Affordable Natural Building in Cairo

As an engineering student in Cairo, Radwa Rostom realized that she wanted to improve the quality of life for the local residents, many of whom live in poverty. She trained with environmental engineering companies, seeking to acquire the technical skills to make her dreams a reality. She would later work for an environmental consultancy firm, a solar power company, and a Belgian construction firm operating in areas affected by desertification.

Rostom eventually founded her own company, “Hand Over”, as an Egyptian social enterprise integrating construction into community development. She says, “Many companies design and build grand apartments, airports and buildings using conventional methods, which only a certain category can afford. My dream has always been different – I wanted to build ‘humane’ housing for the marginalized, using eco-friendly materials.”

She embraced rammed earth construction, utilizing local Eco-friendly materials such as gravel, mud, sand and a small quantity of cement. It’s this method that Hand Over uses to build houses and community buildings such as schools and hospitals in ancient and traditional Egyptian architectural styles.

Rammed earth is cheaper and less toxic than standard construction. It also reduces heat and dampness within a building so that residents consume less energy, reducing CO2 emissions by as much as 30 percent while benefiting from a healthier environment all year round.

Hand Over’s team started working in a local slum, identifying the most disadvantaged families and the houses in greatest need of rebuilding. “Many people refused because they were afraid,” Rostom says. “They weren’t keen because the houses looked simple and unusual.” But one family accepted, and their house became the company’s first project.

The owner, said “You couldn’t live in my house – each winter, snakes and rain came inside. That’s why I agreed to the project immediately. They took a year to build it, and meanwhile, they rented an apartment nearby for my three children and me.” Three years later, he says his house is still sound. “If you touch the walls you’ll feel they’re cold, despite the fact that it’s 40°C (104°F) outside.”

Hand Over often collaborates with NGOs and local volunteers for community construction projects. This was the case for the company’s third project – a school for 300 pupils in a village 80 km from Cairo, built last year in partnership with a  social charity. 

From the beginning, Hand Over has trained architecture and civil engineering students to work as volunteers with local communities on the design and execution of new buildings using the earth construction method. According to Hand Over’s estimate, more than 1,000 people —between students and folks in need of affordable housing— have benefited from these projects.

Architect Abdullah Mekkawi started working at Hand Over after participating in one of the company’s workshops. Now he supervises the firm’s construction projects. “For me, it’s more than just earning a salary – I am both giving and gaining something,” he says.

Hand Over is now working on its fourth project, to build services and administrative buildings in South Sinai. “We have finished the design and we’ll start construction in collaboration with the Ministry for the Environment and the UNDP,“ Rostom said. “They understand the concept because we’re building with eco-friendly materials in a nature reserve. The buildings will provide services for visitors, as well as places for protection of the coral reef and administrative offices for workers in the area.”

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