“You can’t make any money with earth.” Standing on the construction site in Abu Dhabi, Christoph Ziegert, who was born in 1970 and is now a construction engineer with a Ph.D. and a board member of The German Association for Building with Earth, fondly remembers the advice given to him by his well-meaning professor when he was an undergraduate in Leipzig. Contracts from abroad have long since accounted for the majority of business in the company, which Ziegert established in 2003 together with architect Eike Roswag (born in 1969) and construction engineer Uwe Seiler (born in 1966). They currently employ 16 people. In Al Ain, an oasis two hours drive away from Dubai, they have just completed converting the historic Al Jahilil Fort into a visitor center with a permanent exhibition on the British travel writer and photographer Wilfred Thesiger – their biggest project to date.
With Al Jahili being one of around 60 earth buildings in the region and possibly the most famous fort in the United Arab Emirates, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) called upon the specialists from Berlin for their professional support – the company is widely known for its expertise in building with earth. The fort‘s circular watch tower serves as a logo for a producer of drinking water, the illustration on the 50 Dirham bank note and even featured in the UAE pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover. With the conversion of the complex the ADACH is hoping to set an exemplary example of the potential inherent in building with earth, as its thick earth walls and roof beams made of quartered palm tree trunks stand for traditional desert construction methods. It is hoped that on this basis new tourism will develop − a far cry from the shopping malls and air-conditioned fantasy worlds so typical of the country‘s coastal towns.
Recycling local construction materials (using earth for walls and floors, palm tree trunks and foliage for the roof) and supplementing them with additive materials required for modern usage, and finally implementing the design with precision craftsmanship was the strategy the architects and engineers pursued on their road to success. Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Director of ADACH, who attended the opening with a large entourage and four camels, seemed very pleased with the result – a follow-up contract is already in sight.
Ziegert, Roswag and Seiler are German, in other words reliable, thorough, and disciplined. In addition to these typically German characteristics, their specialist knowledge is also much appreciated abroad. This is something all three acquired whilst gaining practical experience prior to doing their degrees: While Roswag worked as a carpenter, Seiler and Ziegert as bricklayers, which is where they first encountered earth.
Their belief in using renewable materials for building with and their fondness for earth, a traditional material that can be reused ad infinitum, had Ziegert Roswag Seiler Architects Ingenieure swimming against current trends for a long time. Eike Roswag well remembers the smirking faces at the Technical University in Berlin when he designed buildings in earth and the lack of interest he met when, seven years ago, on the spur of the moment, he decided to go to Bangladesh in order to build a school together with Austrian architect Anna Heringer.
The aim of the project was to improve local construction methods with earth, as buildings were unable to withstand the annual floods. While working on the school, Heringer and Roswag were shown the ropes by the local craftsmen, and together with Ziegert and Seiler, they developed new ideas. However, when they returned to Germany, filled with the warmth of the people, their experience was simply pigeonholed as a journey of self-awareness – until the “School handmade in Bangladesh” received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007. Eike Roswag immediately shot to fame as a recognized architect for building with earth, took part in specialist panels, sat on juries and shared his specialist knowledge with journalists and amazed audiences alike. The things he talked about, however, are just the simple things in life – sharing experiences and showing respect to one other.
Roswag is the one who puts the studio’s approach to building in words for the public and who as an architect is responsible for giving the buildings the right look. Uwe Seiler, on the other hand, is more of a mathematician and an inventor, someone who likes to work behind the scenes. Finally, Christof Ziegert, the earth expert, is to be found wherever there are earth buildings under construction in Germany – sometimes as a planner, sometimes as a damage surveyor. So far he has rejected any professorships offered to him for fear of having to deal with the time-consuming bureaucracy so common in university structures. Being able to personally look after his own projects is what counts for him: the school made of rammed earth in Morocco currently in planning, the buildings created in the villages of Mozambique and not least of all the edifices in Germany. In Märkische Schweiz region, for example, they designed a residential building next to a cobblestone barn with walls made of rammed earth, and, teaming up with Guntram Jankowski from their former office community and partnership company, they added a top storey to a building in Berlin using insulation material made of reed. They also designed a timber tool house for the fire brigade in Neuseddin in Brandenburg.
Not just having something built but being able to build it yourself – is one of the company’s maxims. Another two are: sharing knowledge is no one-way road and building is a joint social activity. The architects and engineers see themselves as partners rather than aid workers. They are convinced that they get far more from the people they work with than they are able to give themselves. In Abu Dhabi they are currently giving the Indian mud farmers the opportunity to try working with machines, enabling them to return home to their families after just a few weeks. Classes in English and in building with earth are on the agenda next – in return for being taught Arabic. Their next project, a luxurious oasis restaurant, is currently at the planning stage.