Going Green In Gaza

An unprecedented UN initiative to build environmentally friendly schools in Gaza.

By Judith Stapleton

Mario Cucinella and his Bologna-based firm have once again taken the lead in creating liveable landscapes even in the harshest environments.

Cucinella was recognized with an Honorary Fellowship this year by the American Institute of Architects for exceptional work and contributions to architecture and to society on an international level, and this award follows closely on the heels of last year’s similar recognition by the Royal Institute of British Architects, among many others.

Perhaps the most notable example of Cucinella’s dedication to making architecture of sustainable service to human needs is his joint venture in the Gaza Strip.

In response to the Italian government’s request to get involved in Gaza, Cucinella visited the Palestinian Territories, and, in collaboration with the UN Relief and Works Agency and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, inspired his team to design a green school for 800 students, that could be entirely self-sustaining in this energy- scarce, water-poor, and conflict-ridden region, and serve as an educational oasis to thousands of children desperate to belong to the future.

The UNRWA is entirely responsible for providing health, educational and temporary residential infrastructure to the people of the Palestinian Territories, and under Israeli law, they are only permitted to use materials bought from Israel. This constraint prevents the use of all sorts of  building materials taken through the tunnels throughout the Territories in efforts to keep up with the Israeli destruction of Palestinian communities.

Cucinella’s green design entails capturing the 100–600mm of annual rainwater, and recycling waste-water, so that the school can provide potable water all day every day.

Temperatures here can average 38 degrees, so it is hard for children to concentrate on their studies. The new school uses sufficient thermal mass to store energy and regulate it. These are simple architectural features that are easily pre-fabricated. The difficulty is that everything that comes from Israel comes slowly. Solar panels and thermal technologies help keep the school entirely off the power grid, which is controlled by Israel and usually reduced to two hours supply a day.

When interviewed about the concept of a green school in the Middle East, Cucinella replied:

In the beginning it was a little difficult as people are naturally reluctant to change but after you explain the case and the changes that the school could have on the conditions the children study in, they recognize the benefits of the project. In fact, when we presented the project at a conference I was surprised how optimistic and enthusiastic people were and they were saying if you can do this project in Gaza, you could do any project anywhere in the world! I mean we worry about this catastrophic vision of the world where there are no resources, no money, no energy and basically you don’t have to dream that in Gaza — it’s already like this. In a way, what I came away with is that the frugality of people is greater than any oppression — people are strong and are able to adapt to really difficult situations.

For me, it was also really exciting talking to the engineering students in Gaza — these people don’t really have any future, there is no work in Gaza and yet they go to school, they go to university and study engineering because they hope that something will change. For me, that was really inspiring. And I guess one day or another, this story of conflict will be finished. Maybe that day will be tomorrow or maybe it will be in another two hundred years but it will be over. Also when you are there you feel that the people of Gaza are more optimistic about their future than the people on the outside.

To design new schools and imagine a new life for the people of Gaza is a different approach to humanitarian action, and to the whole concept of sustainable living in spite of environmental and socio-political pressures.

The first zero-emissions school will  cost $2 million, and this is no more than UNRWA usually spends on an educational facility in the region.

Although the current focus remains on building schools in Gaza, UNRWA also operates in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, where it is hoped 1/2 a million refugees will eventually have access to a bright green education! Riding this creative wave of hope for life in Palestine, MC Architects’s greening of Gaza includes an off-grid Women’s Centre, whose roof includes an array of skylights that regulate daylight and solar gains in the interiors, and where rainwater is harvested by the roof itself, and stored in tanks buried in the earth walls. Life in the desert has never been easy. But architecture that embraces the local elements offers an oasis for the people who must find a way to live there.

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.