The United Nations relief agency in the Gaza Strip is planning to build 20 “green” schools in the Palestinian territory. The head architect on the project says the self-sufficient buildings will be environmentally sustainable, while providing dignity for refugee students.
The project's organizers outlined their plans recently in Durban, South Africa.
The Palestinian territories are often left out of the discussion on climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, the territories rank 137th on the list of the world's carbon dioxide emitters - polluting slightly less than Iceland and slightly more than Madagascar.
But, after years of conflict, the area has significant development needs.
“We have about 240 schools," says Robert Stryk, program support coordinator of UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency working in the Gaza Strip. "These 240 schools, they provide education for about 230,000 children and we have about 40,000 children which are on waiting lists because, basically, we can't care for them.”
To tackle the problem, UNRWA is building the 20 green schools - using low-cost, environmentally-sustainable technology - which will pollute less and conserve more.
Ideal testing ground
The buildings can provide for 800 students each and cost about $2 million.
The architect behind the project, Mario Cucinella, says the difficult living conditions in Gaza make it an ideal testing ground for sustainable projects.
“I think the challenge in Gaza, which is one of the most extreme areas in the world, it's very difficult," he says. "It's like a window on a future disaster. Everybody talks about what will be the future: too many people, an explosion of demographic problems, difficulty to access natural resources, difficult to get energy, difficult to get water, so everything is already in Gaza.”
Trees on the roof of the green school help control temperatures inside. (Courtesy Mario Cucinella Architects)
In a place where 90 percent of the available drinking water is not safe to drink, the schools will catch rainwater which is purified through a system of sand and planted tree roots.
Where summer temperatures reach 40 degrees Celsius, the buildings will sit on what Cucinella calls an “air lake,” which is a bed of gravel that allows the cooler air from the ground to circulate. And the classrooms will be built with high ceilings which let the hot air move up and away.
The broad columns that support the structure are filled with excavated earth, another low-tech device for controlling temperatures.
Combining old with the new
Cucinella says the design combines new technology with basic construction elements that have long been used in the Middle East.
“I like to think the school that we designed is, in one way, a look at the past as a reference - so, how people were able to deal with climate conditions for centuries without any electricity - and a look at the future, because we are able to use some really high-tech, specific technology to run the building better than before,” said Cucinella.
UNRWA says the first school will be completed in the next 12 months, but that more financing and technical expertise are needed to complete the full project.
The green building plans are part of UNRWA's broader reconstruction projects to help rebuild, following the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza that killed some 1,400 Palestinians nearly four years ago.