Climate change and sustainability are key considerations for architects when designing buildings in the 21st century. Since the industrial revolution, materials like steel, and more recently concrete, utilize the burning of fossil fuels in their formation. Modern architecture is largely defined through the use of these unsustainable materials. Modern architecture not only uses massive amounts of energy in construction, but also uses the burning of fossil fuels in heating, cooling, and electricity. Diverging from this lifestyle of excessive energy use and extreme consumption has been difficult. But sustainable living is not unprecedented. Indigenous groups all over the world have been living in harmony with nature and their environments for thousands of years.
Learning from native and indigenous peoples is absolutely necessary when addressing sustainability. Indigenous people construct their dwellings with local and natural materials, using little energy in their formation, harvesting, and transportation. Materials like wood, grass, stone and earth are all part of the natural cycle of the earth and have been for millions of years. Properties of these materials allow them to be infinitely renewable while leaving little or no trace of their existence behind after their use. Wigmans or wickiups are great examples of Native American indigenous architecture that exists in harmony with the earth, rather than exploiting it. These domed structures meet the needs of their inhabitants using a simple thin wooden structure covered with brush, reeds, hides, or cloth. The wooden structure uses young, flexible trees instead of large old-growth hardwoods. Its materials are also all biodegradable, eventually being absorbed back into the earth and reused by nature.
Indigenous architecture not only uses sustainable and environmentally friendly materials, but also uses natural processes to heat and cool. Various designs and materiality of most indigenous structures have been tested and re-tested for thousands of years to achieve this. Color, orientation, and shape all play a part in helping to make these buildings comfortable to occupy and environmentally sustainable. Bedouin desert huts are an awesome example of this. These dark-colored goat hair huts use the sun’s energy for passive ventilation and cooling as well as heating at night. The dark color causes the exterior to heat up and a small gap left at the bottom of the hut pulls air through and out of the top. These gaps are closed at night and its thick walls insulate the warm sand underneath the hut. These, and thousands of other techniques in architecture have been used far longer than any modern building system and should be emulated by architects when addressing environmental concerns.