The architect behind a UN plan to build 20 eco-friendly schools in Gaza discusses the challenges of sustainable development in the Strip.
By Noam Dvir

For the past year Italian architect Mario Cucinella has been heading a UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA ) project to build 20 sustainable schools in the Gaza Strip. The planning for the first environmentally-friendly school, to be built in Khan Yunis, is now in the final stages. The building will serve about 800 students and meet all its own energy and water needs by means of a combination of traditional and new technologies.

In a telephone interview, Cucinella explains that when you construct an educational facility, you are contributing directly to the literacy and freedom of the citizens. “If we succeed in putting up a building like that in Gaza, we’ll be able to succeed anywhere in the world,” he says.
Gaza – MC Architects – 2.2012

An architect’s drawing of how the green school at Khan Yunis will look.
Photo by: MC Architects

The education system in the Gaza Strip, which serves more than half a million students, is constantly vulnerable to political instability and the frequent clashes between Israel and Hamas. The electricity supply is frequently cut off and some of the schools are not even connected to sewage or running water pipes. According to a 2008 UN Children’s Fund report, many schools have had to cease activities requiring a lot of electricity, such as computer classes or science in laboratories.

The project was born at a conference on cooperation between Italy and the Palestinian Authority, held in Ramallah two years ago. Cucinella was invited because of his commitment to sustainable planning.

In his visits to refugee camps, says Cucinella, his first impression was that the knowledge he and his colleagues had at their disposal could improve the lives of the inhabitants by means of very simple ideas. “It sounds strange,” he says, “to talk about the future of Palestine when the surrounding political atmosphere is so unclear, but the response on the part of the UN and the Palestinians was good and we decided together to advance the project.”
Rain gets wasted

Sustainable development aims to “answer all the needs of the present without impinging on the ability of future generations to provide their needs.” This definition, originally formulated by the UN Brundtland Commission (aka World Commission on Environment and Development ) in the 1980s, has developed since then. Today it also relates to cultural sustainability, social equality and accessibility of raw materials or natural resources.

In the case of the Gaza Strip, sustainable development planning relates to a reality in which water and electricity are very limited resources, and the supply of building materials is severely restricted by the Israeli blockade. Cucinella’s challenge has been to plan a school built by local tradesmen with easily-available materials which can also generate its own electricity (using solar panels ), water (by means of a system of rainwater collection ) and climate control (with geothermic technology ).

The building is designed as a system of massive concrete pillars capable of storing heat and cold, together forming the shape of a rectangle. The classrooms and learning spaces are “imprisoned” between columns and are separated from one another by means of partitions patterned after the traditional Arabic latticework, mashrabiya. A shaded internal courtyard is in the center of the school, where students can hang out and play.

The plants in the garden will serve as a biological filter for the rainwater, to be collected in large underground containers. The roof of the building is also designed ecologically – Cucinelli is planning to plant a garden on it that will help lower the heat stress and filter the sun’s rays.

“It’s strange,” says the Italian architect, “but in the Strip, there is no policy regarding rainwater. Every year there is 400 millimeters of rainfall and no one collects it.” He adds that most of the technologies integrated into the building derive from historical planning knowledge that has accumulated in the Middle East over hundreds of years. “In fact,” he says, “it’s quite a simple building, “but in my opinion it’s important that a project built by the UN sends a progressive and wise message, especially in an environment like the Gaza Strip which has been damaged by years of conflict and siege.”

Some of UNRWA’s facilities in Gaza were damaged in Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009. The Israel Defense Forces bombarded the Al-Fakhura school in the Jabalya refugee camp on the grounds that terrorists were firing mortar shells and rockets from its premises. In the bombardment, 12 to 40 Palestinians were killed (there is a dispute between the IDF and Palestinian sources as to the number of fatalities ). The IDF also bombarded UNRWA headquarters after terrorists fired antitank missiles at Givati Brigade forces from the premises. According to sources in Israel and the United States, UNRWA recruits members of Hamas as employees. UNRWA has stated that it has never refused to hire people from the organization, though in recent years an effort has been made to limit their influence within the agency.

Cucinella is aware of the deep swamp he is entering, but hopes politics will not hold up his project. He observes that when you come from Europe it is hard to understand the situation here, and that the presence of the Israeli army in the West Bank puts tremendous pressure on the people. “I’m an architect, not a politician,” he says, adding that his work is to improve the lives of Gazans. “I’ve met Palestinians who are not nice and Israelis who are very nice, and vice versa. This is a complicated place.”

UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness expresses the hope that the IDF and the Civil Administration will not impede the project and allow the entry of essential building materials into the Strip. He says about a quarter of a million students are currently attending the agency’s schools in Gaza, and tens of thousands more attend Hamas institutions because there is not enough room for them. “Because of the blockade we can’t advance with construction,” he says.

Couldn’t building materials intended for the schools, such as metal piping, ultimately be used for making rockets? Gunness refutes this claim. He says that, over the years, UNRWA has proved that all materials are solely and exclusively in its hands. “Every time someone dared to steal something from us,” he says, “we took care to inform the press so it would be returned.”
Responsible planning

Cucinella, 51, owns the firm that bears his name in Bologna. The firm was established in 1992 and prospered after winning international planning competitions for its research on sustainable development and “climatically-responsible planning,” as he defines it. Before that he worked for the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Among Cucinella’s credits are a project of residential high-rises in Milan with green roofs used for community gardening; an academic center in Shanghai with a facade made of bamboo reeds and iron beams; and a string of corporate headquarters for leading technology companies in Italy. In each of them there is detailed attention to climatic conditions and the environment, and an attempt to create a zero carbon footprint. “In Europe, America and Asia, they talk a lot about sustainability,” he says. “It’s no big deal making a green building when you have all the technologies and resources of the wealthy countries. The challenge is to plan a building like that in Gaza, where in effect there is no alternative but to use what you have in the environment.”

The school will cost $2 million to build, similar to the cost of an ordinary school, and is being funded in part by a Kuwaiti foundation. In the future UNRWA hopes to use this model to build similar schools in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where the agency is responsible for the education of about half a million students.

Cucinella has already visited the site designated for the school in Khan Yunis, in the south of the Strip, and says he is favorably impressed by the inhabitants’ positive energies despite their difficult situation: “I think what we are doing is a small action but an important one. A school will improve the inhabitants’ lives. This is a sign we respect them.”