The Solar-Powered Village That Could Change Egypt’s Mind About Sustainable Building
From a distance, the Tayebat Workers Village doesn’t seem so different from the ancient Egyptian architecture that inspired it. As Egypt’s first completely solar-powered village, the network of off-the-grid structures fuses traditional local culture and emerging technology to create an artful model for sustainable building. Located in the Bahariya Oasis, a desert outpost of olive and date groves a couple hundred miles outside Cairo, the low-slung sandstone buildings will house up to 350 seasonal agricultural workers.
“As far as I know, this is the largest completely self-powered [village] in Egypt,” Karim Kafrawi, the project’s principal architect, tells me over the phone. “It’s also zero carbon, because of the materials we used,” he says, noting that the village was built using more than 90 percent natural earth substances.
Designed to blend almost invisibly into its desert environment, even the advanced array of solar paneling is meant to be integrated as seamlessly as possible. “We wanted it to be unobtrusive on the local surroundings, both visually and environmentally speaking,” says Kafrawi.
The village was created by KarmBuild, a subsidiary of KarmSolar, which Kafrawi co-founded in 2011 to bring unique power solutions to the region’s remote areas. According to KarmSolar, the village will generate more than 150,000 kilowatt-hours of power annually, roughly equivalent to the energy usage of 15 average American homes.
For Tayebat Workers Village, situated near a rare lake and network of springs as well as historical sites like the Valley of the Golden Mummies, KarmBuild’s true design breakthrough had to do with stone, not sun.
“They had all this buildable, natural sandstone on their land, just big rocky hills that they were just going to remove so they could use the land for agricultural purposes,” says Kafrawi. His team decided to use that stone as their primary building material.
Utilizing the sandstone saved the project money on industrial building supplies, achieved the desired visual effect, and reduced the project’s environmental footprint. But it was a slow process, reliant on a dwindling number of builders familiar with the region’s natural resources since many Egyptians connect traditional building styles with poverty, and “the idea of progress is associated with industrial materials.”
“Not many people know how to build it, but Aswan [a city in southern Egypt] has local workers that know how to work in these traditional methods,” says Kafrawi. “The craft of building in those traditional forms is almost nonexistent in most parts of the country. Ninety-nine percent of construction in Egypt revolves around reinforced concrete structures, or plastered-over red brick.”
Another time-consuming challenge was simply building an energy self-sufficient structure in the middle of the desert. The area is, as Kafrawi puts it, “insanely hot,” and operating most mechanical cooling systems would require an unreasonably large number of solar panels. In an attempt to mitigate that load, Kafrawi’s firm employed a number of design techniques—wind-catchers, hot air extractors, strategic placement of doors and windows—to provide natural cooling. But that kind of planning is painstaking as it must be precisely tailored to the specific project.
“It really depends on the location, the exact location, its orientation to cool winds,” he says.
Still, it’s been worth it for Kafrawi. Not only is the village “a dramatic improvement” over most Egyptian housing for agriculture workers—features include a canteen, cafeteria, and other public spaces—it’s also a convincing argument for sustainable architecture in a country where pressing economic concerns are making long-term infrastructure investments a distant priority. Despite developing several solar initiatives over the last few years, Egypt has at times appeared to waver in its commitment. The country’s popular subsidies for conventional grid-based energy help low-income households, but for now, they also make switching to renewables like solar less attractive.
“Eventually they’re going to cut the subsidies. … The future is very strong for solar power because of that,” Kafrawi predicts, noting Egyptian businesses are showing growing interest in renewable energy in anticipation of the subsidies being cut.
Though the British-Egyptian architect works all over the Middle East and Europe, bringing projects like the solar village to Egypt has a particularly personal appeal to Kafrawi. “I saw an opportunity to do something there,” he says. “And I’m not the only one—every Egyptian who feels they have some skills they can apply, they want to change the dynamics that haven’t helped a majority of the people there.”
“I always wanted to fuse the ideas of progressive architecture and what we have there as a local culture,” continues Kafrawi. “And try to make things that both apply to a sense of identity and employ new technology to create new ideas for living.”
Kafrawi talks about eventually bringing solar power to the masses in urban settings. But for now, his company’s slate of new projects for hotels and tourist destinations in Egypt backs up the architect’s faith that others are also betting on the country’s solar future.
The Tayebat Workers Village is in its final stages of completion, and KarmSolar aims to have the facility operational by spring 2017.