Designing a Sustainable Future

Architect Wael Al Awar harnesses ancient architecture, science, and found resources to create environmentally conscious spaces.



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WAEL AL AWAR has a serious problem. As principal architect of Waiwai, a Dubai- and Tokyo-based architectural design studio, he’s keenly aware that the way buildings are made today has a huge impact on the global climate crisis. The production of cement alone contributes 8% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and is set to rise. “Today we consume 30 billion tons of cement per year,” says Al Awar. “It’s convenient and quick to build with, but has a high environmental cost.”

“When I started to learn all of this, I thought: either I stop practicing architecture, or I need to find another way,” he says from his research lab in Dubai’s creative district. “But you can’t just give up and go and sit in a room and cry about it. You either become proactive or reactive, and I chose to be proactive.”

Al Awar decided to look at how the industrial waste of today has the potential to become tomorrow’s construction materials. Partnering with scientists and universities in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Tokyo, he embarked on a journey to build prototypes of concrete alternatives.

The research made its public debut in the United Arab Emirates’ National Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale in the form of 2,400 hand-cast modules made from a prototype concrete that was inspired by the UAE’s sabkha salt flats. The prototype wasn’t without flaws, and during the planning stages, he was unsure whether it would actually work. “I kept saying that we shouldn’t be afraid of failure,” he says. “Failure is just a step in the process of becoming successful.” His worries proved unfounded, though; the project won the Golden Lion award for Best National Participation, enabling him to broaden awareness of the work and secure additional research funding. But for Al Awar, this was just the beginning. “I always said that Venice was a pit stop, not the end goal,” he says.



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What initially fascinated Al Awar about the UAE’s sabkha was the cementitious crusts and the salt-based “glue” that holds the mineral components together. In Egypt’s Siwa Oasis, structures made from sabkha have been standing for 900 years. By engaging with chemistry labs and universities, Al Awar and his team were able to learn more about the science of different salts and how the substances could potentially be replicated for use in large-scale construction.

In traditional cement manufacturing, the conversion of limestone to lime, used as the binding glue, releases carbon dioxide into the environment. Al Awar wanted to find an alternative binder. “You have to look at geography and geology because these glues should be natural products that come from the natural environment,” he says.


Naturally occurring salts are effective glues in the sabkha, and Al Awar realized that a similar material was being pumped out into the sea surrounding the UAE each day in the form of highly concentrated saline water, a byproduct of the desalination the country relies upon to meet its water usage needs. His team experimented with this waste brine and produced a new type of “cement” that absorbs carbon dioxide to gain structural strength. This material has the potential to combat two problems simultaneously: a reduction in excess brine entering the sea and the absorption — rather than the emission — of carbon dioxide.

Al Awar is now developing “prototype 2.0,” as he calls it, to create something that can ultimately be used to construct human-centric buildings. The structures may look significantly different from the buildings we inhabit today. “Architecture should go beyond functionality,” he says. “It should also be about bringing joy to the user.”

This unconventional approach extends to all of Waiwai’s work. As a design studio, it’s known for stepping outside of its comfort zone and diving into chemistry, material sciences, and engineering — all territories that aren’t typically part of an architect’s purview. The studio eschews a unifying style in favor of including context and cultural sensitivity, incorporating natural phenomena and creating a synthesis between architecture, landscape, and art. Visitors to the Waiwai-designed Jameel arts centers in Dubai and Jeddah immediately feel that these are spaces designed to bring people together.

It’s the same at the elderly care facility that Waiwai designed in northern Japan, a property seeming less like an institution and more like a community, and in the mosques designed by the studio in Dubai that feature no boundary walls or lockable doors. “In the past, mosques were community centers and inclusive spaces, but modern ways of thinking have created a feeling that boundaries need to be secured,” Al Awar says.

He’s optimistic about the future of architecture and his role in it. “Today I can’t say that I will not use cement anymore, but if I continue to make efforts, maybe five to 10 years down the line, I can shift from what I’m using today to something different.”

Away from the lab and the pieces built for the Venice Architecture Biennale, Al Awar is focused on practical steps — building a single-story house in the UAE as proof of concept. “We talk a lot about what we’re doing today,” he says, “but if people don’t come and see it and walk inside it, they won’t understand, and it will remain only a theory.”

Our Contributors

Nicola Chilton Writer

Nicola Chilton has lived and worked in six countries and currently makes the United Arab Emirates home. She writes about people and places for a number of major publications in the U.S., Europe, Middle East, and Asia.

Prod Antzoulis Photographer

Prod Antzoulis is a Cypriot-born photographer and creative director raised in Dubai. With an aesthetic firmly rooted in the Middle East, Antzoulis captures the lifestyle and consumer culture while attempting to narrate his journey, mapping reference points which allow him to decipher his cross-cultural identity.


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