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Cooler, greener, cheaper: Egyptian architects seek antidotes to rising heat

by Menna A. Farouk | @MennaFarouk91 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 March 2020 11:04 GMT

A view of a green building designed to help farm workers beat rising heat in Baharyia Oasis, in Egypt's Western Desert. Photo: ECOnsult

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Hotter temperatures are making life harder in Egypt - but low-energy cooling designs could help

By Menna A. Farouk

CAIRO, March 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The desert buildings Atef Azzazy and his team of farm workers once lived and toiled in were hot in the summer, cold in the winter and leaky enough they sometimes let in snakes, he remembers.

Three years ago, however, the team working in Bahariya Oasis, in Egypt's Western Desert, got an upgrade: Well-insulated homes and work buildings designed to shed Egypt's increasingly searing summer heat and hold down climate-changing emissions.

ECOnsult, an Egyptian architecture firm that specialises in green, energy-efficient and affordable buildings, designed the structures for 120 workers in the Saharan oasis village, from farmers and engineers to administrative staff.

"The buildings are now cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter" by about 5-7 degrees Celsius, Azzazy said - a huge advantage as climate change brings ever more extreme weather.

Faced with rising temperatures, Egyptian architects are working to come up with green buildings that can keep people safe and cooler, and cut down on the emissions that drive global warming.

ECOnsult, one of the firms - now a finalist for an award for innovative cooling without air conditioning - has turned out more comfortable government buildings, banks and coffee shops across Egypt, often using local materials.

In a country where temperatures can hit nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, outdoor workers struggle - and even those inside often depend on fans or air conditioning.

Smarter design can cut the need for electrical-powered cooling and make people more comfortable and able to continue with their jobs even in the heat, architects say.

Sarah El Battouty, the founder of green architecture firm ECOnsult, is seen at her office in Cairo on February 10, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna A. Farouk

"We use heat-absorbing materials and other cooling techniques like heat-reflecting roofs in order to keep buildings cooler," Sarah El Battouty, the founder of ECOnsult, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Creating structures that are oriented to best shed heat and that incorporate local materials is key, El Battouty said.

Insulating air layers, in particular, can help keep heat out, she said.

"We innovate as much as possible through layering between the outside and into the inside which has helped us cool down air coming into interiors by almost 5 degrees. We also use colour and reflectivity," she added.

El Battouty said that rising temperatures hit the poor - who struggle to afford air conditioning - and those working outside hardest.

"That is why we want to provide sustainable cooling," El Battouty said.

THE COST OF COOLING

One problem facing Egypt's fast-growing urban areas is that as temperatures rise, more people turn on air conditioners, which in turn churn out waste heat, further raising temperatures outside.

The devices also are heavy energy users, and if that energy comes from fossil fuels their use can drive further climate change.

According to a 2018 International Energy Agency report, using air conditioners and electric fans to stay cool "accounts for nearly 20% of the total electricity used in buildings around the world".

Demand for cooling is "putting enormous strain on electricity systems in many countries, as well as driving up emissions," the report added.

ECOnsult architects said one of their goals is to make sure the heat-beating designs they come up with work for the poor as well as the rich.

"We care about making our green buildings affordable, so we design buildings in a way that makes them have the same cost as traditional buildings," said Ahmed Al Shareif, a business development manager with ECOnsult, which started in 2013.

ECOnsult uses recycled materials as much as possible, and keeps in mind issues from potential pollution to excessive use of water as well in its designs, he said.

The firm hopes to win an innovation in low-carbon cooling award to be presented in July by Ashden, a London-based charity focused on sustainable energy.

"The climate emergency means higher temperatures are now a fact of life, and so people are turning up the air conditioning, completing a vicious circle" as they use more energy to stay cool, said Harriet Lamb, Ashden's CEO.

"The world must wake up to this new reality and urgently invest in sustainable solutions," she said. "We cannot sit back and wait for the next lethal heatwave to arrive – we need action now."

Other Egyptian firms also are looking at innovative cooling.

KarmSolar, a solar and technology integration company, for instance, is working through a subsidiary in another village in Bahariya Oasis to employ wind-catchers, hot-air extractors, and strategic placement of doors and windows for natural cooling.

As Egypt's population grows and more people move from rural to urban communities, demand for cooling and warming devices has increased by about 30% over a decade, said Saber Osman, head of the Ministry of Environment's climate change adaptation department.

But staying cool in Egypt is getting more expensive. The government has carried out a staged series of hikes in electricity prices since 2016, as it phased out fossil fuel subsidies in an effort to cut budget deficits.

With more Egyptians struggling to pay for air conditioning, finding ways to create more efficient, energy-smart cooling is important, and may need to include requiring air conditioning manufacturers to produce more energy-efficient machines, officials said.

(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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