A ground-breaking UAE project is bringing a once-traditional source of fuel, food and shelter in the region into the 21st century.
The Sabla Project: Building on past experience
For countless generations the date palm was the Bedouin tree of life, a source of food, fuel and shelter that provided traditional communities with everything from floor mats and fish traps to housing and rope.
Beyond the realm of date production, however, the palm is now associated with the hardships of the past and is seen as the stuff of heritage villages and museum displays.
“I think we have to find a way to bring it back,” says 3 ideas Ltd’s Sandra Piesik, a Polish-born architect who has spent the past six years working with traditional date palm materials (called arish) in the deserts of Liwa and Al Ain oases.
“This material has been used for more than seven thousand years but in the last forty or fifty that has gone and the craft of using the material is almost completely extinct,” she says.
As part of a team that includes craftsmen from Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority led by the archaeologist Peter Sheehan, economists and engineers from the London-based BuroHappold Engineering, and textile specialists Mehler Texnologies and Ocma Emirates, Ms Piesik has been working to prove that not only is the date palm still relevant today but that it has a promising and important future as well.
The results of the team’s efforts can currently be seen in the Sabla Project, a shelter that is still under development on a patch of waste ground next to the oasis in Al Ain.
The Sabla Project consist of a series of domes constructed from palm fronds that have been bundled together as arches then erected at right angles to form a series of gridshells – lightweight structures whose strength derives from their curvature. When it is complete, the structure will be protected with a tent-like, tensile fabric canopy.
The palm fronds have been harvested directly from the nearby oasis and are neatly bound together, and to each other, with rope that is also made from the palms.
Rather than some obscure exercise in cultural heritage or architectural experimentation, however, the Sabla Project has been designed as a potential solution to some of the developing world’s most serious challenges: climate change, desertification, the increasing scarcity of resources, food security and food waste.
In India alone, 40 per cent of food is wasted because of a lack of adequate places for its shelter and storage.
The architectural prototype exists thanks to the traditional skills of a team of master craftsmen from Abu Dhabi’s Tourism & Culture Authority and contemporary construction knowhow provided by the London-based BuroHappold Engineering.
“What we’ve created is an example of intermediate technology that has made the transition from a small arish hut, something that traditionally measured maybe two metres by six metres, into something that has 500 square metres,” Ms Piesik says.
“What it demonstrates is that the material, when combined with modern architectural and engineering thinking, can do other things that are new and innovative at an urban scale. I think that’s very important.”
Tomorrow, Ms Piesik will take another step toward achieving her aim when she presents the results of the Sabla Project in Cancun, Mexico at the third scientific conference of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
The project was chosen from more than 200 scientific submissions for the conference that this year aims to highlight the role that traditional knowledge can play alongside scientific innovation to help manage land more sustainably and so help to reduce poverty.
Harnessing local knowledge is one of the central tenets of the UNCCD to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought through national action programmes that incorporate long-term strategies supported by international cooperation and partnership arrangements. It was signed in 1994, two years after the Rio Earth Summit identified desertification as a critical issue in sustainable development.
“I think we were selected because we are presenting a holistic concept, from archaeology and agriculture through to engineering, technology, economy and then implementation on the ground,” Ms Piesik says.
That holistic approach is exemplified by the contribution of Jim Coleman, an economist with BuroHappold Engineering who has worked with Piesik to turn the project into something that has the potential to provide an economic as well as a material benefit to rural communities struggling with the impact of desertification worldwide.
“My colleagues on the engineering side of the practice have been looking at the structure and how it stands up and that’s a combination of very, very cutting edge construction technologies alongside traditional materials and skills,” he says.
“But the structure is also an economic entity. It could be a shelter, it could be housing, it could be anything really, but it’s also enabling an effective use of a natural resource that would otherwise be wasted.”
His interest in the relatively small-scale Sabla Project stems from its potential to operate in different sectors and at different scales.
“This is a unique project. It’s environmental because it has the potential to create ecosystems, it creates agricultural products that can be consumed as foodstuff, it creates material that can be used in construction and all of this taken together can provide all sorts of economic activity,” he says.
Ms Piesik’s immediate aim is to achieve ratification from the International Organisation for Standardisation for date palm in the same way that it exists for other natural construction materials such as bamboo.
Before that can happen however, further experimentation and testing are required, says the engineer Sunday Popo-Ola, a research and teaching fellow at the Imperial College London who has conducted preliminary tests on the properties of date palm leaves in the university’s Structural Engineering Laboratories.
“At the moment, you couldn’t pick a date palm up and say ‘right, I want to design a building using this,” he says.
“With any construction material, you have to know how strong it is and what distance it will be able to span.
“Whether it’s a steel beam or a palm leaf, you need to know its capabilities so that you can know how far you can extend its use.
“What’s been produced in Al Ain is the limit, in my view, of what can be done without laboratory testing. It’s a prototype, but it’s also a milestone in a debate about what can be done with the material.”
Ms Piesik hopes that recognition by the UN will help to secure the further funding and the research interest that will allow the next phase of testing to being.
“The United Nations has now recognised the traditional knowledge of desert regions, but that knowledge still needs to be adapted and transformed,” she says.
“What the Sabla Project shows is that we can’t exclude traditional wisdom completely from future development and that we need to find a way to allow modernity and cultural continuity to coexist.”
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter