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Cities built from mud: a new perspective on the overlooked method

By: Emily Chu

In the current world, skyscrapers dominate big cities, supporting life, work, and the needs of society. But around 12 centuries ago, there were already skyscrapers that did these exact things. In Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, stand towering skyscrapers made from...mud?

Buildings made from mud have long been used as a historical reference, but scientists are now starting to realize the benefits they could have for our current world.

"As an outstanding example of a homogeneous architectural ensemble reflecting the spatial characteristics of the early years of Islam, the city in its landscape has an extraordinary artistic and pictorial quality," UNESCO says. "The buildings demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship in the use of local materials and techniques."

Sana’a’s mud skyscrapers were built around the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., and have been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. The city of Sana’a has a rich history in itself. The city has been a trading center, was and a hub for the spread of Islam around the seventh century AD. The mud buildings of Sana’a provide a great example of what the city looked like thousands of years earlier. However, architects around the world are now looking at these ancient, historic mud buildings in a different manner. They’re taking sustainability into account.

“The construction industry accounts for 38 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions,” writes the New York Times. To cut back on carbon dioxide emissions and slow climate change, the construction industry has a lot of work to do. One of the major ways to prevent such high carbon dioxide emissions is to cut back on the use of concrete, which is currently responsible for 7 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions, and replace it with a more sustainable material.

We cannot live in these concrete jungles anymore," says Salma Samar Damluji, the co-founder of the Daw'an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation in Yemen. "We have to consider the environment and biodiversity. We cannot construct in isolation."

One sustainable material that can replace concrete, scientists found, is mud. Since it is recyclable, it does no harm to the environment.

The tradition of the building of mud structures in Yemen still exists today. In the city of Djenné, mud buildings exist everywhere, but the Great Mosque towers above them all. It is the largest mud building in the world, at 66 feet tall, and has been around since the thirteenth century.

However, the downside to such structures is that they must be repaired constantly. Harsh weather conditions have worn out the mosque so much that it has to be repaired every year. But that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

"There is a dynamism to it," says Trevor Marchand, a former professor of social anthropology at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "Mud is very malleable and it responds to the changing demographics of a home." This means that buildings can easily be changed.

Mud buildings also interest scientists on another level. The mud walls themselves provide an almost-perfect way to regulate temperature inside the building. “Mud walls have a high thermal mass, which means they slowly absorb heat and store it, preventing the house from becoming too hot,” says the New York Times.

Mud also releases the absorbed heat at night, which regulates the temperature inside so that it stays nearly constant.

Since the temperature in these houses is almost regulated, air-conditioning use could be lessened. Air-conditioning accounts for about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. These new types of buildings would contribute greatly to slowing global warming and climate change.

Maybe old methods are what the world currently needs to prevent it from crashing down. After all, we’ve only been on Earth for 300,000 years, and the planet has been alive for 4.6 billion.


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