Asad I Khan As prices for conventional high energy consuming materials like cement, steel and aluminum are increasing, natural materials are gaining more interest. This could also be a chance to develop rural areas, as they will deliver more raw material and readymade products in the future. The change is ongoing; the sooner we are joining forces the sooner we will reach the goal of a sustainable building future and living. Pakistan is one of the countries where a rich natural building tradition still exists and could easily be further transformed. We need to work on an economic way to build durable natural buildings, which means technology and also we need to work on capacities of artisans and academics. - Eike Roswag

By Zain Mankani Photos: Roswag & Jankowski Architekten

Roswag Architekten is a Berlin-based firm that is making waves in the South-East Asia region through their award-winning earth and bamboo buildings. In 2007 they won the Aga Khan Award for a school building in Rudrapur, Bangladesh. They followed that up with another award-winning school building in a small village near Sheikhupura, in Pakistan, which won the Holcim Foundation Award last year. Their architecture is low-tech and uses local materials and appropriate technology to build climatically responsive structures with the assistance of local artisans. In the process, they train local artisans, support local building businesses and generate income for local farmers and artisans. It is a complete model for sustainable development that needs to be implemented far and wide.
ARCHI TIMES talks to the principal architect, Eike Roswag, to find out more about this dynamic firm.

ARCHI TIMES: Please tell us a little about your background and professional education. How did you develop interest in Architecture and where did you receive your training?
Eike Roswag:
Starting at a young age already, I was interested in society and in the history of the village I grew up in, as well as in the people, the economic development and farms to small factories etc. When I was 15, the government tried to close down the old school I was in. I was very active for its preservation, which was finally, after three years, successful. I would say that I am a very political person but haven't been a member of any political party yet.
Since I grew up on a farm, I was working on construction and buildings from my youth on. After high school I did a two and a half year training as professional carpenter. I decided then to go to an architecture school, since architecture can combine practical elements as well as social aspects and culture. All these elements I can find in my work so far.

AT: Did you work with another architect/firm before setting up your own?
The first practical experience I gained after university: I worked for three years as a site supervisor, for example for a big museum site in Leipzig and other complex projects. I did not work in the design department, but worked for well-known German architects like Hufnagel Pütz Raffaelian (Leipzig Museum) and Max Dudler on different projects.

AT: Tell us a little about your office - staff size, organizational structure, working methodology etc.
When I was a student coordinator in 1998, I met Christof Ziegert during a practice project in Mexico where we built small community centers with communities in the Serra Nevada. This was also my first intensive intercultural experience. In 2003, we had our first project - a rammed earth house close to Berlin - and then opened our own office together with another civil engineer Uwe Seiler. From the very beginning, we followed an integrated design approach, where architects and engineers are working together. We extended our knowledge in the direction of energy efficiency and environmental design through the DGNB the German green building council. We do have a general view on the design and are able to guide a big design team into integrative sustainable design solutions.

Since 2009, two limited companies, Roswag Architekten and Ziegert | Seiler Ingenieure have been working under one umbrella together in an office facility, which we have established in 2010. At the moment we are working with 27 employees.

AT: What is your design philosophy?
For us every project is related to a specific cultural, social and technical context. We try to find out the specific needs and background of every project, try to cooperate with the client and users as much as possible to get all project related information and to integrate many players into the design process. We are not looking for a unique office design profile. If our projects are able to be read in their context and even vary very much from each other, we have done our job well. We are also focusing on natural building materials, with a specific focus on earthen building, which is something all our projects have in common.

We also like to experiment and develop new construction methods out of natural materials. We try to use and further develop things we have learned. We do not need to re-invent the wheel every day. In this sense we are working on building systems, which can be adapted to different situations. This is very visual in the Mozambique project. You will also find in all our bamboo projects the simple knot method we have developed for the Bangladesh school etc.

AT: There is a lot of emphasis in your work on the use of natural materials like earth, and on sustainability. How did that interest develop?
At my parent's farm I used to work on soil and experienced traditional rural natural building like the German "Fachwerkhaus". Maybe this sounds a bit too romantic, but these are my roots. During the time at the university I was working on ecological design solutions and came very soon to low-tech natural building in Europe. Sun-dried earth as a natural product is very humidity active: it cools the indoor climate and gives a healthy comfortable environment. By adding water, earth can be reused endless or be given back to the nature. In this sense earth is widely available, cheap, very sustainable and good for the inhabitants. Very important is that we never add cement to earth, as the material will loose its positive capacities and cannot then be reused.

Wood, bamboo and other natural building materials do have similar capacities and are working very well in combination with earth. Although we always need to ensure that earth and the natural materials do have a dry foot through a horizontal damp proof against uprising humidity and a solid hat to protect them against rain.

AT: Research into materials, especially rammed earth, is an important aspect of your approach. How do you conduct this research? How is it funded?
Christof Ziegert was a researcher at the German Technical University in Berlin. Today we do have our own laboratory where we do develop earthen construction materials, investigate historic materials and test materials like bamboo for our design and buildings. We are involved in international research projects for example on earthquake resistance of earthen heritage. Most of these projects do have a commercial background or are integrated in research funds for example from the European Union.

AT: You have done a lot of projects in developing countries, like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mozambique. How did you end up working in places so far from Berlin and in such different working environments? How are these projects managed?
As mentioned above, the project in Mexico was our starting point. As we started our project in 2004 with Anna Heringer in Bangladesh we have developed design and implementation strategies for this background more and more. We have also learned from the people in Bangladesh to think positive during any time of the project. We do not accept arrogance or hierarchical thinking. If you are able to communicate with people on a human level and interact in a kind way you can share responsibility and progress.
We have tried to reduce our presence in the regions we worked in as much as possible, but we never managed to give the entire processes to local hands and had always our own staff on site. In general I need to say that we enjoy interacting on a human level and we are always learning so much from the people we have met.

AT: Tell us about your school project in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, which won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
In 2004, I went with Anna Heringer to Bangladesh to research for her final thesis. I spent a few weeks with the people in the villages, investigated their capacities, skills and material resources, which are mainly earth and bamboo. With my partners and the carpenter and basket maker Emmanuel Heringer we designed and tested a building system based on the local hands which could be easily built by the people in Bangladesh. We supported Anna as well through her university design and took over for a detailed design. In 2005 we have spent four and a half months on the construction site which was the best time of my life. The whole structure was built by hand - we just had some drill machines to speed-up the process by drilling the holes for the bamboo joints. During this time we learned much about the spirit of rural societies, positive thinking and the power of people.

AT: What impact did winning the Aga Khan Award have on your practice?
The Aga Khan award was a very big support. We got linked into a specific society and network and can count on the network's experience. For example Farroukh Dherakshani, head of Aga Khan Awards, gave us always very useful advice when needed. Before the award I was thinking ok we did an exotic project in Bangladesh, now the western world is happy with our exotic project. But with the Aga Khan Award I have learned more about the relevant development aspects we have implemented by working on a skill level with the people.

The Award and the network as well are supporting our work in the Middle East and other Islamic regions. Since we won the Award we do not need to question our capacities as the award warranties represent a level of quality.
In general our focus changed more to the Islamic world, which is very fruitful for our office and interesting for our team.

AT: Tell us about your school project in Tipu Sultan Merkez (TSM), Sheikhupura, Pakistan. How did that come about and who are the main stakeholders or partners?
The school was founded by the Jah family and is supported by an association of a friend in Germany and Pakistan. Mr. Jah's roots are from that region and 10 years ago he bought some land to establish a school mainly for girls. As the school was growing, additional classrooms were needed and TSM asked us to join their team with our approach of using local resources and to work with local capacities.

We have designed an earthquake resistant structure out of two blocks with two classrooms in a solid earth block in the ground floor and a first floor out of bamboo, filled with earth. A big veranda is connecting both blocks and is giving additional space for a flexible use. As the climate close to Lahore is getting cold in the winter, we oriented the building towards the sun to gain some passive solar energy from the sun through glazed windows. Throughout the year the earth is regulating the humidity and temperature and is ensuring a comfortable healthy indoor environment. Through a well designed night cross ventilation the building cools down at night in the hot summer.

AT: The TSM School has also won an award - the Holcim Foundation Award. What were the factors that led to this award and what does it mean for your firm?
The school is fulfilling all sustainability criteria set by the Holcim Foundation starting from the ecological building technology, which is very visual and easy to understand. Through following and transforming the local building culture the project has many cultural and social aspects as well. While we are training qualified local artisans we are supporting the development of a rural building business, by generating income for the artisans and the farmers through growing bamboo.

With the project we are looking for a deep integration into the local culture, as we are intending to set up an education system that will hopefully be established at TSM with the support of GIZ and should then be linked with the Institute of Architects in Pakistan IAP, Lahore chapter and other organizations.

AT: You have visited Pakistan. Tell us about your experience of the country and people.
Through a conference of the IAP Lahore chapter on natural building systems I came personally to Pakistan and also handed over the Holcim Award to the artisans and to TSM. I visited artisans and their families as well as colleagues and explored the city of Lahore. It was a very nice, friendly and warm welcome, exactly the opposite of what western media is trying to tell us.

AT: Tell us how your experience of working in Pakistan has been in comparison to other developing countries like Bangladesh and Mozambique.
For us it is very similar as we are working with an open approach on equal level, people immediately start interaction and cooperation, which is necessary in order to work in a culture we are not so familiar with. We are dependent on local knowledge, as inhabitants do know their environment better.

AT: Are there any other projects that you are working on in Pakistan?
Through the Lahore conference we are liked to some projects that we are now supporting on the technical level. We are also planning to build a kindergarten at the TSM campus. In general we are more interested in sharing technologies and to be involved in the education of artisan and academics as well than doing our own projects. I am interested to be involved in further pilot projects and partnerships with local architects and engineers to scale the number of buildings realized in the advanced natural building techniques. This could be for example a school building program in the rural areas. I would also like to focus on a housing system with two to three storeys, which could be transformed in the villages as well as in the urban context. On the technical level the TSM School is very similar to the school in Bangladesh, but is more advanced with glazed windows, floor tiles, nice wall plasters etc. Why shouldn't a well-situated family in the city use the same healthy construction system with nice wooden floors etc. as middle class people do at the moment in Germany?

AT: Do you see a bright future for earth-building in the places where you have worked, especially in Pakistan?
As prices for conventional high energy consuming materials like cement, steel and aluminum are increasing, natural materials are gaining more interest. This could also be a chance to develop rural areas, as they will deliver more raw material and readymade products in the future. The change is ongoing; the sooner we are joining forces the sooner we will reach the goal of a sustainable building future and living. Pakistan is one of the countries where a rich natural building tradition still exists and could easily be further transformed. We need to work on an economic way to build durable natural buildings, which means technology and also we need to work on capacities of artisans and academics.

AT: What other projects are you working on currently worldwide?
Currently, we are working on the construction of a hospital in Ethiopia out of earth and bamboo as sub-consultant for another German design company. We are also working on the design for big factory plants out of bamboo and earth in Ethiopia.
In Doha we are working on the rehabilitation of the Old Palace, which will be the first exhibit of the national museum of Qatar, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

In Germany we are working on wooden structures thermally insulated for the wintertime with cellulose and newspaper recycling. We are trying to reduce building technology, while keeping the efficiency. Our housing project in Berlin with eleven units has a humidity active building shell and is very healthy and efficient without a mechanical ventilation system, which is the common standard in Germany at the moment. For our carpentry workshop in the centre of Berlin we have developed and built a special wooden fish belly truss, which is spanning over 20 meters. This building is heated with a small plant using the refuse of the production and is heated 100% carbon neutral.

AT: You have done restoration projects in the Middle East. Tell us about these and how was your experience of working in the Middle East?
We did work on the heritage of Abu Dhabi before and we are working with the Qatar Museum Authority at the moment and also on heritage strategies. Since we are joining as foreign experts on conservation and earthen technology we are working with the local partners on a high international standard, which is the main interest of all partners.

The projects in that region are always under a big pressure. We have to work very focused and quick. In Abu Dhabi we had the chance to work with our friends of the Hunnarshala Foundation - a development and conservation expert team from Gujarat in India - who are adding a high-end artisan level through the building process. In Doha we are going to develop a local conservation artisan team together. With this expertise and a permanent local presence we are working on a very high-end level together.

AT: What are the main differences in the approach to architecture in Germany and in the Middle East, South-East Asia and Africa?
In Germany we are working on a technically high level and a very established form of design and engineering which is time-consuming but makes our work very precise. We do have our well-educated crafts, our DIN norms etc. and everything is quite established.

In the Middle East, everything needs to be done as fast as possible and we have very limited time to go into details. If you like to work on site on a high level you need to train your own staff to bring in people from outside. The situation in Doha is a bit different: We did have a chance to go into details, had the time for a detailed investigation and discussion of the old buildings, but again in a very short time frame.

In Bangladesh and Pakistan the people we worked with in the development context, we found very interested and powerful. They had a keen interest to develop their skills and to give us a clear feedback of what they thought about our ideas. We were able to set up a great teamwork on an equal level learning from each other and working on a high-end level.

The implementation of a rural building strategy to support rural development in Mozambique was very difficult as many parties had their own interests, which were quite often linked to conventional materials. There is not a big interest to support rural societies. Development work is also a business in Africa. The money from outside is making people dependent on money where in the past strong social networks existed. People are now first of all asking for money and do not see their own chances in the cooperation with people from outside projects.

I always thought that Germany was the most bureaucratic country but many countries are trying to reach international standards by establishing a crazy bureaucracy. But all these experiences are training us to be flexible and to use positive communication in our work.

AT: Can you name other architects whose work inspires you?
I am very impressed by architecture from the past, which is linked to local climatic conditions and societies and based on a high-end artisan quality. I do not like architects who are putting their own interest, benefit and design visions before anything else like Zaha Hadid. These people are the dinosaur of the carbon or oil society and are not respecting our limited resources, producing the same icons wherever people pay for it. We are looking for a new architecture related to a changing global society, and learning to live with limited resources, based on the regions and its tradition. This period for sure will not be so spectacular, but it will be linked with society. People will hopefully trust more in these buildings.

AT: Do you have any advice for Pakistani architects regarding the use of indigenous or natural materials in their projects?
I have no advice. I can say that we have always learned much from people in the regions. If we share an open-minded view with the people on an equal level we see that a good knowledge exists in all regions and can then be further developed. I would love to be involved in such a process with colleagues in the future. We will see what will happen.