How Ancient Engineers & Their Projects Can Inspire You To Create A Sustainable Building

Ravindra Ambegaonkar
6 Minutes Read
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    We often focus on modern technologies and cutting-edge design when considering sustainable buildings.

    However, the ancient world is full of remarkable engineering feats designed to stand the test of time.

    Just think of the towering pyramids of Egypt and the intricate aqueducts of Rome for a moment. These are a few examples of ancient engineers who used innovative techniques to build structures.

    But what can you learn from these ancient engineering marvels?

    Ancient engineers understood how to create functional and beautiful structures that could endure for centuries.

    In this article, we'll explore how ancient engineering can provide valuable lessons and inspiration for creating sustainable buildings that are resilient and efficient in the modern world.

    Inspirational Ancient Techniques To Create Sustainable Building

    Some of the most famous buildings in the world have stood the test of time, like, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, and Machu Picchu in Peru.

    By drawing on the lessons of the past, we can create buildings that are not only sustainable but also culturally rich, technologically advanced, and aesthetically compelling.

    So, let's take a journey through ancient engineering and discover how to use this knowledge to build a more sustainable future.

    1. Passive Cooling And Heating Systems

    In ancient times, people couldn't access modern HVAC systems to heat and cool their homes and buildings. But still, their natural cooling system was impeccable.

    Passive cooling systems use natural ventilation, shade, and thermal mass to cool a building. Passive heating systems use insulation, orientation, and thermal mass to warm it up.

    In ancient times, they used a "windcatchers" technique to cool their buildings. Windcatchers were essentially large towers that caught the breeze and directed it down into the building.

    They designed their buildings with large windows and used materials like stone and concrete to absorb heat during the day. Then, at night, the stored heat would radiate back into the building, keeping it warm.

    You can apply these ancient techniques in designing buildings with large windows to allow natural light and heat to enter. In contrast, you can install shading devices like awnings and blinds to block direct sunlight during the hottest day.

    Buildings can also be designed with thermal mass materials like stone, brick, or concrete to store heat during the day and release it at night.

    2. Utilize Natural Ventilation

    In older times, people relied on natural airflow to cool and ventilate their buildings, unlike modern air conditioning systems.

    The ancient Egyptians, for example, built homes with high ceilings and narrow windows to create a "chimney effect" that would draw hot air up and out of the building while cool air was drawn in through lower-level openings.

    Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans used courtyards, atriums, and open-air corridors to promote natural ventilation. By positioning buildings around a central courtyard or atrium, they could create a natural airflow through the building.

    In the modern era, we can benefit from these ancient techniques by utilizing natural ventilation to cool and ventilate our buildings.

    By incorporating features like large windows, skylights, and roof vents, we can encourage natural airflow that helps to regulate the temperature and air quality.

    We can also use the cross-ventilation process. It involves positioning windows and doors on opposite sides of the building to create a natural flow of air from one end to the other.

    3. Use Of Prefabricated Materials In Controlled Environments

    Ancient engineers could reduce waste, increase productivity, and provide more precise and streamlined construction. They achieved it by manufacturing building components or modules off-site in a controlled environment.

    Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians used mud bricks in their architecture. They could create bricks that could be formed and dried in the sun off-site by mixing mud and straw. This technique allowed large quantities of bricks to be manufactured before construction.

    In the same way, by using abundant materials in the area, we can reduce transportation costs and carbon emissions associated with shipping materials long distances.

    Additionally, using natural materials, such as mud bricks or locally-sourced timber, can help to reduce the carbon footprint of the building.

    4. Use Of Natural Light

    Ancient buildings often featured large windows and skylights to maximize natural light. This created a more pleasant interior environment and reduced the need for artificial lighting.

    They also used light wells, essentially open-air courtyards, to illuminate interior spaces further away from the exterior walls.

    In the modern era, we can still benefit from these ancient techniques by utilizing natural light to illuminate our buildings.

    By incorporating features like large windows, skylights, and light wells, we can reduce our reliance on artificial lighting and energy consumption.

    Another technique that we can use to promote natural light is the use of light shelves. These are horizontal surfaces positioned above eye level to reflect light deeper into the interior spaces of the building.

    Light shelves can be particularly effective in spaces with large windows, which can help distribute natural light more evenly throughout the room.

    5. Harvest Rainwater

    People were smart about capturing and storing rainwater in ancient times. And it was a common practice for them. Furthermore, they use the stored water for irrigation, washing, and other purposes.

    One ancient rainwater harvesting system is called the qanat system, developed in Persia more than 2,500 years ago.

    This system involved digging underground tunnels that allowed water to flow from higher elevations to lower ones, which could be collected in wells and cisterns.

    Today, we can still use these ancient techniques to create sustainable buildings that use rainwater. Moreover, it will reduce our reliance on municipal water sources.

    You can start by simply attaching a rain barrel to your downspout, or you can go all out and install an underground cistern system.

    Another way to promote rainwater harvesting is to incorporate green roofs. A green roof is a rooftop garden planted with vegetation and designed to absorb rainwater.

    The plants help to filter the water and release it slowly, reducing runoff and preventing water from overwhelming municipal stormwater systems.

    6. Adaptive Reuse

    We don't always have to start from scratch when creating sustainable buildings. One of the most sustainable building approaches is repurposing existing structures, a concept known as adaptive reuse.

    This approach has been used for centuries and is just as relevant today. It involves various building types, from industrial and commercial buildings to residential homes.

    For example, an old warehouse might be converted into a trendy loft apartment, or a former school building could become a community center.

    We can reduce waste, conserve resources, and preserve historical and cultural landmarks by repurposing existing buildings. This is especially important considering that the building industry is responsible for significant carbon emissions.

    Adaptive reuse can also be a cost-effective way to create new buildings. Because the structure already exists, much of the infrastructure is already in place. This can make it less expensive to retrofit an existing building than to build a new one from the ground up.

    7. Use Passive Solar Design

    Passive solar design is all about using the sun's energy to naturally heat and cool a building. Ancient builders did this by carefully orienting their buildings to face the sun and using materials that could maximize solar gain in the winter and minimize it in the summer.

    Large, well-insulated windows facing the south are ideal for maximum solar gain. They also used shading devices like overhangs and pergolas to keep their buildings cool in the summer while allowing the sun to provide natural light.

    Fast forward to the modern era, and we can still rely on the sun's energy to provide heating and cooling. We can use high-performance windows and insulation to help regulate the temperature inside the building.

    We can also incorporate a "solar chimney," designed to pull hot air up and out of the building, creating a natural convection current that helps keep the building cool.

    We can also incorporate a "solar chimney," designed to pull hot air up and out of the building, creating a natural convection current that helps keep the building cool.

    Ancient technology can teach us about sustainability in building design in countless ways.

    By embracing these sustainable practices, we can reduce waste, minimize our carbon footprint, and create healthy, beautiful, and functional spaces for generations.

    We can learn their techniques and incorporate them into our modern practices to create environmentally responsible buildings and respectful of our history and culture.


    1. What examples of ancient engineering projects can inspire sustainable building design?

    Examples include using:

    • Natural materials like stone, wood, and mud
    • Passive cooling and heating techniques like thick walls, courtyards, and natural ventilation.
    • Water management strategies like cisterns, aqueducts, and irrigation systems.
    • Adaptable building systems like movable partitions and modular construction.
    2. How can using natural materials in ancient engineering projects inform sustainable building design?

    Ancient engineers often used locally-sourced materials like stone, wood, and mud. These are renewable and biodegradable, making them more sustainable than materials like concrete and steel.

    In modern sustainable building design, engineers can use natural materials like bamboo, adobe, and rammed earth to create low-impact buildings.

    3. What is passive solar design, and how to incorporate it into modern building design?

    Passive solar design is an approach to building design that maximizes using natural sunlight and heat to heat and cool a building. You can achieve it by:

    • Orienting the building to maximize/minimize solar gain in the winter and summer
    • using large, well-insulated windows facing the south
    • incorporating materials with high thermal mass
    • ensuring good insulation and promoting passive ventilation.

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    Tags : Sustainability MEP engineers sustainable construction sustainable architecture

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