Dated dwelling: palm leaf architecture

With the need for sustainable and carbon-neutral building techniques continuallly rising, Alyn Griffiths discovers why western architects should look to examples of traditional Middle Eastern construction methods such as palm-leaf architecture for inspiration

As one of the few forms of vegetation available in the arid environment of the United Arab Emirates, palm leaves have been an invaluable building material throughout the 7,000-year history of human habitation in the region. London-based architect Sandra Piesik has been studying the technique of building with palm leaves – also known as Arish – for the past three years, endeavouring to “find out what is the authentic Emirati architecture and how this architecture responded to the regional climate and culture”.

Piesik chose to celebrate the beauty and versatility of Arish in a book called Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture, which launched in April alongside an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society with IBG in London. The exhibition demonstrated the continuing relevance of Arish which, alongside other indigenous building methods such as the use of coral stone, mud brick, dry stone, wood and thatch, is in danger of being lost as it relies on skills that are no longer passed down through the generations.

Traditional palm leaf buildings are constructed using palm trunks, with the walls and roofs covered in a matting of date palm leaves woven together with rope made from fibres taken from the trunk. These buildings accounted for 80 per cent of domestic dwellings in the Emirati region until as recently as the 1970s, when the oil industry introduced sudden wealth and Western building techniques to the Arabian peninsula.

As a locally available, carbon-neutral and biodegradable resource, Arish epitomises the sort of heritage techniques that many contemporary architects are turning to in response to the dire need for fresh thinking regarding urban expansion and its impact on climate change. Other vernacular building principles, including layouts that optimise available shade and wind towers that channel wind into living areas, offer valuable lessons to architects and planners as to how the challenging climatic conditions of the emirates can be tamed using sustainable methods.

Initiatives such as Piesik’s book (published by Thames & Hudson) and exhibition may be the last chance for indigenous techniques like Arish to capture the imagination of a new generation of architects and engineers, who have the skills and technology to develop them in ways that are commercially viable. “In order to safeguard Arish heritage we need to bring it from the past to the contemporary urban landscapes of today's cities in the United Arab Emirates,” insists Piesik. “It is a matter of the survival of 7,000 years of history.”

The 'Palm Leaf Architecture in the United Arab Emirates' exhibition runs until 25 May at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in London, UK