This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The cement industry accounts for eight percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is the world’s second most consumed material.
UAE-based architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto have been working on an alternative – and they might just have found one. The duo are due to present their experimental solution, which uses salts and minerals found in the UAE’s sabhkas (salt flats) at the upcoming Venice Biennale 2020.
Their exhibition Wetland, part of the National Pavilion UAE, explores the use of compounds found naturally in one of the UAE’s richest geological features.
“We have a deep and profound interest in the UAE’s geography, as our work as architects is always inspired by natural landscapes and the environment,” explains Teramoto, one of the principal architects at Dubai-based waiwai design and joint curator of the National Pavilion UAE. “As part of our explorations, we’ve been learning for a few years now about the UAE’s sabkhas, which are uniquely large and well-preserved salt flatlands. Abu Dhabi’s sabkha, which is among the largest in the world, has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a reflection of its ecological significance.”
The sabkhas occupy five percent of UAE territory and are found in every emirate except for Fujairah, explains fellow architect and curator Wael Al Awar.
“For this project, we particularly studied the sabkha at Al Ruwais and Liwa in Abu Dhabi emirate, because these areas present a vast scale of salt flats with many different textures,” he says. “This offered us the opportunity to research different varieties, investigate and understand their natural physical composition. Through our experimental process we’ve learned that these salt compounds can be developed into a renewable and sustainable potential building material.”
The energy-intensive process of making Portland cement, the most common version, involves mining, heating and mixing raw materials including sand, gravel, calcium, silicon, aluminium and iron.
“Our ambition is to create an environmentally friendly, renewable building material that can be used as an alternative to Portland cement on a commercial scale,” says Teramoto. “That means it needs to have similar properties to industrial cement, including scalability, strength, durability and cost.”
The pair have teamed up with specialists at New York University Abu Dhabi, the American University of Sharjah and the University of Tokyo to recreate naturally-occurring salt compounds in the lab and formulate the building material.
“This means there is no need to extract salt or other materials from the sabkhas themselves, making the mix fully renewable,” he says.
Al Awar adds: “We are especially pleased with the development of using brine, the waste byproduct of water desalination, as the salt basis for the compound. Brine is typically disposed of back in the ocean, which has a significant negative impact on the environment.
“Although our research into this salt-based material is still new, the results have been promising. More studies and further research will be necessary to see our proposed cement mix become a viable solution and we look forward to continuing the project.”
Their exhibition will be presented at the National Pavilion UAE at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which is being curated by Lebanese architect Hisham Sarkis under the theme How Will We Live Together? Curators have been urged to consider how architecture can address global challenges that require a coordinated response. This year will be the UAE’s tenth at the Biennale, providing a chance for the Emirates to contribute to the global dialogue around environmental sustainability and climate change.
“The UAE’s participation in the Venice Biennale is an opportunity to present a local perspective on global themes and Wetland is an outstanding example of this approach,” says Laila Binbrek, coordinating director of the National Pavilion UAE. “Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto are creating original and important research, and they are an exemplar of the UAE’s national spirit of innovation and creativity. They have drawn inspiration from the sabkha, which is a distinctively local phenomenon, to consider a solution to the universal issue of climate change and sustainability.
“These issues are at the heart of global development and we are very proud that their exhibition will demonstrate the significant contribution that the UAE has to make to the global climate change crisis.”
• The 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is scheduled to run from August 29 to November 29.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.