Photo: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Expanding the scope of mosques in both design and function could unleash new prospects for energy savings and aesthetic appeal, said experts at the Mosque Design and Development conference 2016 in Dubai last week.
It is a well-known fact that mosques nowadays only get full during Friday prayers and in the month of Ramadan, remaining close to empty the rest of the time. Despite that, air-conditioners, which account for 50 to 80 percent of a mosque’s energy consumption, continue to run year-round.
One way to minimize this waste of energy at planning stages is to split the building into two zones, Dr. Ahmed Mokhtar, associate dean at the American University of Sharjah suggests.
“It doesn’t make sense to build a mosque and air-condition it when only a few people will use it the whole week. This should be a requirement and I believe that the Urban Planning Council (UPC) does require mosques to be separated into two parts,” he said.
“If we divide the mosque into two parts, 20 percent of the mosque is used throughout the week, and the remainder is used on Fridays and during Ramadan, which results in significant savings.”
SUSTAINABILITY IN PRACTICE
While the small zone would ideally operate at 22 degrees celsius, the large vacant zone would be used when needed. Assuming the unused area is not air-conditioned at all, cooling load could be reduced by as much as 75 percent, according to Dr. Mokhtar.
This explains why Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments, which is in charge of nearly 80,000 mosques in the country and pays their electricity bills, called on mosques to refrain from using air conditioning except at prayer times. The initiative, announced in 2014, was part of the government's plan to reduce power consumption at ministry buildings.
However, this is not a practical solution in hot countries as high humidity levels could lead to structural damage over time.
Therefore, vacant areas should be air-conditioned to a reasonable temperature of between 28 degrees celsius and 30 degrees celsius, which would bring down the cooling load by 30 to 43 percent, said Dr. Mokhtar. In contrast, setting the thermostat to 25 degrees celsius would only reduce the cooling load by six percent.
Like Egypt, the UAE government is responsible for the lion’s share of mosques, which means that these buildings need to meet higher sustainability requirements.
“Mosques make up the majority of federal buildings – there are 2,400 mosques currently maintained by the Ministry of Infrastructure Development out of 3,200 federal buildings,” Hassan Younes, technical director at Griffin Consultants told Salaam Gateway.
According to him, governmental mosques in Abu Dhabi have to score more points on the emirate’s Urban Planning Committee’s Estidama Pearl Ranking System; where a privately-owned building needs to score only one pearl, a mosque needs to score two.
Of course, the idea of dividing a mosque into two areas would not be necessary if the facility was busy throughout the year.
The concept is not far-fetched. After all, mosques have historically served as community centres, housing religious schools, libraries and courts. Today, however, most mosques in the Middle East and North Africa are used exclusively as places of worship.
“After the prayer they usually close the mosque. I feel sad about that,” said Dr. Farouk Yaghmour, partner-in-charge at the Amman-based Yaghmour Architects, which has offices in Dubai and Bethlehem.
“The mosque can be a very good platform to introduce Islam and bring people together so they can learn from each other and exchange ideas. A kindergarten or library in the mosque can keep it running. I think this is the strongest debate that we face with our clients, especially with authorities as they have limited budgets,” he said.
A professor of design at the German Jordanian University, Dr. Yaghmour highlights that mosques were never just for praying but were traditionally a centre of cultural activities and a hub for decision-making.
Summer Sutton, assistant professor of architecture at the American University in Dubai, believes that this is the way forward. “I completely agree with continued activation of the space by incorporating other types of programs. It makes the space constantly active.”
REGULATIONS NEED TO OPEN UP
The experts concurred that current regulations lack the flexibility needed to expand the scope of mosques or allow for new contemporary designs.
“Obstacles are always a good starting point for designers but I do think that the idea within the Dubai Municipality that we have to have a dome and a minaret; that proportions have to be a certain way, and that we must have certain amount of decorations is really inhibiting for mosque architecture here,” said Sutton, who’s currently writing a book on religious spaces in Dubai due to be out in autumn 2016.
Dr. Yaghmour’s team has encountered such challenges when attempting to introduce new elements to mosque designs. “I believe both traditional and contemporary designs are right, but then came a time when we thought ‘why don’t we represent our time, the 21st century, especially as we don’t even have the skilled labour to build stone as it used to be,” he explains.
“All the domes and arches used to be structure but nowadays they are just superficial, and therefore, they’re not really representing our time or technology. I believe [contemporary] elements are more honest. The generation that will come will read what we put in the 20th or 21st century.”
CATCHING UP WITH ARCHITECTURAL PROGRESS
Sutton points to the remarkable developments that other types of architecture have witnessed in the UAE, which when compared with mosque designs in the country are much further ahead. “I think the development of mosques is a little behind the typologies of other forms of architecture that are being developed in the UAE,” she noted.
Skyscrapers, museums and hotels have all evolved into structures that go beyond what we would aesthetically associate with them, as evident from the palace-like hotels across the country and the iconic museums on Saadiyat Island.
“We bring designers and consultants in from elsewhere and even work with expatriates living here. If you look at the Saadiyat Island for example, the proposals for museums reflect the diverse backgrounds of their designers,” Sutton noted. While British architects Foster + Partners worked on the Zayed National Museum, French architect Jean Nouvel designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi building on Saadiyat Island.
“Mosque regulations should be a little more open to that diverse influence just like the rest of the typologies. It would be a continuation of the transnational mentality; it’s about the restrictions that exists in the UAE needing to be a little more open,” said Sutton.
Yaghmour agrees, adding that the challenge is encountered across the region: “Regulations in the MENA need to be worked on and updated. Some of the regulations have been there for years. Fortunately, we managed to come up with new designs in Dubai; I don’t know if we can do that in other countries.”
© SalaamGateway.com 2016