Sarah El Battouty studied architecture at the University of Cambridge. She then studied sustainable development policy the Centre of Economic Development and Environmental Policy CeDep SOAS University.
In 2014, El Battouty was appointed as a senior advisor to the Egyptian president focusing on sustainable community development. In 2017, El Battouty was selected as a Member of the Board of the American University of Cairo Department of Engineering School of Architecture. She is also the chairman founder of ECOnsult, Egypt’s leading green architecture firm. Her booming latest project is Mubun for ecofriendly furniture that’s made out of wasted wood scraps.
Meet the inspirational architect, Sarah El Battouty who was just awarded among Top50 Influential Women in Egypt.
Nouran Ashraf: Tell us about the story of starting ECOnsult
Sarah El Battouty: ECOnsult started off in 2013. Previously, I had around 10 years’ experience in architecture. I did environmental project planning and engineering degree and masters in sustainable development. That’s when I decided to shift my career from conventional architecture into green building. I did not join my family business which is conventional architecture and also a regionally successful business. However, I decided to sell my own car and start the green building company I’ve always dreamt of.
When we first started ECOnsult, we were only two people. Previously, we had collaborated on a project together that won several awards. The project was a cafetria that serves the church community in Italy. They basically wanted a green building that respects the principles and values of the church community there. Proudly we provided an innovative green concept for the building to be made entirely out of waste material which is refrigerator cases.
We then asked ourselves why don’t we apply the same green concepts in Egypt? That’s when we took matters into our own hands. We decided to start a company aiming to challenge the status quo of the building methods here in Egypt.
What do you think of the current building methods in Egypt and what’s holding us back from going green in the building?
I believe the building sector in Egypt is very mature and saturated. Actually, it’s the fastest growing and financially competitive within the region. Therefore, there is much investors’ interest to build here in Egypt. And when you have such a massively developed industry, change isn’t always easy. Innovation comes out of necessity and creativity comes out of problem solving.
Being a woman architect who is also an entrepreneur can get challenging. Tell us more about hardships you faced in the industry
Definitely there were challenges but that’s normal. At the beginning we had cultural resistance, since my team is half women who work on remote areas outside Cairo. However, we faced relatively less sexism here in Cairo in comparison to other European countries we worked in. This is because luckily here in Egypt we are not compared to every other architect in the market. That’s not the case with other successful peers.
When we started our own architecture firm, we did not name it Sarah El Battouty. We named it ECOnsult, since it’s never about me. My style as a woman has nothing to do with my purpose of creating green architecture.
What inspired you to start Mubun for sustainable furniture?
We’ve always had the idea on mind but never the time, since ECOncult has a very small team and it can get challenging. In ECOnsult we always collaborate with recycled materials providers and waste managers. But we could never find sustainable furniture. For a while now, we’ve been doing our research on the problem of scrap waste in Egypt. They don’t sell this kind of waste but rather throw it away to pollute nature. We then decided to invest in research for a solution to turn this into something useful.
On bringing this concept to reality, Sarah El Battouty said:
We got in contact with local old school atisans. At the beginning, they were reluctant to the idea. We then gave them a capacity building training. We introduced the concept of making something beautiful out of reusing waste that’s polluting and hazardous. There were also training on furniture production process and how it should be heat free and as sustainable as possible.
What is the story behind the name Mubun?
Mubun means good wood in Chinese. Our inspirations come from the idea of Chinese work ethics. Besides, we have a subsidiary of ECOnsult in China. Therefore, we decided to set up Mubun as an independent company with different shareholders hopefully to have Egypt’s first cradle to cradle product.
How far do you think Egyptians are accepting to the idea of recycling?
Actually, I believe that Egyptians are very accepting to the idea of recycling. It’s not something that’s completely alien to us. Significantly ‘Robabikya’ vendors around the Egyptian streets are a sign of recycling concept in our culture. However, the challenge comes from underestimating the value of a product that’s made out of waste. Some might see it as a cheap invaluable product, while it should have a higher utility value and even ethical one.
How are you aiming to change this perspective on recycled products in the market?
We are aiming to make the aesthetic of the design as high end as possible. We want to change the stereotypical idea of expecting the products to be scruffy because we are using waste. Indeed, we want to impress our customers when they see our products and know it’s made of waste.
Mainly we aim of showing that this is the model for everything around the market. This is Stella McCartney, this is Gabriela Hearst, these are the product designers that are very high end yet they are sustainable. And we are capable of providing as high end sustainable products to the market and should be exportable. We already exported our first collection to the UK.
Tell us more about your design methodology and what styles you aim to develop at Mubun?
Our design influence is coming from both ancient Egyptian and Mamluk Egypt. We are introducing this in a contemporary style. However, experimenting designs while having very small waste elements of the wood can get challenging. We are trying to do so without adding things like metal and glue, so it’s kind of a scientific process. We use palm waste and different kinds of wood. Basically, we want our products to speak of nature and of the Egyptian civilization.
In the end, what’s your advice to upcoming architects?
My advice for upcoming architects is to always keep your principles in check. In Egypt, we have very few successful architects in comparison to the volume of architects graduating in Egypt. This might be due to getting lost in unimportant things and the celebrity status kind of architecture culture. In fact, what’s mostly important is to have a clear purpose.