As we look to the future for the technological advancements that will bring lasting environmental change, historians have found meaningful solutions in our past. Sustainable technologies have proven their efficacy time and time again, persevering through climatic events in human history and the wrath of nature herself. Here are 5 ancient technologies that can revolutionize urban sustainability efforts worldwide.

Model rammed earth home built by Aerecura Sustainable Builders and photographed by Riley Snelling. Special thanks to Sylvia Cook (Founder).

Rammed Earth: The wolf huffed and puffed, but he could not blow the rammed earth house down.

Traditional rammed earth is made of only two ingredients; clay-rich soil and water, compacted and left to dry and harden. Unlike contemporary construction materials, rammed earth structures do not use chemicals and can withstand compressive forces of up to 2.5 megapascals, 10 percent of modern bricks’ average compressive threshold. Their walls enable passive heating and eliminate the need for wall refurbishments since the rammed earth itself makes for a clean finish.

Historical buildings constructed with traditional rammed earth can be found worldwide, including South America, India, the Middle East, North Africa, and most notably the Great Wall in China in 221 BC.

Rammed earth architecture is slowly making a comeback, evolving into a symbol of status and environmental initiative. Acura Sustainable Builders located in Prince Edward County, Ontario have been building state-of-the-art rammed earth homes in the province since 2009.

This ancient construction technique has also served the housing needs of the less fortunate. Rural housing projects developed by China’s Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology help communities build sustainable, cost-effective rammed earth homes and villages.

The pilot Beehive system designed for Deki Electronics. Courtesy of Ant Studio.

Beehive Cooling: Ancient Indian Air Conditioning

With rising global temperatures, air conditioning has become a necessity. By 2050, air conditioners are predicted to use 13% of all electricity worldwide and produce 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Ant Studio, a firm based in New Delhi, developed the Beehive, a honeycomb-shaped system of terracotta pipes used to cool incoming air with the help of falling water. The Beehive was inspired by the ancient Indian tradition of using earthenware to cool water, dating back to 5500 BCE.

It was first tested at Deki Electronics, a high-temperature manufacturing facility, to improve the working conditions by decreasing the overall temperature of the building. The Beehive reduced the air temperature from 122 degrees Fahrenheit to 97 degrees Fahrenheit and consumed 40 percent less energy than other cooling systems.

As an affordable, scalable, and sustainable solution, the Beehive could better the lives of many low-income families and reduce the environmental toll of manufacturing an air conditioner, as well as the electricity needed to run it.


Sri Lankan Ambalamas: Wall-less Houses

Traditional architecture in 17th century Sri Lanka was driven by the warm and humid climate year-round. Sri Lankan Ambalamas, open, columned homes built entirely out of timber, were resting shelters for travelers, traders, and pilgrims passing through the region. The open structure, complete with no walls, a large roof for shade, and regular sea breezes creates a passive cooling system in the interior. Ambalamas take advantage of the natural lighting, the direction of seasonal winds, and the existing natural landscape characteristic of the island.

Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, has experimented with open home plans, since 1988, for private clients; his most iconic piece being the Wall-less House in Nagano. Applying the open architecture techniques used in Ambalamas and Ban’s work to low-cost construction projects in tropical and coastal communities has the potential to reduce energy consumption from daylights and air conditioning significantly.

Aerial view of chinampas in southern Mexico City captured by Kin Enriquez/Pixabay

Aztec Chinampas: Floating gardens of yumminess

Chinampas were man-built islands made along freshwater lakes used for year-round crop cultivation by the Aztecs between 1345 and 1521. These floating gardens were created by piling mud and decaying plant waste together and were connected by canals. Corn, squash, and beans were the main staple crops; tomatoes, avocados, chili peppers, limes, onions, amaranth, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and jicamas were secondary crops cultivated on chinampas.

According to Roland Ebel of the Sustainable Food Systems Program at Montana State University, chinampas decrease water use and improve biodiversity, water filtration, and soil fertility of the surrounding aquatic ecosystem.

Modern-day chinampas are still cultivated around Mexico City and were set up on the Baltimore Waterfront and the polluted Gowanus Canal in New York City to reinstate wetland environments to their former health and take the step forward towards a future of urban farming.


Modern-day milpa of maize, beans, and squash photographed by Paul Rogé/Wikimedia Commons.

Mayan Milpa: A hundred generations later

Milpa or ‘mixed cropping’ is still practiced today by Mayan farmers in the forests of El Pilar, Belize. The Mayan civilization rose to prominence in 2600 BC and over hundreds of generations, perfected this sustainable agricultural system.

A plot of the forest is burned and the remaining charcoal serves as a natural fertilizer for the upcoming farming season which will last a whopping 4 years. Corn and as many as 90 other species of edible plants are cultivated without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or farming machinery. After this period of passive cultivation, tree seedlings are planted among the fertile soil to restore the original forest ecosystem.

Anabel Ford, credited with finding the ancient city of El Pilar, has researched contemporary Milpa fields extensively. She says, “In fact, [the Milpa field] is retaining water, building fertility, the biodiversity of the soil… ‘I have never seen a Milpa where there is erosion and I’ve never seen a plowed field that does not.’”

A century ago, Milpa was replaced by the plowed, high-maintenance fields of western monoculture. It’s time to turn time back to combat deforestation and restore nature’s balance.

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