In his capacity as member of the Academic Committee of the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction since 2014, Philippe Block has been instrumental in realising exemplary projects and in leading debates to promote and enhance sustainability in how and with which materials we build. Philippe Block is Professor of Architecture and Structure at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland and was elected as a member of the Board of Directors of LafargeHolcim Ltd at its Annual General Meeting 2020.
“Global knowledge must meet local building materials,” explained Philippe Block, co-moderator of the workshop “From manual to digital and vice versa” at the previous international LafargeHolcim Forum which took place in Cairo and was dedicated to Re-materializing Construction. “The great potential of digitalization lies in the capabilities of sharing knowledge, for example in the form of tutorials,” he added. “From an ecological point of view, it is better to disseminate knowledge than to transport materials.”
Imposing challenges and disruptive changes
The Materials Book, published by Ruby Press in Berlin based on the LafargeHolcim Forum in Cairo, features contributions by Philippe Block and his team that show that the use of construction materials is about doing more with less: One expert paper rethinks the floor slab by imposing challenges and disruptive changes, the other explains how building is possible with concrete using a stay-in-place knitted fabric formwork. Both are tangible examples of the work lead by Philippe Block who is convinced that the construction industry must do more “to survive the next decades in which sustainability targets will increasingly have to be enforced.”
Responsible material solutions
Examples of successful collaboration between Philippe Block, LafargeHolcim and its Foundation include the Droneport project at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2016, using compressed earth bricks (Durabric by LafargeHolcim) to construct a self-supporting vault designed by Lord Norman Foster which is still standing the test of time on at the Arsenale di Venezia. “LafargeHolcim is clearly leading the market in pushing innovation in sustainability and the development of responsible material solutions,” says Philippe Block who has been experimenting with customized products for example for the lightweight roof structure of the NEST modular research and innovation building in Dübendorf amongst an array of other projects round the globe.
Together with John Ochsendorf of MIT Cambridge, Philippe Block was involved in the project of a stabilized earth visitors’ center at Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa that received an Acknowledgment prize in the LafargeHolcim Awards 2008. It was completed in 2009 using latest developments in structural geometry along with an ancient construction technique to implement a contemporary design. In a special global edition of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui in 2019, Philippe Block stated that the LafargeHolcim Awards “have given many winners the opportunity to grow into the game-changers they are today.” As the career of Philippe Block continues to show!
Holistic approach to sustainable construction
The LafargeHolcim Foundation promotes sustainable construction projects and concepts around the globe. It developed five “target issues” to address sustainability in a comprehensive way and with the aim to clarify principles for sustaining the human habitat for future generations. As part of its activities, the Foundation presents the internationally renowned LafargeHolcim Awards for projects and visions in sustainable construction and holds Forums and conferences on specific topics related to sustainability. The Foundation was established 2003 as an initiative of LafargeHolcim, the leading global provider of building materials and construction solutions. The ambition of LafargeHolcim is to set industry standards for reducing carbon emissions and to develop and promote high-quality sustainable materials around the world.See more
The Mapungubwe Interpretation Center was completed in 2009 using latest developments in structural geometry along with an ancient construction technique, in order to implement a contemporary design, meant to house centuries-old artifacts. The stabilized earth visitors’ center is constructed with stabilized earth tiles that were made near the site, rather than fired-clay bricks. The traditional timbrel vaulting, using locally-made pressed soil cement tiles, allows the design to be materialized with minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement.
The vaults have been designed in collaboration with John Ochsendorf from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) and Michael Ramage from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), using a 600-year old construction system that is both economical and has a low-environmental impact.
Timbrel vaulting (or “Catalan vaulting”) is being rediscovered as an ecological building technique because it saves large amounts of building materials and thus embodied energy. This also makes it a cheap building method, at least in regions where manual labor is affordable. The design makes use of sunlight for day lighting and open-air rooms without walls yet covered above to take advantage of breezes and shade. Ample natural light is brought in through windows and skylights. Its intensity is tempered by rusted steel screens that echo the branches of indigenous trees, and reflecting ponds bounce sunlight up into vaults, giving diffused and dramatic light. Reflecting ponds are placed around the perimeter of the building to cool the air that naturally passes through the structures.
As part of the project's Poverty Relief Program, dozens of local workers were trained as masons. Masonry's high thermal mass makes it perfect for an energy-efficient project, but it is sustainable in broader ways. The program trained unskilled laborers to produce over 200,000 tiles required for the construction of the domes using a manual brick-pressing machine. Masonry is not a relic of history, but is leveraged as a means of economic empowerment and a catalyst for new, sustainable forms.
In addition to being made out of local materials, the center was constructed by unemployed local workers who were trained in the production of the stabilized earth tiles that were used to build it. These skills are now a part of the culture of the region, and the masons continue to use them and the leftover tiles for their houses in nearby villages.See more
In 2009, architect Peter Rich won the World Building of the Year award for his Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, a building on the site of an ancient civilization which is also designed to highlight the fragility of the environment.
The World Architecture Festival awards jury praised the project as the most architecturally and psychologically powerful nomination. Chaired by Rafael Viñoly, this year’s international jury included Kengo Kuma, Farshid Moussavi, Suha Ozkan and Tim Macfarlane.
The way in which the project related to the land and made graceful virtues of the challenging issues of sustainability, politics and social improvement made it a highly deserving winner.See more
The winners of the second Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction from across region Africa Middle East were announced at a ceremony in Marrakech. Total prize money of USD 270,000 was presented to eleven projects that illustrated the broad scope for applying sustainable construction approaches to the built environment across public and private architecture, urban planning, and environmental remediation.Sustainable construction projects applauded across Africa Middle East » Pour en savoir plus (French) »
This project deals with two kinds of relationships: the one between people and the environment and the one amongst people. The project to house the Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center reﬂects the natural landscape in its materials and the cultural landscape in its form. The project is conceptualized as a place for commemorating the historical relevance of the site in relation to a past civilization.
The overall design relies on a spatial concept aligned to a narrative and coupled to building shapes which respond to the natural landscape. The buildings are inspired by an innovative construction technique of a light-weight vaulted-system for roofs and walls fabricated using stabilized earth-tiles. The adaptation of the vault-system with the objective of using local materials combined with a smart construction technology and thus enhancing skills development and employment opportunities are the key merits of this project.See more
The Stabilized earth visitors’ center, Mapungubwe National Park, builds relationships amongst people as well as between people and the environment. The building’s form uses materials and techniques which reflect the landscape and cultural traditions of place. The innovative construction uses stabilized earth tiles in a system of lightweight vaulted spaces.Download project entry poster (PDF, 2.94 MB) »
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