Hanaa Dahy standing infront of the BioMat Pavilion (2018)

Interview: Hanaa Dahy on the architect’s responsibility towards sustainable construction

Shortlisted for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award and Mohamed Makiya Prize, Egyptian academic, architect and inventor Hanaa Dahy discusses the importance of acting now for a sustainable future.

A recently announced finalist for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award, as well as its Mohamed Makiya Prize, both of which recognise individuals who positively impact the built environment, Stuttgart-based, Egyptian architect Hanaa Dahy has dedicated her career to creating a sustainable future.

Dahy has accomplished several international patents in the area of sustainable building materials. Her registered product, BioFlexi, is a sustainable building product suitable for flexible architectural design variations. Made of recycled straw fibres, the material was used by Dahy and a team in Germany to build three building mockups, illustrating its ease of use and affordability. Dahy’s work has been internationally recognised and has won various prizes including the Materialpreis in 2019. It was also nominated for an Eco-Prize Award. In addition to her material innovation, she has been invited to speak at international talks in London, Texas, Paris, Barcelona and elsewhere. Dahy is a founding member of the Stuttgart Research Center for Architecture, and she established a research department at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Stuttgart, through which she pushes forward an agenda of sustainability. 

Dahy speaking at the Karlsruhe ZKM Lecture in October 2020

Here, she speaks with Round City about her passions for sustainable construction and the importance of exploring renewable resources.

Tell us about your background.
I graduated from the American School in Cairo in 1998. There, I learned multiple languages and explored the diversity of different cultures. Afterwards, I joined Ain Shams University’s faculty of engineering in Cairo, and later its architectural engineering department. I consider this place my home, where I learned engineering and understood ‘something about everything’ – I learned a bit about almost every engineering branch while studying architecture, thanks to the department’s strong set curriculum. This made a great difference for me later when I settled in Europe and initiated my multidisciplinary work. I was able to match architecture with diverse multi-disciplinary engineering branches to reach innovation, apply digitalisation and earn sustainability.

I established my office in Cairo in 2003 after graduating first in the architectural department and with honours. At my office, I worked on a variety of projects of different scales in the Middle East and was, simultaneously, academically active at universities in Cairo. In 2006, I obtained my Master’s Degree from Ain Shams University and began preparing for my next step: going international. After receiving two scholarships, one to the US and the other to Canada, I decided to shift my focus to Germany to develop my career in the field of sustainable architecture in an innovative, industrial and digital manner.

In 2009, I learned my fourth language – German. This was an important step that enabled me to master communications and teaching in Germany, as well as to access the strong network within the country’s industrial community of different sectors. I initiated through that a strong collaboration with diverse sectors including the automotive, robotic, additive manufacturing, air-craft design, textile engineering, chemical technology, material development, computer science, biology, waste management, intelligent systems, further diverse specialisations and, of course, the architecture and building sector.

Since 2010, I have worked intensively on developing my own ‘recipes’ for alternative sustainable building materials based on annual biomass renewable resources, including straw fibres from the agricultural rest-overs, as well as from industrial natural fibres like flax, hemp, jute and others. My intention was to initiate a new line in architectural practice that relies on re-discovering our local resources in a modern digital way, as all my products and projects rely on digital fabrication techniques and are designed using parametric computational models. In 2013 and 2014, my patents were officially filed and later registered to initiate a direct link to real market applications, which have since grown. My patents in the field of green building materials are registered in the EU, US and Malaysia.

Dahy’s material innovations on display at the Hannover Exhibition

Since 2016, I received my professorship to initiate my BioMat department (bio-based materials and materials cycles in architecture), which constitutes a section in the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design in the faculty of architecture and urban planning at the University of Stuttgart. In parallel, I started diverse consultations and networking with multinational companies, like IKEA, Honda, Audi, Mercedes and many others. In addition, my office work was also accredited in Germany and has been successfully registered in the architects’ chamber of Stuttgart.

In 2018, I built a 10-metre span shell of parametrically designed and digitally fabricated bio composite panels. The panels belong to my development collection and I have successfully led a collaborative team of more than 80 individuals who range between experts in the civil engineering, architecture, materials’ developments fields, as well as architecture students and other building assistants. The construction process of the project was complex due to the large intersection of different disciplines, but at the end, it was a successful window into the exploration of the future of sustainable architecture.

Dahy and her team standing in front of the BioMat Pavilion, a parametric biocomposite shell built in 2018

In 2019, I presented my team in a collaborative initiated research centre of excellence in Stuttgart and together with 21 other principal investigators, we co-founded the Stuttgart Research Center for Architecture. In 2020, I delivered various guest professorships at different parts of the world including the US, Germany and Denmark. Till now, and together with my team and students, more than 100 architectural developments towards digital sustainable futuristic architecture have been achieved. In parallel I had the honour to hold dozens of public lectures in different parts of the world including Paris, London, Barcelona, Texas, Brussels, Hannover, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Cairo and many others.

What inspired your interests in sustainable building materials?

Many incidents that happened in my life have raised my awareness of the building industry’s sole responsibility for more than 60 percent of global resources consumption. Above all, though, was a personal incident – the vanishing of my favourite beach in Alexandria within just five years due to the sudden rise of the sea level as a result of global warming.

I had not been able to visit Alexandria for several years due to my intensive architectural engineering studies. Around 2001 to 2002, I visited the city and was shocked to not find my favourite beach anymore. Instead, I found dozens of huge concrete blocks that were scattered in the water to prevent further land-eating. This caused a direct sad awareness of what we are going through globally and the fact that the one to two degrees Celsius of global warming, which we are having at the moment, is indeed a serious situation that our generation must solve as earth cannot handle this anymore and is showing clear signs.

I realised that if we did not act quickly and continued building the same way, according to scientists, the temperature increase of the globe could reach six to eight degrees Celsius, causing climatic conditions that are inhospitable for us as humans to continue existing. We may go extinct and that is not science fiction unfortunately!

After reading and understanding the current global environmental situation, I decided to carry this knowledge with me throughout my work, and make it my duty as an architect, engineer and inventor to push my work towards sustainability. This has included, but is not limited to, developing and applying innovative alternative sustainable building materials.

Tell us about developing the BioFlexi building product.

As clarified earlier, the fact that the building industry is solely responsible for more than 60 percent of global resources consumption drove me to start looking for quick (annual or seasonal) renewable resources that we can rely on in the building industry. The choice of that alternative resource depended on availability, renewability and cost. That was the reason behind choosing straw fibres, and to recycle it from the agricultural sector to fully reap its benefits.

Through the collaboration and networking that I initiated with various industrial sectors in Europe and specifically in Germany, I learned a lot about polymers and the ‘plastic industry’. This enabled me to start doing my own material mixtures from the perspectives of a material practitioner and a designer. I wanted to enable any architect to reach her/his dream designs using an economical, quick and renewable biomass material that is recycled and recyclable. The ‘Bio-flexi’ material has, since mid-2019, been an officially registered market-name.

You have constructed a number of pavilions using BioFlexi – what do you hope to communicate through this achievement?

I want to communicate to the general public – the simple user – as well as the political actors and leading companies in the building and construction sectors that reaching sustainability in a relatively ‘simple’ and ‘affordable’ manner is possible. The way of applying these alternative suggested products in a digital smart way could further speed up the construction process and enable accuracy. I also want to encourage a quick re-discovery and revival of our available, local and renewable resources that can together open doors to new modern vernacular architecture.

How does BioFlexi compare to other similar products?

Bioflexi is not the only development I have achieved. In addition to BioFlexi, there are other constructions that I managed to build out of digitally tailored long/endless natural fibres, like hemp and flax. These products offer a lot of investment chances in the construction sector towards modern digital sustainable solutions, which reflect the digital era we live in, and which are still affordable and controllable.

Dahy’s straw-based biocomposite architectural products

Bioflexi and the other mentioned developments can be compared to wood-based materials and lie in the branch of biocomposites, or natural fibre reinforced polymer composites that are applicable in flooring systems, furniture, partitions, cladding systems (internally and externally) and in many other architectural applications.

It was possible to prove that those materials are not only useful in non-structural applications, but also in structural ones, like the 10-metre parametric shell construction that was built in 2018.

In the near future and till the year 2023, I am part of a team that will construct the first few worldwide smart biocomposite bridges (two in the Netherlands and one in Germany) within the framework of the EU-Interreg project. These bridges are not intended to be made of BioFlexi, but rather other kinds of newly developed biocomposites. The project is led by colleagues from the Netherlands (TU/Eindhoven) who present the structural engineering part of the project. I will present on the other hand as the architect of the project. Sensors will be included in the body of the bridges to monitor the structural health.

All of these previously mentioned examples illustrate how far the construction sector can benefit from BioFlexi, as well as from other biocomposite developments that are based on annual renewable resources.

What led you to relocate to Germany?

I have long been fascinated by the intersection of research and industry, digitalisation and industrialisation, as well as Stuttgart itself, home of Frei-Otto, the pioneer of innovative architecture and lightweight structures. My intention behind making quick, large steps towards internationalisation is to serve humanity on a bigger scale and then transfer such needed technologies to the Middle East.

Tell us about your work as an academic.

It has been possible to initiate new pedagogical methods for architectural education, such as learning by doing, experimental architecture, sustainable architecture, circular design methods, integrating research and teaching, which have made me a recipient of the highest prize in Germany for university-teaching – Exzellenz in der Lehre, or Excellence in University Education. I have integrated these themes in my academic teaching in order to pass on my vision to the younger generations of architects.

Dahy in a design studio

What projects or work do you have coming up?

I have at least four projects that have already started or are starting in the near future. They all represent multidisciplinary collaborative work, and lead to innovative architectural solutions derived from quick renewable biomass resources using diverse technologies and digital off-site pre-fabrication techniques.

For the last two projects, I am personally leading the work, including the whole team and project partnerships. For the other projects, I am a principal investigator leading my own team. Here is a short list of the projects by their general names and concepts, with links containing further information: