Afghan earth architecture builds new standards in design

September 2008 -

When Taliban tanks rolled over the Shomali plains and mighty mountains of Hindu Kush, in 1998, they reduced the medieval town of Istalif including its beautiful gardens, potters shops, and majestic countryside to shambles and an open battlefield. This small community 40 miles north of Kabul was once reputed as the breadbasket of Afghanistan, renown for its centuries old artisan economy. Today the Istalifis are driven to rebuild and revive the heritage of this ancient paradise. Among their many efforts is the task of constructing new schools. Afghanistan has an urgent need for 73,000 classrooms.

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Turquoise Mountain is a foundation dedicated to the regeneration and preservation of art and architecture in Afghanistan. In January 2007 it has developed an Earth Architecture Team. Its task is to build a school extension for girls in Istalif. The building is slated for completion at the end of September 2008. The team is administered by the shura (village council) and consists of rotating groups of 120 locals to maximize employment and training opportunities.

"The 'new' Afghanistan, if the whole international community's project is to last, must be Afghan…not foreign", explains TM's John Elliott. The architecture team, led by Senior Earth Architect Grahame Hunter, works with the government to use techniques that are sensitive and more sympathetic to traditional methods. "Traditions can only survive if you keep building in the vernacular", says Hunter. "The failures of old earth buildings to meet modern aspirations is the reason people have opted for concrete structures."

Rather than relying on foreign standards – and concrete implants - Afghanistan's 'new national standard of design for schools' combines innovative techniques with traditional materials such as earth, straw, stone, lime, and clay. The team relies on low-skilled labor but it can meet modern requirements. As cement is not produced in Afghanistan there is little expertise in its use. Context-specific designs are employed in lieu: earthquake-resistant methods, such as straw in adobe blocks to add tensile strength and bioclimatic designs, such as strategic window and overhang placements.

"A community who built their own school from earth can effectively repair their school for free with their own labor and materials. That is the real definition of sustainability", says Elliott.