“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” R. Buckminster Fuller.  

This quote captures the essence of architecture for me. It defines the backbone role of the architect to turn the crisis into an opportunity and define its responsibility in promoting equality, health and safety of the built environment.   

As a young Syrian Architect, I had the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Design and Engineering at UCL, UK in 2019. This is where I developed a multi-lens approach of understanding architecture as an interdisciplinary science, which requires collaboration among different parties in order to design and operate energy efficient, sustainable, and healthier buildings. However, learning about the UK experience in sustainable buildings has left me wondering about the role of architects in producing environmentally aware architecture in disadvantaged countries, where minimum building performance requirements or indoor comfort are overlooked. During my MSc thesis writing, I investigated the potential of energy performance of optimizing façade retrofitting strategies in dwellings affected by the Syrian war. 

The ongoing Syrian conflict, which started in 2011, has turned many of the country’s cities into battlegrounds resulting in huge damage to both the natural and built environment. Housing is by far the most affected sector compared to agriculture, health, education, energy, and transport, with 65% of the estimated damage (Kostial and Gobat, 2016). Of that 65%, a substantial amount of housing stock is partially damaged. 38% of the damaged residential buildings are moderately damaged and the structure still exists. This raises the opportunity of potential refurbishment to reduce reconstruction costs and respond quickly to the housing crisis in Syria. While focusing on a residential case-study in Damascus outskirts, I explored the process of decision making in war-affected retrofit dwellings by considering the thermal comfort and social needs in order to develop a framework for energy efficient retrofit scenarios in Syria. This research has inspired me to pursue further research to develop my critical thinking ability in approaching the low energy architectural challenges.  

In light of limited literature on the energy performance of the current models of domestic building in Syria, my MPhil research focuses on social housing design. The target group is middle- and low-income groups, who are unable to afford the conventional energy prices.  The current acute shortage of housing in Syria has led to spiraling rents and house prices across the country, even for houses that lack adequate standards. Moreover, inflation has systematically increased domestic fuel poverty. This has led to households in Syria spending more than 42.5% of average income to maintain an adequate level of warmth and supply energy for cooking. This raises the question of the current physical conditions within Syrian homes. How does the current design model of social housing in Syria contribute to increased energy poverty and poor indoor comfort for the occupants?  

My MPhil research seeks to build a profile of the current patterns of energy use in the modern social housing design within the Syrian context. It discusses the impact that poor housing design has on indoor spaces and comfort from two main perspectives, environmental and social. The first is quantifying the effect of the climate of Syria on the building performance, while the second is analyzing the household behavior in relation to energy-related social and cultural practices. By investigating the energy-related conditions, this study is intended to contribute to the development of a more contextually aware model of the drivers of energy patterns in affordable housing.  

Under the supervision of Dr. Ola Uduku, I chose to undertake the MPhil Architecture Programme at MMU because Ola’s experience is closely related to my research interests in terms of development studies in Africa and sustainable design. An interesting side of research degrees is the flexibility in the co-supervision process. For this project, I was interested in different potential supervision and fortunately Dr Rodger Edwards from the University of Manchester’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace & Civil Engineering was happy to engage in the research project as a second supervisor. His expertise in Building Physics and Building Performance and Energy has provided me with the technical advice I need.  

Starting my studies within months of the start of COVID19 pandemic is certainly a challenge that many students have been facing. However, my way of staying focused is occupying myself with related online resources that were not easily available before the COVID19 pandemic. Several conferences and seminars have been shifted online, which has opened an online space for like-minded researchers to discuss their projects. For example, I have been taking part in an online course by the Technical University of Munich about research methodologies in Architecture. The monthly course activities include lectures, reading seminars, workshops, presentations of own work, and group work. This course has kept me engaged with critical discussions about research in architecture. Finally, I am convinced that what drives research is passion: passion for subject, passion for exploring new ideas. I believe that what keep me focused is Passion!  

Walaa was a recipient of a Manchester Met Graduate School Research Support award. The next deadline to apply for an RSA is Friday 26 March 2021 at 5pm. Find out more in the PGR Development Moodle area. 

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