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Planning For And With People

How designing places with identity makes them more sustainable

Understanding of Sustainable Architecture

In discussing the topic of Sustainability in Architecture, I would like to focus on identity in this essay. Although there are many different definitions and understandings of Sustainable Architecture, I think one of the important ones is about the connection between Sustainability and identity in architecture. Therefore I want to focus on how designing places with identity makes building environments more sustainable.

In general sustainable architecture describes the minimization of negative environmental impacts of buildings by developing more efficient environments.[1] Therefore there is often an analysis of the region and climate of a specific place to establish a matching design with the urban landscape. In an article from Martina Keitsch from the Department of Product Design in the Faculty of Engineering Science and Technology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology she writes that “Sustainable design is dynamic and comprises both normative, strategic, designerly and technical aspects.”[2] In conclusion, this means that Sustainable Architecture should unite many professions for example engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, design, and city planning. Because of the complexity of challenges in global development, interdisciplinary work is essential. Even social and cultural aspects should be included because of the identity aspect mentioned at the beginning of the essay. Keitsch cites in her article Maxman with: “Sustainable architecture isn’t a prescription. It’s an approach, an attitude. It shouldn’t really even have a label. It should just be architecture’ (Maxman, 1993, in Williamson et al., 2003, p. 7).” This describes how the aim for architecture to be sustainable should be a general one.

Why is identity so important in connection to sustainable architecture? Because sustainable is not sustainable. A so-called “green building” in West Asia and North African Regions is particularly not “green” in a European Region. For buildings and environments to be sustainable it has to be adapted to its region, its climate, its social and cultural background, and its people. In relatively hot regions with a high population rate, it might be on the one hand a problem to have densely built city districts because of problems like the heat island effect. But on the other hand densely built areas like for example the informal settlements in the old town of Cairo - Egypt can often be considered sustainable in the Egyptian context. This might be a not western-perspective, but for example not being wasteful with building materials is one of the biggest characteristics of these informal settlements. Reasoned by the low income of many households, the Egyptians in the informal areas in El-Gamaleya, Darb El-Ahmar, or the Coptic districts are only constructing with what is “beneath their feet”. In a country-wide context, this can be considered sustainable, especially in view of the fact that Egypt is currently building a so-called New Capital, which is advertised as sustainable but is actually the opposite because of its location in the dry and hot desert and the waste of a lot of water and energy. It is more or less a copy of every area in the Gulf area with parts of Western inspiration such as big parks or bicycle paths.

In the topic of the informal settlements in Egypt, the link to identity is particularly given because of the beginning of the principles of the Islamic city. While many of the new cities and districts in Egypt are built with a western- or gulf-oriented view, the informal settlements often have similar characteristics as the old Islamic towns. For example narrow streets, blind alleys, and private patios just for the residents. This connection comes from a deep interdependence between the Egyptians and their history and religious and social values and principles. In Islam values like privacy and not being wasteful are important and are practiced by most of the people in Egypt. In conclusion, this means that their identity established a building environment that is more sustainable than the new buildings in the desert. It can be for sure optimized but should be a basis for future ideas about sustainable architecture in an Egyptian context.

The Necessity of Sustainable Architecture

Why is Sustainable Architecture necessary?

In a global world with a growing population and fast-changing economic circumstances Sustainability becomes increasingly important. Going to the supermarket and deciding what to buy, minimizing using an airplane or driving by car every time. Usually, things everybody has in mind when thinking about being sustainable and responsible for the planet. But besides that - sustainable architecture is necessary because of the impact that the built environment has on the world we live in. Buildings and other structures consume a significant amount of resources and energy during their construction, operation, and maintenance, and they also generate waste and pollution. In addition, the way that buildings are designed and constructed can have long-term impacts on the surrounding environment and ecosystems. Also, sustainable architecture is necessary for the increasing demand for buildings that are comfortable, healthy, and efficient to live and work in. As concerns about climate change and the need for resource conversation continue to grow, there is a growing recognition of the need for buildings that are not only functional and attractive but also environmentally responsible. In conclusion, especially Architecture should be sustainable. By building sustainable Architecture it is possible to improve people’s health and wellbeing. The natural and built environment, we live in, is an inseparable part of ourselves and we have an influence on and are influenced by various design choices that affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the homes we live in.[3] Terri Peters sums up the co-benefits of sustainable design by stating that the connection between sustainable architecture and human health is significant and planners should “take greater leadership in environmental design and sustainability.” to improve people's quality of life. [4] By creating a sustainable environment you give regions an identity because for being sustainable you need to know the region and its disadvantages and advantages to design and construct matching buildings. This kind of identity helps people to become connected with the place they live in and can improve their mental and physical health.

Characteristics of Sustainable Architecture

“It is important that architecture is geared towards people, supports them in their way of life, and satisfies the climatic and functional, but also aesthetic demands of the residents and users. Even if architecture plays an important role for people, it still has to be subordinate to life.”[5]

I would like to specify the characteristics of Sustainable Architecture by focusing again on identity. Furthermore, I will summarize some of Hassan Fathy's ideas and thoughts about his architecture, where he aimed to design sustainable and identity-focused environments in Egypt. Hassan Fathy is one well-known Egyptian architect, who lived from 1900 until 1989.

To start in general, there are several key characteristics of sustainable architecture for example buildings to be highly energy efficient and water-use efficient. Another important thing is material efficiency. The buildings should be made of material that is locally sourced and can be recycled or is already recycled. In addition, the buildings should serve good health and comfort quality, when talking about light, air, and temperature. Also, sustainable buildings should be flexible and adaptable because cities and societies are dynamic. Another important topic is cultural appropriateness.

If you look at Fathy's clay buildings, the traditional houses show elements such as mashrabiyas, which are climate-friendly, because the construction allows fresh air to circulate inside the buildings, also it gives privacy, which is really important in the Arab and Islamic world. Mashrabiya is thereby a good example of a sustainable and identity-giving element in architecture and especially a big part of Hassan Fathy's designs. Good architecture carries an atmosphere and a feeling to the visitor and resident. Along with the use of the building, a "meaningful experience" is made possible.[6] Egyptian architecture in the 19th century was striving for something new and modern by recreating structures from the Western world. Hassan Fathy wanted to lead the country back to its original tradition and shape the places with cultural sensibility. In doing so, he primarily looked at the “culturally uprooted poor” who, for him, should become the subject of architecture. With this in mind, Fathy planned the villages of New Gourna, which was planned as a place of relocation for the residents of the village of Old Gourna, and New Baris. He wanted to give residents a new tradition, inspired by the previous one, but further developed, especially in architecture. Fathy has made it his task to lead people to their own identity. Here he used ancient Egyptian construction methods, which created well-air-conditioned rooms with little effort and without newer technologies, which can be understood to be very sustainable for this time. [7] So here again you see a special connection between identity and Sustainability. He used regional materials such as mud bricks and palm trees. Traditional, earlier houses were designed and built on-site by the residents themselves. Fathy also included this procedure in his planning and wanted to help people to set it up themselves so that later repairs could also be carried out easily.[8] In the informal settlements in the old town of Cairo, this is until now the procedure and can be considered sustainable because usually there is no big material waste.

In conclusion, when the urban design is adapted to the climate and the culture of the people, it enables the residents to carry out their traditions and their own laws and thus to live with their own identity.

"And this connection of all things with all, this concatenation of dwellings and workplaces and markets and mosques, this ornament of intertwining writing repeated everywhere by the thousandfold intertwining lines of life, all this surrounds us with a feeling, a secret, a smell in which there is something primordial, a primordial memory.”[9]

This quote describes the importance of identity in architecture and also how being sustainable by learning from traditions can encourage identity.

Components of Sustainable Architecture

There are a lot of strategic fields which can be considered in Sustainable Architecture. For example the use of renewable energy. Architects can try to rely on solar and wind energy to provide clean energy for buildings. In addition, providing public spaces which are accessible to everyone is an important component because it encourages the integration of residential and work areas and makes cities walkable and therefore safer. In conclusion, Sustainable Architecture is a complex mix of engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design and should be handled with social and cultural sensibility.

In the future, everyone should aspire to architecture that is sustainable. The label “sustainable architecture” shouldn’t be a thing - more should the meaning behind it be implemented in the world of designing cities and places. By designing places with identity, for example by involving historical and cultural or social aspects of the place, the possibility to create sustainable regions is higher than ever and a chance that shouldn’t be missed.




Iman Fritsch studied landscape architecture with a master's degree in Hanover and is particularly interested in social issues within urban planning. In her private life, she is primarily fascinated by migration, architecture, art, and “the city of tomorrow”. In terms of her second home, Cairo – she is really into the development of informal settlements.


References: [1] Keitsch, Martina: Sustainable Architecture, Design and Housing. Trondheim: Wiley Online Library, 2012. [2] ibid. [3] Peters, Terri: Interconnected Approaches to Sustainable Architecture. San Francisco: University of California, 2015. [4] ibid. [5] Schmidt, Chiara: Genius Loci. Technische Universität Dresden, n.d., p.9. [6] ibid.,p.9. [7] ibid., p.11. [8] ibid., p.14. [9] ibid., p.5.


Ceridwen, Owen and Kim Dovey. 2008. Fields of sustainable architecture. The Journal of Architecture. 13:1. p. 9-21.

DOI: 10.1080/13602360701865373

Hohenadel, Kristin. 2022.

What is Sustainable Architecture? The Spruce.

Garofalo, Federica, 2018. What is sustainable architecture: definition, concept and famous examples. Lifegate.

Keitsch, Martina. 2012. Sustainable Architecture, Design and Housing. Trondheim:Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DOI: 10.1002/sd.1530

Peters, Terri. 2015. Interconnected Approaches to Sustainable Architecture. San Francisco: Stantec and William McDonough + Partners.

Schäfer, Dietmar. 2021. Massivbauweise mit Lehm. Wiesbaden: Springer Verlag.

Schmidt, Chiara. no date. Genius Loci: Hassan Fathy. Dresden: Technical University.


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