Dr Deena El-Mahdy

Interview: Passionate explorer Deena El-Mahdy is bridging the gaps between the classroom and the workplace

The Egyptian architect and academic hopes to impact the regional construction sector through research and equipping the next generation of architects with the know-how of sustainable building techniques.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award 2020, in the Rising Star category, Dr Deena El-Mahdy is an assistant professor at the British University in Egypt, as well as a co-founder of Cairo Heritage School, which aims to bridge the gaps between governmental bodies, professionals and community members.

Of her many passions, El-Mahdy aims to integrate digital advanced techniques and additive manufacturing to link education with industry by using local materials to create a sustainable community. Some of her achievements include developing a new salt-block building material using additive manufacturing, developing a business model for building homes in 24 hours, and most recently, developing 3D-printed clay bricks – all of which have received multiple awards and recognitions.

El-Mahdy disseminates her research findings through workshops, lectures and publications. Simultaneously, through her work with Cairo Heritage School, El-Mahdy seeks to address the preservation of local heritage through summer school programmes that focus on the adaptive reuse and conservation of historic Cairo.

Here she speaks with Round City about her simultaneous roles as teacher and student.

El-Mahdy during a workshop with CHS

Tell us about your background. 
I am an architect and assistant professor at the architectural engineering department of the British University in Egypt, and I have been teaching since 2010. I graduated from Cairo University’s faculty of engineering in 2010, where I also received my master’s in 2013 and PhD in 2018. I am also the associate director of Farouk El-Baz Center of Sustainability and Future Studies at the British University.

I strongly believe in the importance of collaboration between the academic, practical and industrial sectors to bridge the gap between experimentation and research and real-world implementation and realisation. My research and interests have focused on virtual heritage, digital fabrication, material science, additive manufacturing techniques, robotics in construction and vernacular architecture. I have contributed to many projects related to additive manufacturing techniques in construction, sustainable materials and virtual heritage, as well as several scientific publications. In 2015, I co-founded Cairo Heritage School (CHS) with my team to bridge the gap between government agencies, professionals and community members as a way to work toward sustainable heritage conservation.

What sparked your interest in scientific research?
After graduating, I realised there were certain areas that my studies did not fully satisfy, and I felt as though I needed to explore more within and around myself. A passion for research led me to participate in several workshops that focused on heritage, community engagement, digital fabrication and other topics. When I started my master’s while teaching, I found that what I was passing on to students excited them. For me, it was like guiding their hands out of the darkness and into the light. Since then, I have dedicated myself to scientific research and learning more to feed my ambition to teach others and set them on the right path.

In early 2012, I attended the first digital fabrication workshop, which changed my mindset and inspired me to look at things differently. I began to examine material science and how to reuse and recycle so as to reduce waste in construction. I was exposed to different rules in nature where I studied in depth the behavior and logic of organisms. Through my exposure to nature, I learned about biomimicry, which involves imitating and adapting nature and organisms as they interact with the environment. This provided an inspirational tool and technique that can be reflected in architecture, and this is when I began working on my first published research. Throughout my teaching career, I worked with amazing colleagues who inspired me and were eager to teach me how things work. From them I learned the true meaning of group work, as each of us worked with passion and love.

During my journey, I have worked as a researcher in many funded projects and organised international workshops and conferences, which taught me how to write applications for funds. After that, I applied for several grants as a principal investigator and started making connections with other international educational institutions by writing research proposals with large budgets.

Scientific research simply comes down to how you focus on a current problem and try to solve it through documentation. This path requires people to be very honest with themselves first in order to be honest with others. After completing my master’s, which focused on virtual reality, I worked for a year as a research assistant for a funded project called ‘Virtual Heritage Cairo’, during which I was responsible for the scientific research on the application of virtual heritage in Egypt, as well as for organising workshops and conferences. The project ended with the documentation of the participants’ work and our research was published in two books. The project also made it to the top three finalists for the Newton Prize 2020.

I then began to enter competitions related to industry and entrepreneurship, where I was introduced to business and marketing, which I consider an important element that is missing in architecture education today. The competitions that I won taught me how to present my ideas and turn them into realities. I participated in various workshops and experiments that oriented my studies towards new tools in construction by exploring different design methods and advanced fabrication techniques. I worked on advanced tools such as the 3D printer, binder jetting, ink-jet printer, robotic assembly, Kuka arm and compression floor blocks machine, which mainly use sustainable materials such as sand, salt, earthen materials, seaweed, wood and so on.

Tell us about some of your material innovations.
In 2017, I generated a salt-block for construction by developing a 3D printing prototype, which I hope to apply to a project in Siwa. That same year, I used 3D printing and the ink-jet printer to create a material with sand, allowing us to source building material directly from the desert. I have used wasted peanut shells to generate peanut tiles, which can be applied as a wall partition by mixing the grained shells with a new composite binder made of cornstarch and sand. 

In 2018, I was one of the finalists of the Atelier Luma Algae Lab Competition, for using algae as a filament for 3D printing. I printed an algae vase made of sustainable bio-algae materials and presented it in different exhibitions, such as the design biennials of Istanbul (2018), Arles (2018), Milano (2018) and Belgium (2019).

Peanut tiles by El-Mahdy

How do you hope your work contributes to the field of architecture in the region? 
In recent years, the dynamic between academia and industry has set me on a path toward finding new ways to bridge that gap through my research, and highlight the important role of new manufacturing tools in our digital age. I seek to establish a collaborative design lab/hub that can boost the economy and put the MENA region on the map through collaboration with international institutions. This lab would explore the transfer between material science and design strategies in construction and production, incorporating collaboration and digital fabrication in teaching methodology and research activities. Also, I hope that my experiments in scaling 3D-printed prototypes using local materials can have a great impact on the built environment by reducing carbon emissions and engaging with renewable energy and resources more.

In addition, and as part of my PhD, I have tried to focus my research on something to do with the community by developing the salt-block to revive the use of Karshief – a traditional building technique used in Siwa Oasis. I hope to start testing and applying this technique in Siwa, which is environmentally friendly and respects the use of local materials.

I learned a lot through direct contact with the community, and I realised that learning does not only happen between a school’s walls, but it is a lifelong process that never ends. Architecture taught me how to serve the community and the needs of the people. My advice to others is to look for their passion and surround themselves with people who inspire them.

Tell us about your role in academia.
My role in academia is not only to teach, but to try to bridge the gap between profession and practice by writing and publishing articles, doing research, applying for grants and fellowships, and attending conferences and workshops to improve collaboration between different disciplines in different countries. As a result, I have published many articles in journals and conferences at the international and national level, which deal with sustainable materials and document new methods in both learning and building, such as working with reeds, bamboo, plastic bottles, rammed earth, salt blocks and so on.

Being associate director of Farouk El-Baz Center, which is directed by Dr Ahmed Rashed, my responsibility is to contribute to writing grants and research, preparing, documenting, and organising competitions and workshops. In the dissertation module, we encourage students to attend a series of open lectures where we invite public speakers in the field of architecture. This series of lectures lets the students see how real-life practice can be.

Having received many awards related to material innovation, I feel a great responsibility to society to find a solution for industrial building material, especially in our arid region through my academic career and practice. My academic career allows me to integrate new interactive techniques in the classroom to engage students with sustainable materials in a hands-on workshop. This allows them to think differently and highlights the concept of ‘learning by doing’, proving that the new educational methods and processes can fill the gap between academia, industry and practice. The main goal is not only to focus on technology, but to expose students to the basics of computer-aided design and manufacturing in their first year without having to use any digital software. This is where I began to introduce them to shape grammar language, algorithms and mathematics to integrate with architecture and design thinking as a process. 

Social media plays an important role as an active platform for the architectural community. Accordingly, in 2013 we created a group on Facebook called ‘Workshop Finders’ to spread our message – learning for all. The main objective was to share various competitions, workshops, conferences, summer and winter schools, scholarships and events related to our field locally and globally to encourage students and professionals to join. Over the past seven years, more than 7,500 members from different countries have had the opportunity to participate in the published offerings, which they claim have had an impact on their lives.

A CHS workshop

What are you working on now?
I am working on granted projects related to 3D printing and robotics in construction. Moreover, my team at Cairo Heritage School is preparing our next workshop, the topic of which will be ‘computer-aided design in historic sites’. It will be held in 2021.

What does being shortlisted for the Women in Architecture and Construction Award mean to you? 
To be shortlisted among these great women is a badge of honour and recognition that places a great role on my shoulders. It is a big responsibility as a rising star to continually inspire and encourage others to find their right path. To provide direction for someone who is lost and has no idea of the potential within them is a great accomplishment. I have found that learning is a lifelong process that never stops, and I must always be on top of my game so that the community benefits from what I do. 

Sometimes, during our journey in a very tough and harsh environment, we encounter rejection, which gives us negative energy and our batteries lose their charge. But, when we get nominated and shortlisted for such an award, it gives us a positive charge, and confirmation that we are doing something worthwhile even though we are still moving uphill.

This nomination opens new doors and avenues, enabling me to accelerate my career to new heights. What I like most about it is that it highlights the great impact and work that women are doing, capturing their key efforts. I admire each and every one either shortlisted or not who are fighting a great battle that no one knows about. Their success and role in leading their community and leaving a fingerprint speaks highly about their work. It is important not to focus on the end results, but on the journey of those working day and night, and the obstacles we encounter, which give us the breathing room we need as we climb our mountains.

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