecture blends the past and present with an eye to the future in its design. Used frequently in Riyadh and prominently featured in the Diplomatic Quarter, Salmani architecture showcases Saudi Arabia’s rich culture through aesthetic building elements enhanced by modern green technology and natural settings.
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), located in Dhahra, Saudi Arabia, integrates traditional rammed earth construction methods with advanced building techniques to create a large space that is soundproof, fireproof and well-insulated.
The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is Saudi Arabia's first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified project, using innovative strategies to produce a highly sustainable complex that requires little energy in an extremely hot and humid climate. The campus has been designed in the tradition of Arabic cities, minimising exterior sun exposure by compressing the form and stature of its buildings. Shaded and passively cooled areas have been incorporated, drawing on the arrangement of Arabic markets. A Bedouin tent feature spans the roof system, blocking the sun, filtering light and facilitating natural ventilation. At the same time, solar panels produce energy for the complex. It also integrates wind-catching towers and window screening similar to a mashrabiya to reduce heat and enhance the school's aesthetics, drawing on the region's rich cultural and architectural roots. In addition, the project reuses 100 per cent of its wastewater.
King Fahad National Library
Applying both state-of-the-art and traditional elements to improve a modern building, the King Fahad National Library exemplifies the benefits of reimaging architecture with an eye to the past. The structure, built in the 1980s, was recently upgraded with a façade comprised of rhomboid textile awnings for both light and shade, helping to regulate the library's internal climate. White membranes supported by a tensile-stressed steel cable structure are meant to resemble a traditional Arabian tent structure with a contemporary spin.
Wadi Hanifa
Located in the Najd region, the recent Wadi Hanifa building code has been created to improve urban liveability while preserving the area’s natural environment and historical identity. Drawing on traditional, human-centric concepts in community design, an inner courtyard system is a key architectural element of the code, offering residents privacy and internal spaces that adapt to the local climate.
Urban Heritage Administration Centre
The award-winning Urban Heritage Administration Centre in Diriyah fuses nature, the topography of the Wadi Hanifah valley, and the region's rich culture to create an indoor oasis. The modern structure harnesses both the allure and cooling effects of naturally flowing water from the Najd central plateau while also incorporating traditional elements such as rammed-earth construction and a double-walled exterior that takes its inspiration from a jaali, allowing light to enter and providing expansive views of the surroundings.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
In the UAE, the Louvre Abu Dhabi combines state-of-the-art engineering with classic Middle Eastern dome features. Modelled on a traditional Arab medina, the museum of art and civilisation also employs the cooling effect of Arabian Gulf latticework, but with ultra-high-performance layers of steel in place of wood.
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